Defeating The Purpose

Even the highest elected authority in the state has recently conceded what players involved in the highly-hyped exercise have been crying themselves hoarse over. It is incomprehensible that external forces should have muscled their way into fledgling trade ties between the two parts of divided Kashmir. Ostensibly meant for introducing regular contact between the two regions, the exercise was thought to have been designed as an outlet for mutual affiliations and to serve as a signpost for constructive engagement in the sub-continent. Optimistic projections visualized growing stakes on both sides to act as countervailing influences on negative conflict-prone thinking. Time, and increased volume, many thought, would gradually shift the reference lines of resolution initiatives from adversarial positions to those of cooperation and accommodation. And, by virtue of definition, the commercial activity was specific and exclusive to players and participants belonging to the erstwhile princely state. Viewed in this context, cross-LoC commerce should have been deemed too sensitive an exercise to brook ham-handed approaches bringing along external monopolies and hegemony. And yet, that is precisely what is supposed to have happened. According to a business leader of repute, cross-LoC Trade has been “hijacked” by non-locals in both regions. An astounding revelation was made not too long ago – that ninety per cent of the trade is in the hands of non-locals.  It is contended that businessmen from Amritsar and Lahore have commandeered the trade to take full advantage of its tax-free nature, “leaving intended beneficiaries high and dry.” The first impression one gets from the statement is that Cross-LoC Trade in Kashmir has been reduced to legalised smuggling for cartels and cliques in the Punjab.

Nothing could have been more ironic, particularly when viewed in the light of cross-LoC travel which predates the commerce initiative by several years.  Extremely restrictive and protracted permission procedures have ensured that intra-Kashmir travel across the dividing line remains no more than a trickle, and that applicants wishing to visit long-separated family members on either side have to wait for years for the official go-ahead for the journey. In sharp contrast, the trade component – which may or may not be restrictive for locals – is purported to be a free-for-all for non-locals. So, while administrative measures have placed a tight check on bona fide and legitimate travellers, the system is wide open on the trade front – to the ultimate loss and detriment of intended beneficiaries. In addition to generating mistrust and cynicism about the whole process, the situation defeats the very purpose of the initiative. To say that ninety per cent of the trade is in non-local hands is to say that the local component is minuscule and only for forms sake; that the only thing Kashmiri about the Cross-LoC initiative is the land route and access points. Genuine stake-holders would have done better to explain the loopholes in the system which outsiders have evidently exploited to wrest the trade almost its entirety. Governments on both sides have to clarify whether Cross-LoC commerce was meant to be indigenous in content and operation, or yet more exploitation of Kashmir.  

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