REQUEST TO ACCELERATE OPENING OF THE SRINAGAR-MUZAFFARABAD ROAD FOR TRADE
The Honorable Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India
The All Valley Fruit Growers Association of Kashmir
August 16, 2008
The All Valley Fruit Growers Association (AVFGA), an apex body of orchard owners, is the premier trade group representing the interests of the fruit industry of Kashmir. Based in Srinagar, its membership comprises fruit growers from all fruit growing areas of the state.
As a result of the economic blockage of the Jammu-Srinagar Highway and the continuing protests throughout our state, the Kashmir fruit growers industry has already incurred cumulative losses of over Rs 75 crore, with an additional loss of Rs 2.5 crore suffered each passing day of the current crisis in Jammu & Kashmir. Eighty per cent of the population in Kashmir is directly or indirectly dependent on horticulture.
The health of the fruit industry of Kashmir, estimated at Rs 2500 crore annually, has been in serious jeopardy following the economic blockage of Jammu-Srinagar Highway, the only official route connecting Kashmir to other parts of India. It is in this spirit that the AVFGA decided, while being faced with the total destruction of the state’s fruit crop, to attempt on August 11th to export its stranded produce across the LoC via the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road.
The Government’s brutal actions against the fruit growers while seeking relief for the industry were unconscionable, inhuman, and unjustified, as the march towards Muzaffarabad was peaceful and prompted by economic need rather than larger political aims. The program organized by the fruit industry was also seen as a logical extension of steps already taken by the Governments of Pakistan and India regarding the opening of border points between the two parts of Kashmir, including the one at Muzaffarabad near the LoC.
The fruit growers of Kashmir deeply regret that because of the current crisis in the state, and the prolonged instability in Pakistan, the Government of India has not been able to put a final text regarding cross-border trade at the LoC on the table of both parliaments.
However, the fruit growers of Kashmir fully support all principles espoused by the Governments of India and Pakistan over the past four years, and believe that making borders irrelevant between India and Pakistan is not only the bridge to permanent good relations between the two countries but also the key to greater stability in the state and region.
In view of the above, the fruit industry begs for relief and requests that the Government of India open the alternative trade route at the border near Muzaffarabad (PoK) at the earliest, so that fruit growers of Kashmir can sell their produce across the LoC and potentially reach other markets in the region.
Over the past several years, the Governments of India and Pakistan been negotiating the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road as well as the softening of other border points in the region as part of a composite peace dialogue between the two countries that begun in 2004.
Top-level representatives of both countries, leaders of the J & K State Government, and a broad range of local and regional public and private interest groups view the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road, among other traditional trade routes, as the ideal vehicle for advancing vital economic ties between India and Pakistan, the two parts of Kashmir, and other SAARC nations. Furthermore, allowing hassle-free transport of people and goods along traditional trade routes, including the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road, would not only satisfy overwhelming public sentiment in J & K in favor of opening these routes, but also provide the bridge to permanent good relations between India and Pakistan.
An opened Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road would assure:
- accelerated economic development of both
parts of Kashmir;
- additional foreign exchange through the free flow of goods between both parts of Kashmir;
- a much-needed additional artery for expanded trade development between India and Pakistan and other SAARC countries;
- an alternative route to export goods from Kashmir to PAK and other parts of India in case of any future closures or obstructions of the Jammu-Srinagar Highway;
- ending of economic isolation of both parts of Kashmir;
- significant new tourism opportunities for both parts of Kashmir; and
- some alleviation of security problems through regional infrastructure development and attendant social and economic benefits to local and business communities on both sides of the border.
Based on overwhelming public and private support in Kashmir for the opening of the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad Road, the Government of India should signal project priority and trigger immediate implementation action.
The political pre-conditions for the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road and other border point trade routes have already been satisfied through:
- An agreement reached in September 2004
between the President of Pakistan and the Prime Minister of India stating that
borders would be softened between the two parts of Kashmir;
- Consensus between India and Pakistan during an April 2005 meeting in Delhi to adopt a more “people centered” rather than “territory centered” approach that would make borders irrelevant between the two parts of Kashmir;
- Multiple re-affirmative decisions espoused during various Roundtable Conferences on the Future of Kashmir by representatives of both India and Pakistan, committing to making borders between the two parts of Kashmir irrelevant,;
- Various agreements on and implementation of a large number of steps, including the commencement of bus service between the two parts of Kashmir along the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad Road, and the opening of various other border points as part of the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan begun in 2004,;
- A broad framework agreement reached during back channel discussions between India and Pakistan, concretizing the principles for a permanent settlement of the Kashmir dispute, including the opening of trade routes between both parts of Kashmir;
- An August 13, 2008 statement by the Union Home Minister at Delhi categorically assuring that the Government of India would have no objection if Kashmiri traders sent their goods to Muzaffarabad across the LOC;
- Assurance in the same statement, that a list of goods to be traded across the LOC had already been submitted to Pakistan authorities for approval, and that once Pakistan had taken the required steps towards finalizing cross-border trade at the LOC, Kashmiri traders could commence exporting their produce to Muzaffarabad at the earliest.
On August 11, a broad contingent of trade bodies, including the All Valley Fruit Growers Association, All Traders Federation, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, J & K Transporters Association, and Hotel and Houseboat Owners Associations, among others, began a peaceful “Chalo March” from Srinagar towards Muzaffarabad along the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad highway. A wide variety of prominent civil society groups and non-political associations from throughout the state, and thousands of villagers from localities along the way, joined the march from their respective localities to express solidarity for the move. Several Lakh people from different parts of the state participated in the program.
The short-term goal of the march was to enable fruit-laden truckers, having been stranded in various parts of J & K, to transport their loads across the LoC into PAK Kashmir and from there to alternative markets in Pakistan, India, and other regions. As a result of an informal economic blockade imposed by anti- Muslim and anti-Kashmiri rightwing extremist agitating along the Jammu-Srinagar Highway, Kashmiri fruit truckers have not only been brutalized repeatedly, but flow of essential goods to and from other parts of India have been critically interrupted, causing not only crores in economic losses to the local fruit industry but also seriously affecting the availability of medicines, petrol and other crucial items in the state.
The long-term goal of the march was to raise awareness domestically and internationally about the need for additional trade routes to be opened into and out of Kashmir, so that any current or future obstruction of the only official artery linking the state to the rest of the world could be mitigated locally, and to derail any additional designs by vested interests to cripple the state’s move towards peace and greater economic self sufficiency.
The essence of the march was strictly non-political and peaceful with a view towards future borderless trade with other SAARC nations, and also to remedy Kashmir’s economic isolation vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
The fruit traders’ concerns had been expressed in various public fora, reported in major local and national media, and the planned program had been announced to the public and government officials at least five days in advance. During the visit of the Delhi all-party committee constituted to mitigate the raging shrine issue, the traders had publicly announced their intention to seek opening of alternative trade links in view of the atrocities that had been committed along the Jammu-Srinagar Highway, the increasing shortages of essential goods seriously affecting the normal every-day-life of ordinary Kashmiris, and the economic losses that had been incurred by the state’s major industries as a result of the Jammu agitations and the ensuing economic blockage.
While the Home Minister of India commented in his press conference on August 10 at Srinagar that “the march would be a mistake and he hoped it would not be done,” no curfew was imposed on August 11 in any part of Kashmir, nor were any official prohibitory orders issued. Participants in the march thus did not violate any existing or temporary restrictions on their civil and constitutional rights to express their views as part of a peaceful demonstration solely aimed to raise awareness about the current plight of the people in the state and the need for practical change in view of the most recent crisis. In no way was the planned march aimed at raising levels of violence in the region, nor was it part of any ulterior designs by any group to align Kashmir more closely and politically with any of its immediate neighbors at the expense of its relationship with the rest of India.
Therefore, in light of the on-going economic crisis the Kashmir fruit industry is facing, the atrocities that have been committed during and after the peaceful protest march organized by the fruit growers of Kashmir, and in memory of the many innocent protesters that have succumbed to their injuries, the AVFGA urges the Prime Minister of India to take cognizance of the state’s plight and assure extra-ordinary steps to immediately (1) make the highway to Jammu permanently safe from fanatical elements; (2) provide traders with the security of armed convoys to assure that Kashmir’s produce reaches other parts of India without any further delay and obstruction; (3) discuss with Pakistan the possibility of buying some or all of Kashmir’s fruit crop across the LoC near Muzaffarabad; and (4) most urgently coordinate with Pakistan regarding the creation of trade and transit facilities on both sides of the LoC at Muzaffarabad, so that the fruit industry’s attempts to reach alternative markets via the only other viable trade route connecting Kashmir to the rest of the world can succeed.