Evidence suggests that trade from Kashmir and Ladakh region to Karachi and Gilgit existed with more frequency than trade with other regions
Recently, the Jammu Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti gave a positive statement on the opening of few new routes across LoC and said that it would be beneficial for trade as well as in Confidence Building Measures (CBM) between India and Pakistan.
Her visit to Kargil resulted as her open favor towards opening of Kargil-Skadu route for which people of this region are waiting since long.
Opening of new routes across Line of Control (LoC) may certainly work as one of the most concrete steps that may help both countries and people across LoC and Kargil-Skardu route may come on priority due to reasons attached with this route.
It is also a welcoming sign that Chief Minister is providing open promises towards the same though with a RTI appeal received by me through Ministry of Home Affairs, it was observed an year ago that no official proposal was ever submitted by Jammu Kashmir during last three years (2016.2015.2014) for opening of any such routes.
Prior to independence, many routes through Jammu Kashmir were open and even served purpose for flow of trade and culture through people. The historic silk route in the past was through here and played a significant role in history.
There were written evidences that said that trade from Kashmir and Ladakh region to Karachi and Gilgit were in existence with more frequency than trade with other regions. History also tells us that how beautifully the people at that time even used Jhelum River as mode of trade in addition to road.
After independence in 1947 and subsequent turmoil in the state due to conflict between India and Pakistan, LoC (earlier ceasefire line and after 1972 Simla Agreement, known as LoC) became so stringent that it not only stopped trade but also restricted the contact and movement of people in this region.
When India and Pakistan got engaged with each other on the peace process, many Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were taken including one of the most important ones being the start of buses across LoC in the year 2005 and later opening of two routes Poonch-Rawalkot and Uri-Muzaffarabad routes across LoC in the year 2008.
Trade from these existing and operational routes is benefiting the region with multifold increase in its volume year by year. Success of opening of these routes can be estimated from the fact that it was recently told in Jammu Kashmir Assembly that during the last three years, there has been a trade of approx 2800 crore.
This is the case when this cross LoC trade has so many restrictions such as providing easy communication medium to traders, easy banking system, legal framework for settling disputes and their regular meetings.
But its success should be measured more in terms of its sustainability as despite all ups and downs in relation of India and Pakistan since 2008 and even during curfew time in J&K, trade continued and sustained itself.
Still, there is a need and potential to open more routes - routes that may be considered to open includes Jammu-Sialkot, Kargil-Skardu, Nowshera-Jhangar and others.
With the available potential and alternatives of routes, government may prioritise the route that should be opened first. With this objective, criteria can be the boost of trade, facility to local people and developing CBMs.
Two most probable routes are Jammu-Sialkot and Kargil-Skardu that may bring multiple benefits to all stakeholders. On logical facts, it seems that Kargil-Skardu route should get the priority of the Government.
There are several reasons to prioritise on the Kargil-Skardu route. In view of cultural and ethnic diversity, the state consists of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions. In the presently open routes of Uri-Muzaffarabad, Uri falls in Kashmir region while in Poonch- Rawalkote route, Poonch falls in Jammu region. Clearly, it is only Ladakh region that lags behind to be connected.
Also, the second expected route Jammu-Sialkot (through R S Pura sector) falls in area where international border exists and therefore opening this would mean bi-lateral trade route instead of across LoC trade route and therefore it would not be as much useful for CBMs as it would be for Kargil-Skardu. .
Ladakh is also the least developed region of J&K state having lowest rank districts in per capita income among districts of Jammu and Kashmir regions while it is rich in terms of fruits and crops.
Opening Kargil-Skardu route is a popular demand of people in this region. This route was a stretch of historical silk route through which the culture of one place moved to other. Kargil was one of the main halts of travelers at that time of history.
Points in favor of opening this route are not just limited to its association with the silk route. Instead it is also because of several other reasons. People living in this region across LoC (Kargil and Skardu) speaks same language and have cultural and ethnic similarity with its adjacent region of Skardu-Gilgit while their language and culture have no affinity with other regions on both sides of LoC and therefore opening this route may also give a sense of oneness and unification of hearts and emotions.
In security terms, this region did not show any pattern of militancy, infiltration or any such activities and is considered comparatively more peaceful than even areas of presently open routes.
During my visit to Kargil last year, many people with whom I met shared with me different stories and memories of their distant families who are living across border. It is estimated that there are nearly 8000 divided families are living in this area. One may hear some extremely emotional stories of their meeting together whenever it becomes possible for them.
Distance between Kargil and Skardu is just around 170 kms and from the adjacent hill of last village (Indian side) Hundarma, one may see villages across LoC through naked eyes as they are not on much distance. People have their immediate ancestors in each other’s villages. With these divided families of same ethnicity, re-opening the route would help them a lot.
At present people need to travel from Kargil to Skardu via Srinagar, New Delhi, Atari, Lahore and Islamabad that counts for more than 2500 km and 4-5 days, while the same would be done with travel of few hours condition to opening of the route.
Potential of trade is high and commodities can have their way in trade-in and trade-out (Usually exports are called traded out and imports as traded in due to the reason that both countries do not accept LoC as international border and consider the trade as trade between two regions) and it may serve purpose to the future vision of connecting with Central Asia to stronger Indo-Pak bonds.
International Tourists who visit Ladakh region may also get an option to travel via this route and may bring more revenue to the region on both sides of LoC.
Opening this all-weather route will be a boost in CBMs and may pave the way in resolving conflicts, bringing prosperity in the region.
More importantly, the true objective of bringing peace should have a base of strong bond through not only trade and strengthening local economy but more through emotionally by connecting hearts.
Kargil-Skardu route deserves all such virtue to qualify for being open at first and it may help both central and state government to get their objectives fulfilled.
Author is founder of Aaghaz-e-Dosti-An Indo-Pak Friendship Initiative