Before partition, a trade route had existed from what is now IaJK into mainland Pakistan, via Jammu to Rawalpindi and beyond. This trade route was severed soon after partition as India and Pakistan launched their military campaign over Kashmir.
The massive Kashmir earthquake of 2005 acted as the catalyst for the governments of India and Pakistan to ease restrictions on movement across the LoC, bowing to the demands of many Kashmiris. Acting on humanitarian impulses, the governments agreed to launch a cross-LoC bus service for divided families. For many Kashmiris this was the first opportunity to meet separated relatives since the start of the conflict. The bus service was widely appreciated in Kashmir and added momentum to calls to allow the resumption of trade across the LoC.
In October 2008, after bilateral negotiations and persistent lobbying by Kashmiris from both sides, India and Pakistan officially opened the LoC for trade. Cross-LoC trade was set up as a limited trade regime designed to provide opportunities for economic growth and development for both IaJK and PaJK.
Revitalising the economic potential of the region is one of the objectives of the initiative. In IaJK, for example, there is a distinct impression that a fully liberalised trade regime with PaJK can have a very positive impact on the local economy.
Trade across the LoC also offers a low-cost and high-visibility measure to build confidence in the India-Pakistan peace process and to create an environment for the governments to move beyond stated positions. In official discourse, cross-LoC trade has been framed as a peacemaking step and marketed as a confidence-building measure. Cross-LoC trade is the only high profile confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan that has survived the disastrous impact of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.
Cross-LoC trade is facilitated by the two governments’ decision not to impose trade tariffs on goods. New Delhi and Islamabad have approved a list of 21 items (primary products originating from the region) for trade across the LoC that are intended to stimulate local economies on both sides. Currently trade takes places across two routes, Poonch-Rawlakot and Srinagar-Muzaffarabad. In the absence of banking facilities linking the two sides, trade takes place through barter. Consequently, accurate and reliable figures on the volume of trade across the LoC are hard to come by.
As described in more detail below, cross-LoC trade has so far had limited impact as a tool for economic development in the region. However, it has provided some economic benefits, for example acting as a catalyst for economic invigoration in the towns serving as the crossing points for the trade routes, as contractors and labourers have been drawn in to assist the trade process, and local properties have been turned into storage units. Bit by bit, local economies are being strengthened.
The cross-border trade initiative has been supported in large part by Kashmiris on both sides of the divide. Kashmiri motivations for supporting cross-LoC trade are complex. At the very basic level, the initiative promised to reunite divided families and to establish regular contact with Kashmiris on the ‘other’ side. But in practice there has been very little people¬to-people contact, as individuals are not allowed to cross the LoC with trade goods. Rather, trade takes place through intermediaries who switch goods at crossing points.
Kashmiri business communities have made use of the initiative as an opportunity to build cross-border peace constituencies. A major development has been the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the first official cross-LoC institution. The respective trade and commerce chambers from Muzaffarabad (capital of PaJK) and Srinagar (capital of IaJK) assumed an active leadership role in finalising modalities for cross-LoC trade. This relationship was formalised in the Joint Chamber, which now leads on cross-LoC trade and uniquely connects Kashmiri civil society and traders to governmental apparatuses on both sides.
PaJK civil society and traders feel that the AJK government has failed to facilitate trade effectively and they have consequently taken ownership of the trade initiative. There is hope within PaJK civil society that its involvement will help to move the initiative beyond trade and create momentum to democratise the peace process: that over time a successful cross-LoC trade regime can enable a voice for ordinary Kashmiris at the negotiating table and empower Kashmiris to influence the peace process.
There is evidence to suggest that trade has been able to provide alternatives to violence in PaJK and has created an ‘incentive for peace’, for example convincing a number of ex-combatants in PaJK to forsake violence and take up trade as a means to address the Kashmir dispute. Despite suffering economic losses, Kashmiri traders time and again emphasise that they are determined to continue the trade venture for its symbolic value.