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Pitch for biz with Pak gets louder

Traders, labourers upbeat as 3 parties push for trade ties with neighbouring nation

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Tribune News Service

Charanjit Singh Teja

Amritsar, May 30

At the fag end of electioneering, from Nabha to Ludhiana to Amritsar, resuming trade with Pakistan has gained ground as a poll issue.

Potential of Rs 6,000-crore annual trade through ICP

  • The Attari-Wagah integrated check post (ICP) was set up and opened in 2012 during the UPA regime at the Centre. At that time, trade analysts and the government had expected trade through the ICP to rise over Rs 6,000 crore per year
  • After the Pulwama attack, India imposed 200 per cent duty on the goods to be imported from Pakistan, making it quite non-viable. Later, Pakistan suspended the trade following abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir by India
  • However, trade with Afghanistan and some other central Asian countries through the land route continues but for limited items

The Ferozepur and Fazilka voters make this demand every election, seeking the opening of the Hussainiwala border with Pakistan for trade. Though Pakistan is usually referred to as an enemy state in political rallies, trade with the western neighbour is a source of income and employment for many in Punjab.

Amritsar’s trading community and labourers are excited about the possibility of the opening of trade with Pakistan after elections, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not made any assurance in this regard at his three rallies last week.

However, Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar and BJP candidate from Amritsar Taranjit Sandhu have talked about smooth relations with Pakistan and resumption of bilateral trade through the Attari-Wagah land route after the election.

Ludhiana BJP candidate Ravneet Bittu also spoke on the issue today: “If we come to power, mark my words, Wagah border will be opened within a year. All these expressways from Bathinda to Amritsar to Katra by the BJP are coming in such a way that these will ultimately be used to open trade with Pakistan.”

About 3,000 labourers, who work at Attari-Wagah integrated check post (ICP) between Indian and Pakistan, are without regular employment since 2019, when trade with Pakistan was stopped after the Pulwama attack. Bhajan Singh, labour president of Hind Mazdoor Sabha, said, “Till 2019, around 3,000 labourers used to get work in two shifts at ICP. As trade with only Afghanistan is now open, just around 50 labourers get work here daily. The others return home without earning a penny. When the trade with Pakistan was open, labourers used to earn Rs 1,500 per day. Dialy income has fallen to Rs 300 now.”

Rajinder Singh Marwaha, Chairman of the World Sikh Chamber of Commerce, claimed that hundreds of truck operators were forced to sell their vehicles after business petered out. He pointed out traders who earlier used to do business worth Rs 100 crore annually are now unable to repay loans.

After the Pulwama attack, India imposed 200 per cent duty on imports from Pakistan, making business quite unviable. In August 2019, after the abrogation of Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan put an end to trade with India. However, trade with Afghanistan and some other central Asian countries through the land route continues, but only for limited items.

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

The manifestos of the Shiromani Akali Dal and SAD (Amritsar) also promise the resumption of trade with Pakistan. Various farmers’ organisations have also sought the opening of the border for traders, for that would benefit the farming community, too.

Far away from Amritsar, traders of Nabha, near Patiala, have echoed this demand. The Nabha agro industry has also called for the resumption of the India-Pakistan Samjhauta rail service.

Charan Singh, MD of an agro-based industry in Nabha, said they used to export a key product, straw reaper, to to Pakistan via this train. The suspension of the service has affected the livelihoods of hundreds of people in Nabha.

Apart from machinery, numerous small factories, employing 30 to 100 people and producing auto parts like blades and belts, have lost a significant market. This has had a cascading effect on the transport industry and the labour sector.

Gurpreet Singh, vice-president of a prominent agro-based industry of Nabha, said he used to export goods worth Rs 8 crore to Pakistan in a single farm season.

Another manufacturer says the suspension of the train service hit sales, and his Pakistani clients moved to “cheap, unreliable” Chinese products. Additionally, the Indian Government, which used to earn dollars through taxes, is now losing this revenue to China.

(With inputs from Shivani Bhakoo and Mohit Khanna)

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The Tribune News Service brings you the latest news, analysis and insights from the region, India and around the world. Follow the Tribune News Service for a wide-ranging coverage of events as they unfold, with perspective and clarity.

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