Halt in India-Pakistan trade ties: Political boundaries, personal losses

When India halted trade relations with Pakistan after the Pulwama attack in 2019, it withheld privileges built on years of diplomacy. Caught in the conflict were people on the Attari-Wagah border, where hundreds of truckers, porters, custom house agents, and others were severely impacted

April 12, 2024 02:33 am | Updated 06:25 pm IST

Porters unloading sacks of an apple consignment that has arrived from Afghanistan at the Attari-Wagah border goods transit area near Amritsar.

Porters unloading sacks of an apple consignment that has arrived from Afghanistan at the Attari-Wagah border goods transit area near Amritsar. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

There is a short period between spring and summer when temperatures begin to rise across India’s Gangetic plains. Mercury hovers around 35-38 degrees Celsius, but coming out of winter, the sun suddenly feels too hot. It’s this dry heat that ripens the wheat in Punjab, one of the country’s biggest producers of the grain — which the world trades most in.

Just outside Amritsar, a sea of green-gold flanks the Grand Trunk Road, a historic trade route connecting Bengal to Afghanistan, built by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century. It made Amritsar and Lahore, twin cities pre-Partition, prominent centres of trade. The drive from Amritsar, down 28 km, leads to Attari village, adjacent to Wagah, a village broken into an Indian and a Pakistani side.

At Attari-Wagah border, every day, men from the Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers display their might in a perfectly rehearsed synchronised drill, with the Beating Retreat ceremony, where the two countries’ flags are lowered in the evening. Patriotism peaks, with hundreds of people, mostly from out of town, cheering the soldiers on.

The trading area is now almost empty, with only sparse trade with Afghanistan.

The trading area is now almost empty, with only sparse trade with Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

The contrast in moods

Just a few metres away in Attari though, there is distress. Once bustling with cargo-laden trucks, India’s first land port at Attari — set up in 2012 along the international border between India and Pakistan — is almost deserted. Spread across 120 acres, the port aimed at providing secure, seamless, and efficient systems for cargo and passenger movement. But bilateral trade came to a halt in February 2019 after the Pulwama terror act in Jammu and Kashmir, with India withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan, an international system of extending best-access conditions.

Since the halting of trade between the neighbours, there has only been sparse cargo movement from Afghanistan, too little to sustain the people and businesses dependent on border economies. India also hiked its import duty on Pakistani goods by 200%. After India’s move to revoke Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, Pakistan stopped all direct trade ties with India. The deterioration in relations between the neighbours has hurt the local economy and put livelihoods in jeopardy.

Data from the Land Ports Authority of India show that in 2017-18, there was trade worth ₹4,148.15 crore through Attari-Wagah, the only land route allowed for trade between India and Pakistan. In 2018-19, trade was worth ₹4,370.78 crore, which dropped significantly to ₹2,772.04 crore in 2019-20, and further to ₹2,639.95 crore in 2020-21. From April to December 2023, trade worth ₹3,100.05 crore took place. Cargo movement came down sharply from 48,193 trucks in 2017-18 to 5,747 in April-December 2023.

Porters at the Attari-Wagah border lamenting the lack of work now that trade has been suspended between India and Pakistan.

Porters at the Attari-Wagah border lamenting the lack of work now that trade has been suspended between India and Pakistan. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

Setback for porters

Clad in a dark-blue kurta and loose pants, and standing tall on the edge of a truck docked at the cargo terminal at Attari’s Integrated Check Post (ICP), situated next to National Highway 1, Mohan Singh, 30, with fellow porters, is hurriedly unloading sacks of an apple consignment that has arrived from Afghanistan.

“If I can do this quickly, I can get some more unloading work at another truck in the terminal,” says the third-generation porter, adding that he earns ₹300-₹350 for unloading goods from one truck. “It’s not easy to get work here nowadays. Only 10 to 15 trucks arrive daily from Afghanistan, against 250-300 when trade with Pakistan was happening. Also, 150-200 trucks used to go from India to Pakistan,” he says.

The lean period has begun and will last until June. “During the peak business season between July and February, around 60 to 80 trucks come from Afghanistan; now that has drastically reduced,” adds Mohan, who lives in Attari, a village spread across farms dotted with homesteads. Most porters are daily wagers; some own small pieces of land, just a few acres, enough for subsistence farming.

Concerned about the lack of an alternative source of livelihood, Harmesh Singh, another porter, who shoulders the responsibility of his eight-member family, says there are 1,433 porters registered at the ICP. “We have divided ourselves into two groups of around 700 each. There’s an arrangement among us to work on alternate days. So, each porter gets only a maximum of 15 days of work in a month. But with truck arrivals dwindling in the current lean season, there’s no surety of work even on alternate days,” he says.

Harmesh remembers pre-Pulwama, when he would earn between ₹1,500-₹2,000 daily. “Now, we are forced to find work outside as labourers, masons, helpers, but the biggest problem is that people avoid engaging us as they prefer workers who stay for relatively longer periods. We are in a kind of meethi jail (sweet prison), from where we can’t leave even if we want to.” He hopes the government will come up with an employment plan in the long run.

A truck with dry fruits from Afghanistan enters the transit area on Attari-Wagah border.

A truck with dry fruits from Afghanistan enters the transit area on Attari-Wagah border. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

A cascading effect

The end of bilateral trade came as a setback for many, including traders, custom house agents, and truckers, among others, eventually hitting businesses in Amritsar, a major commercial hub and strategically located city as it holds potential for opening trade through roads connecting Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and beyond, to Central Asian countries.

A few kilometres from Attari is Amritsar’s prominent Majith mandi, a wholesale-cum-retail market for dry fruit. Here, traders have been upset over the drop in business amid a sharp rise in prices of different products. The market, in the older part of the city, has sackfuls of dry fruit spilling out onto narrow roads.

“Soon after the bilateral trade ended, the prices of dry dates shot up. The wholesale price of dry dates, which — depending on the quality — was between ₹50 and ₹100, has gone up to ₹150 to ₹275 per kg. Dry dates are now reaching the Indian market via other countries like Dubai, but the prices have risen, eventually burdening the consumer,” says Anil Mehra, a leading dry fruit trader and president of the Federation of Karyana and Dry Fruit Commercial Association, Majith mandi. He adds that when the ICP came up, traders had expanded their commercial work by making large investments on infrastructure.

Manwinder Singh, a customs broker at the ICP, remembers that trade would begin at 7 a.m. and continue until late in the evening. “These days, activities are wrapped up in two to three hours. The ICP is mostly deserted during the day. I have lost a lot of clients since 2019. I had around 80 clients then. Now, I have only about 30 left,” he says, adding that these are the ones trading with Afghanistan.

Kulwinder Sandhu, a member of the Attari Truck Union, says there were 517 trucks in the union, but now down to 210. “Even for the current truckers, there’s hardly any work to sustain their livelihood. Many owners had to sell their trucks; many surrendered them to banks as they were not able to pay the equated monthly instalments. Hundreds of drivers and helpers lost their jobs,” he says.

During the days of trade with Pakistan, 1,700-1,800 trucks were plying daily, but these days just 10-12 trucks are operating. “Many locals, who were working as mechanics, or had opened small tyre repair shops, tea stalls, eateries, had to shut down operations as trucks went off the road, adversely impacting the income source of local villagers,” he says.

Gulbagh Singh Sandhu, one of the owners of a local transport company, says trade should be opened permanently without any restrictions. “This would bring back prosperity to the border districts that are facing a serious economic crisis,” he says.

Porters at the Attari-Wagah border.

Porters at the Attari-Wagah border. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

The hope of trade

In his comfortable home-cum-office, Amritsar-based Ashok Sethi, 76, director of the Confederation of International Chambers of Commerce and Industry, estimates that trade pre-Pulwama meant ₹35 crore pouring into Amritsar’s economy every month. “The key products imported from Pakistan included gypsum, cement, rock salt, chemicals, furniture, and dry dates. India exported cattle feed, plastic raw material, cotton bales, parts of agricultural implements, and cycle and sewing machine parts, besides vegetables. Dry fruit trade also boomed after the opening of the ICP,” he says. Sethi, who primarily exports basmati, hopes “economic sense” will prevail and ties will resume.

Mukesh Sidhwani, an exporter-importer of food products, echoes this sentiment. He points out that Amritsar is a link to Lahore in Pakistan, about 50 km away, and offers the lowest logistics cost, which makes it a great place to do business when it comes to the import of commodities of Pakistani origin.

Pardeep Sehgal, a leading businessman in Amritsar, terms calling off trade ties a “financial fiasco” with long-term livelihood implications. A gypsum dealer who didn’t wish to be quoted says his bank account was declared a non-performing asset and all his assets, including the transport fleet, were taken over by banks after bilateral trade stopped. “Amritsar has easy access to Delhi and other markets across north India,” he says. He hopes the government of India will accept the offer of talks with Pakistan.

Last week, Pakistan’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar said Pakistan will “seriously examine” whether or not to restart trade with India.

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