It's an irony that as travel between India and Pakistan is set to become easier, cross-LoC travel is still mired in ambiguity
After years of discussions, India and Pakistan are finally set to loosen the restrictions that have long curtailed travel between the two countries, but Kashmiris are unhappy that travel and trade between the two sides of the divided State remain uncertain despite the specific measures that were implemented to enable both.
When the Home Secretaries of India and Pakistan meet in Islamabad on Thursday and Friday, the agenda before them includes the likely signing of a new, more liberal visa agreement geared towards increasing bilateral trade.
Under the new agreement, businessmen may look forward to multiple entry visas valid for a year that will allow them to visit five cities instead of just three. They would also be exempt from reporting their arrival and departure to the police in the cities they visit. The new visa regime may also exempt elderly visitors from police reporting.
The India-Pakistan travel regime will still remain the only one in the world that gives travellers city visas instead of country visas, and that has no provision for tourists, but in the context of India-Pakistan ties, the new agreement is seen as nothing short of revolutionary.
Indian industry is looking forward to the liberalisation of travel between the two countries. In a statement, one of the top three chambers of commerce in the country, PHD Chamber, came out strongly in support of the initiative, predicting it would yield “viable benefits” for both countries that already enjoy the advantages of geographical proximity, and bonds of language and culture.
“This will play a vital role in fostering closer economic relations between India and Pakistan,” it said.
The new visa regime is expected to help push up bilateral trade. Pakistan accounts for 0.43 per cent of India's trade, but much more is traded between the two countries through unofficial channels, and third countries such as Dubai.
It is an irony, though, that as travel and trade between India and Pakistan are set to become somewhat easier, cross-Line of Control travel between the two sides of Kashmir, one of the earliest confidence building measures inaugurated by the two countries after they began talking in 2004, and trade, which was allowed from 2008, are still mired in ambiguity.
Traders in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who have applied for permits to visit the Valley are being told by officials on their side that the cross-LoC bus service is meant only for divided Kashmiri families.
The cross-LoC bus agreement of 2005 does not specify that the service is meant only for divided families, though when it was first flagged off, members of such families got priority.
Since April 2005 when cross-LoC travel opened until February 24 this year, a total of 18,782 Kashmiris used the facility, according to a report jointly prepared by the Jammu-based Indus Research Foundation and the Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms in Mirpur.
It is easiest for people in PoK wishing to travel to Srinagar to take the cross-LoC bus than make the trip through the Wagah border, but most businessmen are not from divided families. On the Indian side, the facility appears to be available to all permanent residents of J & K, whether or not from divided families.
“It is a matter of concern that so many years have passed since the facility was made available to the people of Kashmir, but the two governments have totally divergent views about what this facility is and who it is meant for,” said Sushobha Barve, executive director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation.
Not just traders, but academics, students and women from PoK wanted to visit Srinagar for exchanges with people in the Valley, Ms. Barve said, but it was proving to be an uphill task for them to obtain permits.
Ershad Mahmud, a Rawalpindi-based Kashmir analyst, said the decision taken last July at the Foreign Minister-level to allow travel across the two Kashmirs for tourism and pilgrimage had not materialised till date.
Kashmiri businessmen are also puzzled that over the past year, several of the more profitable items that could be traded between the two sides have been taken off the list of commodities on which cross-LoC trade is permissible. These include garlic, pulses and fresh fruits, and most recently, bananas. Besides, trade is still on a barter system and communication facilities are negligible.
(With inputs from Nirupama Subramanian)