Bridging the great divide

October 25th, 2009

The Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation is a non Government Organisation (NGO) working with the specific problem of Indian and Pakistani citizens in the two Kashmirs – Azad Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir. These problems are human, and in many cases are stories of great pain that only divided families, torn apart for no fault of theirs by forces of the state, can feel. Sixty four participants representing all communities and regions of J&K, Azad Kashmir as well as India, Pakistan participated at an Intra-Kashmir Conference,  titled, Jammu-Kashmir: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead, from October 9 to 11 at Srinagar.
 
The conference was the first major initiative on Kashmir taken by civil society since  the Mumbai terror attack last year and was held in difficult circumstances. The organizers believe that  when governments stop talking, there was far greater responsibility  on civil society to ensure that the communication channels are kept open to build public opinion that would eventually nudge the governments to resume dialogue.
 
Representatives of different political parties and separatist groups, members of trade bodies from J&K and AJK took part in the three-day deliberations. The themes of the conference sessions included –  What can help the dialogue process to move forward; What Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) can help in addressing the trust deficit, and expanding economic cooperation across the Line of Control (LoC).
 
The recommendations of the representatives are interesting in a state where the problems are endemic but have been put aside by India as well as Pakistan because of so many other pressing issues facing both countries. However, it is useful to bring these centre stage. 
 
Without going too deeply into it, the group endorsed the Prime Minister’s approach as spelt out at the Sharm el Sheikh conference in Egypt where he met Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani: it felt terrorism should be delinked from dialogue and for maximum gains, the progress in the peace and normalization process should not just be result oriented but must be time-barred as well.
 
The two Kashmirs have been talking. But there are practical problems. A communication infrastructure needs to be erected. One radical suggestion was that  institutions like universities and cultural associations need to open up branches for joint collaboration.
 
Trade across the Line of Control began in October 2008  but has been continuously facing obstacle. The suggestions from delegates to the conference were practical and urgent in nature. Though the traders were keen to work on a vision document for generating a shared understanding on the future prospects of trade, the need was felt for  multiple entry passes for the traders engaged in the LoC trade. Once this is agreed upon, the Joint Federation of Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry should be given the authority to recommend the members from their respective sides for multiple entry trade passes.
 
At this point, traders wanting to go to either side of the  Line of Control are hostage to the Cross-LoC bus services. Delegates felt traders should be allowed to use their own cars till the LoC crossing points. They also felt they were working blind and unless there were periodic meetings of traders on both sides, it was hard to assess supply and demand.
 
Infrastructure on both sides is a problem. Traders wanted an expansion of loading and unloading areas at the LoC clearance points. What would be really helpful, they said was warehousing facilities. Banking and postal facilities were an immediate necessity. Roads and bridges  needed improvement on both sides so that at least trucks carrying 15 tonne loads can pass over.
 
Traders also felt that it was not just the manner of doing trade but also the items to be traded, on which fetters should be removed. Today, officials in India and Pakistan decide what items to trade in. This should be left to market forces. Traders on either side should have the opportunity of placing the list of items in demand on the particular side, for information of the traders on other side, at the Trade Facilitation Centres.
 
To remove transport bottlenecks, traditional routes between both sides could be opened with priority to the routes with trade potential. – traders demanded, specifically, the following Cross-LoC links: Chhamb-Jourian, Handwara-Nawkoot, Nowshera-Khoiratta and Kargil-Skardu.
 
There are some items like tomato and onion which have a unique supply demand and price structure equation on both sides. For example, the price of tomato has been shooting to Rs 120/KG in AJK but when supplies are made available from J&K, the prices have often come down to Rs 60/KG. The same is the case with onions on the Indian side of LoC. This can be corrected if market forces are allowed free play. Today, LoC trade is permitted only on a few fixed days of the week. It should be allowed on all days.
 
For families that divided, life is especially difficult. The conference felt that travel facilities should be thrown open for all the subjects of the state instead of only the members of the divided families.  The group also suggested that the status of the travel applications should be made known to the applicants online. The participants were unanimous in their demand that the travellers from both sides be allowed to ride across in private vehicles.
 
The group greatly felt the need of establishment of a joint disaster management institution to play its role in the face of any calamity that hits the Himalayan region which sits over a seismic fault line.
 
The group also recommended that both governments in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar should cooperate with each other in rehabilitation, settlement and return of the displaced persons, as the case may be. 
 
But is anyone listening ?

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