Interlocutors' report moots expansion of trade and travel, joint plan for Indus basin

If the psychological trauma of the people of Jammu and Kashmir in the last six decades is to end, a settlement to the disputes arising out of the division of different parts of the erstwhile princely State between India and Pakistan should apply on both sides of the Line of Control, according to a key recommendation of the Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir.

The group identifies three aspects to the harmonisation of relations across the LoC: ensuring the same quantum of political, economic and cultural freedoms obtained in all parts of the erstwhile princely State; expansion of trade and travel; and resolution of the water-sharing issue.

The report, a copy of which is with The Hindu, was prepared by Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari and submitted to Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram last October. It has yet to be made public.

Noting that the situation on the Pakistani side of the LoC was rather different from that on the Indian side, the final report of the group points to the lack of freedoms and autonomy in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and the Northern Areas or Gilgit-Baltistan. A large number of legal and constitutional reforms and changes on the ground will be required on the Pakistani side if the same political, economic and cultural freedoms are to be offered across the LoC. However, the report adds, the 2009 Gilgit-Baltistan reforms package brought the Pakistani side of the State closer towards harmonising relations with the Indian side.

On easing trade and travel, the report speaks of near-universal support in all parts of the former princely State to inter-Kashmiri trade and travel. In this context, the report referred to the recommendation of the Prime Minister's Working Group on Strengthening Relations across the LoC on opening more cross LoC routes and relaxation of restrictions on who could travel to include pilgrims, medical patients and tourists, if necessary, unilaterally by India.

At the same time, the report noted that the group had received a number of memoranda from traders' associations and from travellers on the bureaucratic difficulties in promoting trade and travel. “The permit procedures are extremely cumbersome, so much so that the buses often run at 10 to 20 per cent capacity. Trade has remained on a primitive barter basis, ironically in a world where money travels more easily than people or goods.”

Among the requirements identified in the memoranda were to open all routes across the LoC, such as Jhangani-Mirpur, Mendhar-Kotli, Jammu-Sialkot, Skardu-Kargil, Turtuk-Khapulu, Chamb-Nonian to Mirpur (across Munawar-Tawi), Gurez-Astoor-Gilgit and Titwal-Chilham (across the Neelam Valley), and to ease travel procedures. Measures to ease travel would include issue of travel permit on the strength of the Permanent Resident Certificate; completion of security clearance within a maximum period of 30 working days; provision of multiple entry-exit permits valid for one year; and permission to relatives to see off or receive travellers at the border post.

Also, in order to ease trade, the report suggested that fairs be organised in towns closest to the LoC on both sides. Annual or biannual haats or market fairs could be held between the check points on both sides of the LoC. The list of export and import items should be enlarged regardless of their provenance and without any restrictions on the quantity of traded goods. Customs duties should be exempted on a reciprocal basis for a period of three years. A unilateral decision to this effect could also be considered, the report added. Banking facilities should be provided on both sides of the LoC and the barter system done away with.

Besides, customs checks should be swift, especially for perishable items. Scanners should be used to clear trucks to save on time consumed in checking every item. Trucks should be allowed to go directly to their destinations, or alternatively transport depots should be created in areas adjacent to the LoC.

The report also recommends the setting up of consultative committees with members from each legislature on both sides, along with experts, to facilitate activities in areas such as agriculture, environment protection, tourism, exchange visits, and medical relief measures during epidemics and natural disasters.

On the waters issue, the report speaks of the potential for convergence. The India-Pakistan Indus Waters Treaty has had a grievously adverse impact on the State. The limitations imposed by the Treaty to enhancing water storage capacities on the rivers on the Indian side has curbed both the hydro-power generation capacity of the State as well as stymied efforts for irrigating land, the report pointed out. These factors, in turn, have failed to attract investment in the State.

The group argues that the answer to the waters issue does not lie in the abrogation of the Treaty, but in rendering it more effective. Under the Treaty, India was duty-bound to comply with the obligations as an upper riparian State, and in any case, it was next to impossible to unilaterally abrogate the Treaty as there is no exit clause. Even at the peak of hostilities towards India, the thought of nullifying the Treaty had not crossed minds in Pakistan, the report observed.

Among the proposals on the table for a solution to the waters issue is an integrated development plan for the conservation of the Indus Basin. This would take into full account the linkages between water, land, the users, the environment and the infrastructure. It would have to focus on better cooperative management of shared water resources. “Vast amounts of financial and technical resources would be needed to attain these goals,” the report said, “in addition of course to the political will of all stakeholders.”