National actions and local shocksNothing can symbolically represent India-Pakistan relations better than the orthodox snake and ladder game.
In South Asia, any action by a national government tends to both trickle down to the local level and transcend national boundaries. The ‘hijacking’ of Indian Airlines Flight 814 from Kathmandu to Kandahar in Afghanistan in 1999 and subsequent security clampdown by India hugely impacted bilateral tourist movement that affected even the smallest stakeholder in this prolific industry. ‘Demonetisation’ in India in 2016 has had a visibly severe impact at the most local level, and also across neighbourhoods in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and even Sri Lanka. The ‘economic blockade’ by India against Nepal in 2015 led to gruelling hardships at a very local level and also a massive confidence slide down and trust gap at the national level in both countries. However, such hardships at the bottommost peripheries and dislocation of local inhabitants are seldom systematically documented, narrated and accounted for.
Against these regional trends of short memories, Afaq Hussain and Nikita Singla of the Delhi-based Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals have made a wholesome attempt to put together the impact of India-Pakistan bilateral governmental actions at the very local level in the two opposite borderlands of Amritsar and Lahore.
Militant attack in Pulwama
It started with the condemnable militant attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir on February 14, 2019. A chain of unprecedented actions and reactions then grounded the already deteriorated India-Pakistan relations to zero. India withdrew the most favoured nation treatment extended to Pakistan and imposed a 200 percent customs duty on all Pakistani goods. They barred each other from their respective airspaces. India suspended trade across the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir and created two union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Pakistan, in turn, expelled the Indian envoy and suspended trade and postal services.
The bureau's report brings forth stakeholders who bore the brunt of these bilateral imbroglios. Their recollection of how the well-built edifice of Amritsar-Lahore trade at the Wagah-Attari border with backward and forward linkages collapsed beyond recognition moved the audience. The effects and the affected list in landlocked Amritsar included traders and their families, customs house agents, truck drivers and helpers, labourers, dhabas and vendors, fuel stations, mechanic shops, weighbridges, parking points and stakeholders in the vicinity. This is besides the forfeiture of Rs300 million in income that accrued every month to Amritsar alone.
Beyond Amritsar and Lahore, the story of collateral damage remains untold. The rock salt, dry dates, cement and gypsum that were brought from Pakistan through this route catered to several Indian and Nepali industries and cities. The ‘Pulwana jolt’ led to illegal imports of dates from Pakistan through ports in Maharashtra. Similar upswings in surreptitious activity could be witnessed in cement and rock salt. A leading rock salt importer in Amritsar revealed the cost of Pulwama: ‘Shri Pathmeda Godham Mahatirth, the world’s largest cowshed located in Rajasthan, was sourcing about 25 trucks of rock salt per year from us at a heavily discounted rate of Rs60,000 for a 20-tonne truck, now the same truck costs Rs400,000.’
Key stakeholders like Saigal and Sandhu made cryptic expressions of hopelessness and uncertainty. A weighbridge contractor exclaimed, ‘One of my staff was getting married on February 18, 2019. Post-Pulwama, when the trade stopped, the bride’s family called off the marriage, mentioning that the groom does not have any source of livelihood now. My boy—he neither has a job nor a family today.’ A truck owner spoke with sharp despondency, ‘Seeing the spiked potential of India-Pakistan trade, I brought three trucks for Rs2.4 million each in 2016, already sold off two at Rs626,000 each. In cases where bank instalments are pending, we are surrendering trucks to the banks, the situation is such that even banks are refusing to take them back. Some of us got rid of them for the price of trash.’
Nothing can symbolically represent India-Pakistan relations better than the orthodox snake and ladder game. Change parameters like cricket, cinema, music, leadership, hospitals, food, Kartarpur and Taxila act like fragile ladders, but snakeheads like Kashmir, line of control, communalism, fundamentalism and terrorism are sharp precipitators. No scenario building and forecast techniques could ever project the friendship curve as the variables that determine this non-linearity are deeply characterised by negative stakeholders, spoiler institutions and typical South Asian prejudices. Post-Partition India-Pakistan trade started off well with India constituting 56 percent of Pakistan’s exports and 32 percent of imports in 1948-49. Total trade steadily increased from $251 million in 2000-01 to $2,561 million. However, as compared to their global trade and as well with China, these figures are just minuscule enough to indicate a protractedly nascent stage of economic exchange.
Internally and locally displaced persons in the Wagah-Attari cross-border trade look more realistic when they state that 'trade is not a switch-on or switch-off phenomenon. While it can be switched off overnight like in February 2019. Switching on will depend on the willingness of traders to engage again'. They believe that expediting rail link projects like Patti-Makhu in Punjab, direct air links from Amritsar to Afghanistan, the Middle East and Central Asia, and market links to these newer destinations could provide durable alternatives to these traders in the borderlands.
The complex and painful nexus between national actions and local shocks, if explored on the Pakistani side also, could generate a new narrative on India-Pakistan relations. Aman ki Aasha (hope for peace) based ‘Nirvana’ is something common folks on both sides of the border are ultimately aspiring to attain. Apparently, there is a gap in vocabulary transmission as immediately after most of the bilaterally ‘warm and friendly’ table talks, India implies Baatein nahi suni gayi (our voices were not heard), and Pakistan gives the impression that Baatein nahi kahi gayi (we were not told anything).
(Lama is presently engaged with Pakistani think tanks in developing energy exchange models between India and Pakistan.)
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