Business negotiations with Pakistan pick up steam

Tribune News Service

Charanjit Singh Teja

Amritsar, May 30

In the final days of the election campaign, from Nabha to Ludhiana to Amritsar, the resumption of trade with Pakistan has become a hot topic.

Annual trade potential of Rs 6,000 crore through ICP

  • The Attari-Wagah Integrated Check Post (ICP) was established and inaugurated in 2012 during the UPA government at the Centre. At the time, trade analysts and the government expected trade through the ICP to rise by over Rs 6,000 crore per annum.
  • After the Pulwama attack, India imposed a 200% tariff on Pakistani imports, making trade with Pakistan completely impossible. Later, Pakistan halted trade following India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
  • However, trade by land routes with Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries continues, with the exception of limited items.

Voters in Ferozepur and Fazilka have made this demand in every election, asking for the Hussainwala border with Pakistan to be opened for trade. Pakistan is usually referred to as an enemy country at political rallies, but trade with its western neighbour is a source of income and employment for many in Punjab.

Traders and workers in Amritsar are hopeful that trade with Pakistan may resume after the elections, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not given any assurances in this regard in three rallies he held last week.

However, Union External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and BJP candidate from Amritsar, Taranjit Sandhu, spoke of smooth ties with Pakistan and resumption of bilateral trade through the Attari-Wagah land corridor after the elections.

Ludhiana BJP candidate Ravneet Bittu also spoke out on the issue today, saying, “If we come to power, believe me when I say it, Wagah border will be opened within a year. The entire expressway being constructed by the BJP from Bathinda to Amritsar to Katra will eventually be used to start trade with Pakistan.”

Around 3,000 labourers working at the Attari-Wagah Integrated Check Post (ICP) between India and Pakistan have lost regular employment since 2019, when trade with Pakistan was halted after the Pulwama attack. Bhajan Singh, labour chairman of Hind Mazdur Sabha, said, “Till 2019, around 3,000 labourers used to work at the ICP in two shifts. Now, as only trade with Afghanistan has been liberalised, only around 50 labourers work here daily. The rest return home without earning a single penny. When trade with Pakistan was liberalised, labourers used to earn Rs 1,500 a day. Now, their daily income has come down to Rs 300.”

Rajinder Singh Marwaha, president of the World Sikh Chamber of Commerce, claimed hundreds of truckers have been forced to sell their vehicles as business has fallen. He said traders who earlier did Rs 1,000 crore a year were now unable to repay loans.

After the Pulwama attack, India imposed a 200% tariff on imports from Pakistan, making business impossible. In August 2019, following the abrogation of Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan ended trade with India. However, trade with Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries by land route continues, but on a limited scale.

The ICP was set up and opened during the UPA government at the Centre in 2012. At the time, trade analysts and the government expected trade through the ICP to rise by over Rs 6,000 crore per annum.

The Shiromani Akali Dal and SAD (Amritsar) manifestos have also pledged to resume trade with Pakistan. Various farmer organisations have also sought opening up of the border for traders, which would also benefit the farming community.

The demand has been echoed by traders in Nabha, near Patiala, far from Amritsar. The agro-industry in Nabha has also called for the resumption of the Samjhauta rail service between India and Pakistan.

Charan Singh, president of Navar Agricultural Industries, said the train was used to export straw harvesters, a key product, to Pakistan. The suspension of the train has affected the livelihoods of hundreds of people in Navar.

Besides machinery, many small factories producing auto parts such as blades and belts and employing between 30 and 100 people have lost their big markets, with knock-on effects on the transport and labour sectors.

Gurpreet Singh, vice-president of Nabha’s prominent agro-industries, said the company used to export goods worth Rs 80 million to Pakistan in one farming season.

Another manufacturer said the rail shutdown had hurt sales and led Pakistani customers to turn to “cheaper and less reliable” Chinese products. And the Indian government, which once earned dollars from taxes, is now losing that revenue to China.

(With inputs from Shivani Bhakoo and Mohit Khanna)

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