Srinagar: As the Jammu and Kashmir state administration continues to face flak over its unpopular ‘highway ban’ diktat, the new Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) order suspending trade with Pakistan across the Line of Control is likely to become another flashpoint between New Delhi and Srinagar in election season.
Former state chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah criticised the move, while separatist leaders also jumped into the fray Friday by issuing a statement condemning the suspension of trade at Salamabad and Chakan da bagh trading points.
Traders and trade union leaders in Srinagar said the decision would yield “catastrophic results” and affect the livelihoods of 40,000-50,000 people and their families, until the central government revoked the order. However, MHA officials told ThePrint that it would be “revisited when stricter measures are put into place”.
Reasons for the ban
MHA officials said the ban was a result of findings by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which was probing Zahoor Ahmed Watali, president of the LoC traders’ association.
Official documents accessed by ThePrint make it clear that there were five reasons for which the trade was suspended.
“Infiltration of third-party goods, channelling funds for terror, clandestine trade of drugs, supply of arms to support terrorists in the Valley and pumping fake currency notes,” one document states.
Under each reason, the document mentions incidents or examples such as seizure of fake currency, drugs and arms.
“In the light of such large-scale misuse and loopholes being exploited for illegal and anti-national activities, the Government of India has been compelled to suspend LoC trade,” the document reads.
Details of the trade
According to government trade documents, 21 items are allowed to be traded from Salamabad to Chakoti and Chakan da Bagh to Rawalkote. Fresh fruit and vegetable products form the nerve centre of the trade.
Documents state that between 21 October 2008 and 7 March 2019, exports made from the Indian side were worth over Rs 3,076 crore, while imports amounted to Rs 2,709 crore.
A total of 49,367 trucks visited the Pakistani side to sell goods, and 28,752 Pakistani trucks came over with their goods.
The trade has provided a total of 1,63,560 labour days.
Hilal Turkie, chairman of the Cross-LoC Trade Union, is based in Kashmir’s largest vegetable and fruit wholesale market. He said the decision to suspend the trade has been taken in haste.
“We were the ones who had requested the authorities to provide a full body scanner at the trade point and, in fact, the home ministry on our recommendation made the machine available,” Turkie said. “But suspending the trade altogether is collective punishment. We will not survive this.”
He added that the trade runs on barter, and it was the union which had recommended that a banking system be used to make the entire process more transparent.
Turkie’s counterpart in Poonch, Pawan Nand, said: “Around 370 firms are currently involved in the trade. With each firm, there are 100-150 people who rely completely on the cross-LoC business. Their number adds up to 50,000 people. What about their families? These are poor people providing for their families.
“We are not against a cleaner system, but to punish everyone for the acts of a few is not right.”
Plight of labourers
Mohammad Lateef Awan, a labour contractor operating in north Kashmir’s Uri region, said he doesn’t know what to tell his 140 labourers now.
“We are not wealthy people and there is no way we can provide for our families if the suspension continues. I am responsible for 140 labourers and their families. They would earn around Rs 6,000 each month, and some of them have been working for the trade for the last 10 years. They don’t have any network or skills required to change their field of work,” he said.
“In Uri alone, nearly 5,000 people are involved in the trade. How will we cope? I request the government to reconsider.”
Earlier announcement could’ve affected polls
Uri (part of the Baramulla Lok Sabha seat) went to the polls in the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections on 11 April, and if the order had been passed earlier, the issue may have changed the course of the results in this frontier region.
“For the last one-and-a half months, we have not taken our trucks to the LoC. We were told there is some reconstruction happening on the route,” said Ali Mohammad, a truck driver.
“We haven’t earned anything since over a month, and now we are told that the trade has been closed.”
Mohammad added that this would added to unemployment woes in the state. “Our educated children, who didn’t have jobs, had to drive these trucks. Now, they can’t have this job too,” he said.