'Trade Will Fail Like The Bus'

1 November 2008
The Times of India


New Delhi: Three-and-a-half years later, the service, described as the mother of all confidence-building measures then, is seen as a miserable failure. Now, trade across the 'Line of Commerce', which will allow only four trucks from each side once a week, is being called a 'joke' by sceptics. Thanks to tardy procedure and mistrust, only 9,000 passengers have travelled on the 'peace bus' even though the regional passport office in Srinagar has received about 20,000 applications so far from Indian nationals. The backlog keeps mounting as only 120 people travel on the fortnightly bus service on either side in a month. Sources said the waiting list on the Indian side has gone up to about 14,000. Moreover, many Kashmiris on either side aren't eligible to travel on the bus since government employees are barred from crossing the LoC. Naseema Begum, who watched the flagging-off ceremony on TV in her Srinagar home, says she couldn't help but think it was a 'cruel joke'. Naseema says she has given up hopes of meeting her family in Muzaffarabad after she was denied a permit recently. 'They sat on my application for more than three years and finally rejected it on flimsy grounds,' she says, adding that it's easier to travel on a visa to Pakistan. 'What was the need of staging a drama that the travel on the bus will be hassle-free for the divided families with no requirement of visa and passport?' Srinagar businessman Mohammad Shafi echoes the scepticism. 'The opening of trade routes is historic, but we have our doubts looking at the fate of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which has been reduced to a symbolic gesture,' he says. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised the expectations of the divided families when he told the Lok Sabha on April 20, 2005, that 'we started the service despite terrorist threats and a suicide attack. The courage and determination of our people gives us confidence for its continued operation with even greater frequency in the future. I'm convinced the service has tapped a latent reservoir of public support for greater people-to-people contact, especially among people living on either side of the LoC'. 'The lofty promises have proved hollow,' says Muzaffarabad-resident Nadeem Hashmi, whose application for a permit was rejected recently. 'Assurances of hassle-free travel across the LoC raised hopes of the divided families. I have never met half of my family, which stays in India. My father had migrated from Karnah in north Kashmir and settled in Muzaffarabad in 1947,' he says. Even the lucky ones like Noor Mohammad (name changed) of Karna, who managed to get a permit to see his family in PoK, are bitter. 'After a long wait, I finally managed to go to Muzaffarabad. But the suffocating bureaucracy and rampant corruption left me bitter,' he says. Noor alleges that while he was returning from PoK, he was charged Rs 4,000 as 'custom duty' even though he wasn't carrying anything that warranted it. Getting a 'permit' to travel on the bus is complex and time-consuming. Once permission is sought, its issuance is subject to clearance from the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan. And officials resort to the usual blame game. 'PoK authorities are responsible for the delay. They take a long time in clearing applications, at times even more than six months,' a regional passport office officer said. 'We take two at the most.' Intelligence agencies also blame the delay on PoK residents who often refuse to go back. About a dozen of them have stayed back after approaching the high court. 'We find it difficult to repatriate PoK visitors as many of them go underground after failing to get permit extension to stay beyond 28 days,' a source says. Many also question the sincerity of measures like the bus service saying divided families deserve more than just symbolic gestures. They say the least that can be done for the divided families is to open telephone lines. 'Telephones are a basic service. We can only receive phone calls from PoK. Our government has banned telecommunication links across LoC,' says Asim Awan, half of whose family stays in PoK. Cautious optimism, however, prevails in Salamabad as local residents believe cross-LoC trade promises good days for the area, which was rocked by a devastating earthquake in 2005. A local trader Mohammad Ibrahim said, 'The region was always backward and the earthquake just made things worse. The opening of trade is a new ray of hope for us. Roads are being repaired and development is visible.'