Barter Bottlenecks

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Amid reports that NIA wants barter trade at the LoC to close down, a huge cache of contraband was recovered from a PaK truck in Uri thus closing the trading window for a week. With J&K government keen to continue the ‘significant CMB’, the official delegation of the two sides have already reduced the number of trucks, reports Masood Hussain

Delegations from J&K and PaK meeting on the Kaman Bridge in Agust 2017, to discuss the issues that led to the halt in the trade. The two sides redces the number of trucks per trading day to ensure better scrutiny of the merchandise. Pic: J&K Government

When the LoC barter traders visited Raj Bhawan to seek N N Vohra’s intervention in preventing the closure of Kashmir’s trading window the Pakistan administered Kashmir (PAK), the governor asked them: “Who has told you that it is being closed?”

Closing the twin trade windows between the two halves of Kashmir was reported to be one of the possible suggestions that National Investigation Agency (NIA) was planning to make to the central government. This was stated to be a way-out for choking the funds that go into sustaining militancy in Kashmir.

Though this is yet to be established, the loud thinking on the barter trade coincided with the recovery of 66.50 kgs of heroin and brown sugar in 300 packets from a truck that had come from PaK on July 21. The driver Syed Yusf Shah, a resident of Charwaya village was arrested, so was the Pampore based trader Musadiq Masoodi in whose name the consignment of clothes had come from Anjum Zaman. The consignment was basically for M/S Kuloo Suppliers owned by Gul Ayazudin Gouhar at Fruit Mandi Parimpora Srinagar. But he had sold his turn to Masoodi.

The driver of the truck, identified as Syed Yousuf Shah, a resident of Charwaya village near Muzaffarabad, was arrested. His truck was also seized.

While all the 29 J&K trucks from Chakothi (PaK) returned, the 14 PaK trucks in Slamabad returned with a lot of delay at around midnight and without the vehicle of Yousuf. This led to the immediate closure of the trading activities on the Jhelum Valley Road (JVR), a process that had gradually evolved since late 2008.

But this was not the first drug case on LoC. Earlier there were three similar instances. While in one case, a Handwara driver had moved in with drugs, in two other cases, PaK drivers were arrested and their truck seized for smuggling in drugs.

On January 17, 2014, police arrested Shafique Awan after recovering 114 packets of heroin concealed in almonds. For 27 days, the 49 PaK trucks and 27 J&K trucks were stuck in opposite sides of the LoC.

Later on February 6, 2015, 305 pouches of brown sugar were recovered from an orange laden truck which led to the arrest of Inayat Shah. His truck though was permitted to return.

“PaK traders are saying the operations are becoming unsustainable because they have been taking care of the families of the two drivers already and now one more has been added,” Hilal Turki, a leader of the LoC traders, who also met Vohra, said. “That was why the truckers from PaK are unwilling to continue.” Unlike routine trade, in this case trucks carrying provisions from one side return empty after handing over the consignments.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti visited Slamabad on July 18, 2017 and inspected the facilities at Kaman Bridge. PiC: J&K Government

Traders suggested Raj Bhawan a slew of measures to strengthen the initiative. These included GST exemption on “exporting” goods, constitution of a special cell comprising state and central agencies to monitor trade and traders, verification of 367 registered traders on yearly basis; conversion of currency at the rate prevailing in the international currency markets on quarterly basis; provision of container based vehicles to traders for exporting goods; banking system to facilitate trade;  construction of an international standard ware house; accountability and balancing of accounts of the cross LoC traders; curbing the menace of proxy trading; security concern of traders in case of finding contraband items in their consignments from the other side; increase in the number of trucks per day; provision of ISD facilities or other means of communication to the traders; installation of full body scanners at TFC Salamabad Uri and CCTV at the TFC and the Kaman Post.

Home Ministry says they are already working for installation of Full Body Truck Scanners (FBTS). “The infrastructure for installation of FBTS also involves elaborate civil work including clearance of soil reports,” Hansraj Gangaram Ahir told the Parliament. “Also, No Objection Certificate (NOC) from Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and Bhaba Atomic Regulatory Centre (BARC) is required in view of the technology that involves radiations. Hence, though the global tender was floated on February 26, 2015, price bid could only be opened on July 26, 2016. Contract would be awarded on completion of all requisite formalities. Hence, it cannot be said that delay has occurred in this matter.”

Interestingly, the other window at Chakan da Bagh, that is also open to passengers and the barter, is closed since July 7, because of the border tensions between the two armies. This had created a situation that, for different reasons, both the windows were getting closed even without NIA involvement.

Kashmir traders registered for cross LOC tbarter meeting governor N N Vohra to discss their problems in Augst 2017. PiC: J&K Government

Opening of LoC for selective passenger traffic – for members of the families separated by the LoC, and the barter, have been the only CBMs involving the divided Kashmir. Both the initiatives happened during the previous PDP government when it was in coalition with Congress. Any compromise would cost the ruling PDP. So Ms Mehbooba Mufti reacted strongly against the reports of a possible closure.

“There are many difficulties through the Wagah border, charas and ganja comes from there, but no one talks about closing the route,” Ms Mufti told a well-attended Raising Day gathering. “Just because a mistake happens on the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad road, we should not talk about closing it. We will not allow that to happen.”

She said her party is for opening more routes and adding banking facilities to the barter. “There should be (full) body scanners (for trucks) so that we know what is coming in and what is going out from here,” she said. “Mufti Mohammad Sayeed would often say that Kashmir is besieged and should be set free by the opening of roads like Kargil-Skardu, Jammu-Sialkot, and Leh-Xinjiang.”

Naeem Akhter, the PDP minister, said the LoC trade is a CBM of “great significance” that has the capacity to “pave the way for larger reconciliation” in the region. He was actually reacting to his party ally, the BJP, which had said they would support NIA if banning the barter was in national interest. “Falling prey to certain controversies, it is not good to stop or suspend trade activities across LoC,” Akhter said. “Such controversies had also erupted on Wagah Border with Pakistan and Doklam with China but the trade activities across the border continue.”

In this backdrop, official delegations from the two sides had a brief sitting on the Kaman Bridge, the strategic culvert through which the LoC passes, on August 3. Comprising civil administration, Police and other security agencies, the two sides exchanged idea on the issues confronting the barter. “It was brief and both delegations had just water that we supplied,” a senior police officer said. “We were concerned to settle issues.”

Because of the closure of the Chakan da Bagh, the two sides decided that the people stuck up in J&K would travel through Kaman Post crossing on Monday. There are 116 residents of PaK stuck up in J&K and three from J&K in PaK because of the closure of the Poonch route.

“Both the sides were seriously concerned over the recurrence of such incidents,” a senior police officer who was part of the meeting said. “We told them that they would have to invest some time and investigate where from this assignment had come and why?” J&K delegation even sought access to investigations.

PaK delegation was told that the arrest of the drivers and seizure of vehicles is the rule of the law that can not be subverted. Two drivers arrested already are acing trial while the latest detainee in drug smuggling case is in police remand.

In order to make the barter clean, the police office said the J&K delegation made two suggestions and both were accepted. “Firstly, with 35 trucks for a trading day is too big for manual check both at the time of packing and re-check at the time of unpacking in Chakothi and Slamabad,” the officer said. “Till a technological solution is managed, the number should be restricted at 20.” So from this week, only 20 truckloads will be going and arriving for every day. Under the system in vogue, everything that goes or is driven in is checked both physically as well as by metal detectors.

The Uri side of the gate of Kaman Brdge that is the no mans’ land betweenJ&K and PaK is being opened.

Travel between the two halves takes place on every Monday in Uri and Poonch, and the barter trade is conducted from Tuesday to Friday, every week.

The other suggestion that PaK delegation has taken seriously is that they will also make a requisition for w whole-body scanner for trucks so that managing volumes becomes easy.

“The other suggestion we gave them was that they should intervene and ensure only genuine people are associated with the trades and not the unscrupulous elements,” the officer said. “Implementation of the GST regime will ensure the same from this end in J&K, we told them.”

Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that the two delegations decided to have frequent meeting, between officials and traders, once in every quarter. They also agreed that the Trade Facilitation Centres (TFC) at Chakothi and Slamabad must have internet facilities to stay in each other. Admitting that the J&K delegation handed over to them a First Information Report (FIR No 54 /17 of P/S Uri), Trade Facilitation Officer (TFO) Chakothi Major (retired) Tahir Kazmi told the newspaper that their concerns remained unaddressed. “When we raised objections as to why the truck from which they allegedly recovered heroin was scanned in the absence of its driver in sheer violation of the mutually agreed SOP, they had no answer,” Kazmi told Dawn.

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