High Tea @ LoC

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Traders at Chakan da Bagh in Poonch have been regularly interacting for almost two years now, but India and Pakistan finally permitted the maiden trade meeting at Uri last week. Kashmir Life reports the luncheon cross-LoC trade deliberations between J&K and PaK at the Kaman Bridge under the watchful eyes of Major rank officers of the rival armies.

They waited for it years but in the India-Pakistan blame-game it never happened. The traders are sustaining the LoC trade, the only initiative of some significance with crippling systems in place, for more than three years now. They have issues with the two governments and issue their counterparts. While the government would listen to them as and when required, they could not interact with their counterparts on the other side. Finally they were allowed to meet for the first time.

“Technically it was the second meeting because once we were permitted for a brief time to see each other at the LoC,” one of the traders informed KL. “But yes formally it was the first interaction that lasted for more than 100 minutes and we did discuss issues.”

Given the baggage of history, it was a rare get-together. The meeting took place on the Kaman Bridge itself that is equally owned by the two sides. The zero linedivides it in the middle. Interestingly, Pakistan army set up the white tent that was pitched on the bridge and the Indian army set up the furniture in it. The traders from Salamabad had taken a lot of food –kebabs, rista, naan, cold drinks, biscuits and tea for consumption after the meeting.

What made the meeting distinct was the presence of Dr Mubeen Shah, the newly elected president of the Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry – a body of traders that represents the actors from both the sides and regions of the line of control. “I spoke to the traders and heard their concerns,” Shah told KL. “While as the president of the JCCI I am aware of the ideas and issues of the trade on this side of the line, I have never interacted with the traders from other side so it was a great opportunity.”

But the idea of meeting at a bridge was not liked by many in the trading fraternity. In fact, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had directed that the meeting should take place at the passenger waiting room on this side of the Kaman but at the last moment it could not happen. “The army told us they are in receipt of the communication from the state government but they could not get the clearance from their seniors at such a short notice,” Dr Shah said. “They finally met with their counterparts on the other side and decided the meeting should take place literally at the zero line.”

The venue was disliked by another reason as well. April 12 (Thursday) was a trading day. So the time the two groups of traders would take on the bridge will force a no-entry on the trucks they are running for four days a week. This system, however, is not prevalent in Poonch where the traders meet on monthly basis. While in one meeting, traders from Poonch crossover and are hosted by the Rawalakot counterparts, the other meeting takes places on this side of the LoC. It usually is a huge gathering, sometimes as big as 250 to 300 people. They meet, eat, discuss and then draft agreements on disputes and issues. Sometimes they even fight as well. “We hope that the next meeting takes place on a weekend and the venue is more respectful to the participants and the initiative,” said trader Hilal Turki, who made a long speech at the meeting.

There were 15 traders and their leaders in the delegation which was accompanied by the trade facilitation officer and the custodian of the Slamabad TFC. The meeting began with the exchange of gifts. While the Pakistan delegation offered every single delegate from J&K a textile suit, they got embroidered shawls from their trading partners from here.

“We discussed almost everything but what was more important was the exchange of ideas,” Mubeen said. “The two sides merely referred to the issues which would now be tackled in the subsequent meetings that must take place on monthly basis.”

Turki said there are certain defaults and they would be taken care of. “These are from both sides and the reconciliation process will have to be mooted now,” Turki said. “But what was surprising was that neither of the Kashmir-origin traders was in the PaK delegation that comprised mostly of natives.”Traders who are engaged with the trans-LoC business include around 1000 Kashmir origin youth and some of them are settled there for the last 20 years. Most of them form the bulk of trade on the LoC front. But neither of them was part of the meeting and the traders from J&K asked the trading officials from Pakistan to include them in future. “We were told that they (traders) were actually disallowed,” Turki said. “We hope they join the next meeting.”

Issues that were preliminarily taken up included increase in the number of items, and incasing volumes, additions to the infrastructure and permitting more trucks to crossover. “The trade from both the sides is on the same page on the issue of items,” Mubeen said. “Given the two countries moving towards a MFN set-up, there has to be now a negative list only. So why not have a negative list in LoC trade.”

It was a good meeting and the ‘first step on a long journey’ as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said when he flagged off the firstvehicle for the path breaking journey to PaK in 2005. But the traders had their own regrets. “We felt as if we were managed because neither of us was permitted to carry a camera,” one trader said. “And we looked like fools when the traders from other side started clicking the proceedings.”Thankfully some officials carried cameras. But that was not the only problem the meeting faced.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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