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19th October '2008
Intra-Kashmir Trade
(Trade would be more meaningful if it goes beyond the cross LOC syndrome!)

All seems to be set for starting the cross LOC trade between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. In real sense, it is not any cross border trade. It is rather trade within Kashmir itself. LOC, the line of control is an artificial imaginary line drawn between the two conflicting armies after the ceasefire in 1949. The line which was originally known as the Ceasefire line was re-christened as the Line of Control after 1971 war as part of the Indira-Bhutto Simla Accord. The arrival of a 19 member delegation of businessmen from the Pakistan Administered Kashmir after a lapse of 62 years in itself is a historical milestone. It is the real breach in the Sub-continent’s Berlin Wall. For last half century Kashmir had been put behind an Iron Curtain and it is the sacrifices of Kashmiris which have forced both the countries to open up the gates of the prison.

There may be many misgivings, reservations, and hitches but a beginning has been made and it will, by a natural course of evolution, move forward and not go back! The members of the trade delegation have been well received. They have met people from all sections of the society and seem to be genuinely interested in promoting realistic trade between the two parts of the state presently divided by an artificial line. As per their statements they would like to carry along inhabitants of all the parts of the state in this venture. The talk about cross LOC trade had been in the offing for last three years or so but it received a tremendous boost only after the recent agitation involving an economic blockade of the valley. There may be a tendency to take this opening as revenge against the people who enforced the blockade but that will not be positive thinking.

On the contrary one has to take this opening as vindication of a historical necessity. Kashmir had the natural lifeline with the outside world through the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road also known as the Jhelum Valley Road. This has been the true geographic link of the valley for centuries which had got snapped in 1947. It is a good confidence building measure which can convince Kashmiris that at long last both India and Pakistan have realised magnitude of this human tragedy which is a legacy of the partition. Both the countries seem to be now willing to alleviate the sufferings of the Kashmiri people. No doubt the basic problem in Kashmir is political but at the same time one cannot forget the basic question of survival. Two things have been happening in Kashmir. One is the lingering political problem which has defied a solution for last 62 years or so.

The other is the adverse effect of the uncertain situation created by this stagnation and stalemate on the life of the people. The most significant effect during these 62 years has been the confinement of the people to the valley by severing of all the natural and historical links, both commercial and cultural with our traditional neighbours. The revival of all these links is the first step towards our ultimate salvation. Once the economic links are restored the political links will automatically get sorted out. The European Union is a living example of this aspect of the modern day globalisation. Who could have ever imagined that some of the countries of Europe which have fought the world’s two bloodiest wars would form parts of the same economic bloc? All political barriers among these European countries have virtually disappeared.

Now coming back to trade, all economic issues should be decided with a cool and logical mind. Kashmiris are prone to emotions and sentiments. We are also in the habit of putting all over eggs in a single basket. Economics is a serious subject which needs cool thinking and practical decisions. The world is these days taken to be a highly competitive global village. One has to have multiple options and for good returns we have to choose the best avenues. The opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road has great emotional and sentimental value for us. However, for realistic and practical trade we have to go beyond emotions and sentiments. Pakistan Administered Kashmir in itself cannot be a sizeable market for us but it can be a gateway to markets beyond.

Entire Middle East including Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and China are the real markets which can open up through this gateway. Muzaffarabad can be a transit hub for all these markets as Jammu has been for the entire Indian market. The size of the Indian market is huge. In fact, all the western countries including USA are vying with each other for a share in this probably one of the biggest consumer markets of the world. Earlier we were tied up to this market and were powerless without an option to dictate any terms. Now with an alternative coming up we can have the choice to bargain for the best price for our goods. One should not abandon the vast Indian market but create multiple choices. Next target should be the direct Central Asian markets through Ladakh. The choice is Kargil-Skardu-Gilgit and thence to Central Asia along the Karakoram Highway. Alternative can be old Gilgit Transport Road through the enchanting Gurez Valley which again joins the Karakoram Highway.

The present urgency for alternate markets rose from a blunder committed by Jammu traders. Kashmiris like Chinese had been put on opium and were mindlessly getting converted from a production area to a consumer market totally dependent on imports. The Jammu agitation woke up Kashmiris from a deep slumber and they started very earnestly looking for alternatives for their very survival. The Jammu traders are reported to be regretting their decision of blockade. They have already lost business worth hundreds of crores. They forgot the basic fact that the valley and Jammu are totally inter-dependent. Blackmailing and keeping valley hostage would naturally backfire. This is what has precisely happened. Coming up of an alternate market on the other side of the divide is bound to lessen their importance for the valley. Joined together the two regions would mutually benefit but by under cutting the valley the Jammu traders have damaged their own cause. They still have the choice to make up for their mistake and join the opening of new markets across the LOC and beyond!

Another typical weakness of Kashmiris is impatience. There is a dichotomy. On one hand we have extreme patience bordering on passivity in tolerating all the atrocities, humiliations, and tyrannies committed on us for centuries. On the other hand we want everything to happen overnight and do not have the patience for the evolutionary process to take its course. Now that the historical link is about to be re-established, we should strive to make it viable with the passage of time and aim this link to be a precursor for a liberalised South Asian Union. Like the erstwhile Hong Kong, and the present day Dubai, Kashmir could become the Commercial and Financial Hub of the South and Central Asian Regions. Tourism would be a welcome additionality to Commerce and Finance creating thousands of jobs for our unemployed youth. For such a thing to happen we have to broaden our vision and take it beyond the cross LOC syndrome!

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