Suneet Kochar, director of Khanna Paper Mills, a leading producer of newsprint in north India, is an early bird in Amritsar when it comes to cashing in on the improved trade relations between India and Pakistan. “We have begun exporting 200 tonnes of newsprint a month, to some language papers in Pakistan and are in talks with the Dawn and Jang group of newspapers, too.”
With India and Pakistan committing themselves to triple their trade in three years, many residents of Amritsar are hoping that their status will revert from being a mere border town to what the city once was – a great trading hub connecting Central Asia and India. People in this region are asking for improved infrastructure to facilitate the trade. A real estate boom is also currently on.
Businessmen like Kochar are feeling the need for an Inland Container Depot (ICD) connected to the railhead at Amritsar for faster and hassle free export. They feel that containerisation will help avoid incidents like smuggling that has currently derailed trade through rail. An ICD cum logistics park over 45 acres, in the private sector, is expected to come up close to Attari railway station.
Meanwhile, some four years ago, Amanbir Jaspal, bought an acre of land, two km from the Wagah border, on what was then a largely deserted area, frequented only by afternoon tourists heading towards the border to see the beating of retreat ceremony. At around the same time, Syed Hasan Agha and Ali Imran Chaudhary, partners in a chemical manufacturing company in Lahore, invested in 70 acres near the zero line on the Pakistan side.
While Aman has just started ‘Sarhad’ the first resort on the Amritsar-Wagah road that draws customers to its speciality Pakistani cuisine, Agha and Chaudhary have initiated steps to set up warehouses and two cold stores on their land. “When we bought this land a few years ago, it was a risk because relations between the two countries have been known to dip suddenly. But now it appears that even if an incident does take place, the business momentum that has built up will not flag,” said Imran as he wrapped up a meeting with Indian customs officials at the Integrated Check Post at Wagah.
Needless to say their investments have appreciated manifold as land prices along the borders have shot up in the last couple of years. From around Rs. 25 lakh an acre in 2009, on the Amritsar-Wagah road, land prices have gone up to more than a crore for an acre. “We are prepared to buy even at this rate because once things really get going, the possibilities for expansion are tremendous,” said a real estate agent.
At Amritsar, ancillary businesses that inevitably flock to a major trading hub have also begun to look up. Across trading circles the refrain is for infrastructure like cold stores and warehouses. Says, Rajan Bedi, a leading importer of gypsum and cement, “Full fledged trade cannot take place unless basic infrastructure like godowns and cold stores are in place. Presently vegetables like tomatoes often rot in the trucks by the time they reach their destination.” He has just completed constructing a one lakh MT capacity warehouse and is looking to bid for FCI’s proposal to build a 55,000 MT grain silo at Amritsar.
Much to the surprise of its residents, the one five-star hotel in Amritsar will have to compete with four more in the pipeline; more than in any other town of Punjab. In addition, 35 new two and three star properties have come up in the last two years. Roughly two or three trade and social delegations come to the town every month and chambers of commerce from the two countries have begun to organise trade shows in the town and in Chandigarh too.
Last week, traders operating at Wagah had some more cause to cheer when the two governments eased visa restrictions for them. Now they will be allowed multiple entry and reporting free visas that will allow them to visit five cities instead of three earlier. “This will not only facilitate more trade, but also social ties as the business community on both sides cross over to attend each others’ marriages and social functions,” says Rajdeep Uppal, an Amritsar based businessman, who with his SAARC visa, often crosses over to have lunch in Lahore and is back by evening after a couple of business meetings.
Last month, Punjab’s Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, led a business delegation to Pakistan’s Punjab province at the invitation of its chief minister Shahbaz Sharif. Though most saw the visit as a social and political exercise, it had some unexpected fallouts. Says a leading businessman who accompanied him, “For us, the greatest positive from the visit was the realization in the Punjab government that this trade route is something that they need to nurture. It wasn’t on the agenda of the state government till then.” A ten-member committee comprising of members from both the Punjabs has been formed to promote business and trade, and its composition sent to the Union government for approval.