Thirty-eight trucks leave Uri, a town in India-controlled Kashmir, carrying fresh fruit and seeds to Chakoti, another town in Kashmir, this one controlled by Pakistan. On arrival, their loads are divided among traders, who, a few hours later, send back 10 trucks of dried fruit, herbs, shoe uppers and embroidery. Only 21 kinds of goods can be traded, no money ever changes hands, and the trucks must cross one of the most militarized borders in the world. This is Kashmir’s Line of Control, where trade is strictly barter-only.
“Paper currency would require banking and then big players would take away our business,” says Farooq Ahmad, 42, a fruit trader from Srinagar, in India-controlled Kashmir. The Pakistani banana crop has failed, so Farooq has just sent seven trucks of bananas to his business partner in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He will receive a truck full of almonds in return. It’s not an equal exchange, and the authorities take note: the small difference in value must be corrected with the next one. Farooq met his business partner only once, a few years ago. Since then, their deals have all been discussed and agreed over the phone: “It’s about mutual trust. After all, they are our brothers, only this border has separated us.”
India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir for 65 years. Now, after three wars, each country controls roughly half of the region and claims ownership of the other half as well.
Between them lies the Line of Control, a militarized border that until a few years ago was effectively impassable. A 2005 earthquake opened a crack in it: with the approval of both governments, a bus service was set up to reunite divided families. Three years later, under pressure from Kashmiri people on both sides, a cross-border bartering system was organized. There were clear rules: only 21 products to be traded, only two days a week (later extended to four), no more than 50 trucks a day (in both directions), no taxes (since neither of the countries recognizes this as an official border), and no currency, since neither government could agree which to use.
Today, this moneyless cross-border trade is worth US$120 million a year; 350 traders are registered and over 2,000 local families are involved. Some of them, only a few years ago, were among the Kashmiri rebels fighting against the Indian army. “[Finally] people are engaged in constructive work,” says Farooq. “As a trader I feel proud that in a small way I am involved in bringing normalcy to this region.” In Kashmir, peace comes in a truck of bananas.
Deal over the phone
Deals between traders are agreed over the phone. Calls come exclusively from the Pakistani side. India has deactivated the dialing code for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for callers from India Occupied Kashmir, citing security concerns.
Load the trucks
At Trade Facilitation Centers on both sides of the border, trucks are loaded with goods and have their contents verified by a variety of government agencies before leaving for the other side.
Cross the border
The Line of Control is situated halfway over the Peace Bridge between India- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. After thorough military inspections, a custodian from one side hands over the truck to a custodian from the other side.
When it reaches the Trade Facilitation Center on the other side, the truck is unloaded. If underpriced or hazardous goods are found they are immediately returned with a warning. If everything is legal, the truck goes back empty.
From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.