The suspension of India-Pakistan trade has taken a toll on businesses and lives in Amritsar and Attari. Deserted check posts and empty warehouses are reminders of the boom that went bust in February last year
Trucks in Attari, February 20 (Photos: Amarjeet Singh)
IT IS CONSIDERED good practice to develop a professional reputation at your workplace. Jassa Singh is known as the ‘Singing Sardar’. It’s a recently acquired moniker for Singh, who works as a porter at the Integrated Check Post (ICP), Attari, on the India-Pakistan border in Amritsar district. Every morning, as soon as he steps out of his one-room dwelling where his family of five stay, Singh breaks into a song and walks to the ICP. Some days it is a jaunty Punjabi folk song, on others it is the latest hit from a Punjabi film. The singing doesn’t stop even when he reaches the ICP. It echoes through the almost-deserted check post where Singh waits for work that doesn’t come—and hasn’t since last year.
It wasn’t always like this. It was quite the opposite till February 2019, when India slapped a 200 per cent import duty on goods from Pakistan. This brought cross-border trade to a halt. The duty was levied a day after India withdrew the Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan following the Pulwama attack that led to the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men. Bilateral cross-border trade had begun in 2005 but picked up pace with the opening up of the ICP in 2012, allowing more trucks and easier transfer.
The lament in both Amritsar and Attari is ‘You should have seen us then.’ The ‘then’ is the period till 2018 when roads to Attari were choked with trucks. The ICP, spread over 118 acres, was the heart of the $2.5 billion trade between India and Pakistan. It was also a time when Jassa Singh did not sing. He was indistinguishable from the 1,400-odd registered porters at the ICP, unloading cargo from the 100-150 trucks that came every day from Pakistan. The average monthly salary for a porter was anywhere between Rs 15,000 to Rs 17,000.
These trucks carried mostly rock salt, dry dates, cement and gypsum. Indian trucks going across carried cotton yarn, fresh fruits, vegetables, etcetera. It was an economy built over the course of a decade-and-a-half with more than 9,000 families reportedly dependent on it. Overnight, the rich traders, daily-wage porters, truck drivers and helpers, among many others, found themselves bereft of their livelihood. That was when Singh started singing.
“Trade between India and Pakistan has fluctuated but it has also persevered. This is first time in decades that it has become a casualty of a political impasse between the two countries,” says Nikita Singla, associate director, Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF), a New Delhi-based think-tank, which recently released a report analysing the impact of the border trade shutdown on Amritsar’s economy. It estimates the city is suffering losses to the tune of Rs 75 lakh per day. In January 2019, more than 5,000 trucks came to India from Pakistan. In July, this number dropped to 309. Pakistani exports to India in July 2018 were $43.83 million. In July 2019, they were $2.84 million. In August 2019, Pakistan suspended trade ties with India after the abrogation of Article 370. Currently, the only trucks at Attari’s ICP are the ones bringing dry fruits from Afghanistan.
“When economic activity gets disrupted, the ripple effect is wide. People argue that from the point of numbers, trade between India and Pakistan is not even 1 per cent of India’s international trade but it still has a huge impact on the day-to-day life of people,” says Afaq Hussain, director, BRIEF. By their estimate, 9,354 families are affected. This includes families of traders (1,724), those involved in labour (2,507), parking (80), dhabas and vendors (176), truck owners, drivers and helpers (4,050), mechanics (51) and parking, weighing bridge attendants and customs clearing agents, among others.
Few sights are eerier than a deserted wholesale market but the traders of Majith Mandi in Amritsar have had a whole year to get used to it. “There was no place to even set foot here. Now look,” says RK Sandeep, a rock salt and gypsum trader. The view from his first-floor office is one of shuttered shops and empty tempos. The wholesale price of rock salt in January 2019 was Rs 3.30 a kg. Sandeep is currently offering it at Rs 11.80 a kg. He remembers how it had rained on February 15th, 2019 because he had 46 trucks bringing in a consignment of gypsum: “I requested the trader in Pakistan to send them the next day as the yard here was full and the trucks would have to park in the open overnight. The gypsum would be spoilt.” On the evening of February 16th, the Government issued the notice introducing a 200 per cent import duty, including on trucks that had come that day. His cargo was never picked up.
For most of the people involved in cross-border trade, the import duty notice has become the where-were-you moment of their lives. Deepak Batra, who imported cement, was watching Gully Boy when Vikrant Arora, his partner, called him. That wasn’t unusual. His phone never stopped ringing, the calls ranging from 400 to 450 a day. “He asked me to drop everything and come over to his home.” Of the 195 trucks that had been loaded at Wagah in Pakistan that morning, 125 were Arora’s. He had a consignment worth Rs 81 lakh coming in that night. “Within seconds, everything was over. It took us years to convince people to buy Pakistani cement, and to what avail?” asks Arora, who did not leave his house for a month. The price of a bag of cement has gone up from Rs 250 to Rs 350. “We are Indians too. We understand the sentiment behind the Government’s decision but it could have been better thought out. If they had given us a leeway of even a few days to wrap up our affairs,” he rues. Arora is trying to start a new business, importing apples, but he’s tired. “We had finally found our feet. In Amritsar, import as a profession had become a byword for prosperity. My old office was in Majith Mandi but it was impossible to set foot inside. Which is when I built this,” he says, gesturing to his office in a supermarket complex close to the heart of the city. From a staff of 20, they are now down to five. “This has always been the fate of this city. It thrives and then because of circumstances outside its control, everything collapses,” says Arora.
Arora’s reference is to Amirtsar’s position as a cultural and commercial hub in undivided India. It was established by the fourth Guru of Sikhism, Guru Ram Das, in 1577. It was he who laid the foundation stone for the Golden Temple and invited traders to set up shop in the new city he was building. Thus was born Amritsar’s trading culture. The city’s location on the Grand Trunk Road made it a natural commercial hub; its proximity to another big city of undivided Punjab, Lahore, an added advantage. In 1947, Amritsar was a thriving trade hub with textile mills, carpet weaving, leather, soap manufacturers and an emerging hosiery industry. The population was mixed with substantial numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. All of it changed with Partition. Overnight, it became a border town besieged with violence. ‘Amritsar’s new status as a border city adversely affected its position as a market and manufacturing centre. It was cut off from former customers, raw materials and trade routes. Security worries discouraged both state and private industrial investment. Not only did it fail to attract new industries but established businesses relocated,’ writes Ian Talbot in A Tale of Two Cities: The Aftermath of Partition for Lahore and Amritsar 1947-1957. The city was hit by the loss of talent; Muslim weavers as well as the loss of markets. The displaced population that came in preferred to move inwards to cities like Delhi. Even today, the city has no industry apart from rice mills.
“Where are the jobs? The cross-border trade was the only thing in years that had brought some measure of prosperity to this area,” says a young man who used to work as a customs agent at the ICP. He has been out of work for two months now and worries about a bike loan he has to repay. Similar tales abound everywhere—of the young man who threatened to camp on his employer’s doorstep with his two-month-old baby if fired (he earned Rs 7,500 per month) to the fate of a Himachali weighing bridge worker whose wedding was called off. “No one knows where he is now,” says Amritdeep Singh, a truck owner.
At the ICP, row after row of empty offices bear testimony to the trade that once was. “We had a team of 12 boys with us. I used to be so busy that there was no time to eat and now we just sit here,” says Ashok Kumar, a representative of Quick Career, a customs house agency. He has been in the business for over three decades and doesn’t remember a time when the future seemed so bleak. “Eighty per cent of the people involved in this trade were first-generation entrepreneurs, most of them in the age group of 35-40. This has been a body blow,” says MP Singh Chatha who exported both cement and dry dates.
If a quiet wholesale market is eerie, then a quiet port is unnerving. The ICP at Attari has a dedicated cargo terminal, warehouses for both import and export and a parking area for trucks. Singh, also an accountant with the Attari Truck Union, while driving, says: “This drive would have been impossible till last year because of the trucks.” Clusters of porters in their uniform of electric blue kurtas can be seen alongside the abandoned bags of cement that Arora and others refused to accept on February 16th last year. Printing machines with print orders still half stuck stand idle. The few customs officials still posted here don’t want to talk.
Porter No 703, Hira Singh, talks in monosyllables until the conversation moves to his children. “I used to make Rs 15,000 a month. My children went to a private school. I rode a bike. I come from nothing and it used to make me feel worth something,” he says, eyes welling up. Now the bike has been taken by the bank and the children are in government schools. The registered porters at the ICP have a union and would work every second day so that everyone got a chance. They had a rate card for different weights, with the lowest being Rs 290 for zero to 25 kg. The highest rate was for the 40-41 kg category at Rs 555. Now Singh is lucky if he makes Rs 100 a day. Home, education and bike loans—the porters’ stories are similar, of thinking that after generations of poverty, they were finding their feet only to have the rug pulled out from under them. “I became unemployed overnight. Another porter and a friend, Harpal Singh, suffered a heart attack,” claims Ranjit Singh, a porter with a loan. Every day he sends up a prayer for a miracle, and every day he is disappointed.
“Patriotism is the buzzword today. Everybody wants you to prove your credentials as a patriot and I tell them, I live 600 metres from the border. What can you teach me about patriotism that I don’t already know or live?” asks Sandhu (he gives only his last name) of the Attari Border Truck Operators’ Association, which has over 800 members. A few years ago, buoyed by the success of the trade, the association built a swanky two-storied office to play host to top traders from India and Pakistan. The same story of layoffs, reduced funds and helplessness plays out here too. Sandhu had five trucks of his own. Baljeet Singh, sitting in the office, had six. Singh has managed to sell four but at a huge loss. He has two families to look after, including his younger brother’s.
The rooftop of the association’s office offers a panoramic view of the countryside. The stalks of wheat are green, but the trucks abandoned in the middle, some with tyres or engines missing, jar. “All of these fields were leased as parking lots. Every home here has a story about how they went from rags to riches to rags,” says Amritdeep Singh. There is the man who started out as a ‘puncture wallah’ and earned enough to buy two trucks of his own, there is the retired Subedar of the Indian Army who opted for premature retirement and put his entire savings into buying trucks, and there is Surinder Singh who suffered a stroke and is now paralysed from the waist down. “He owned nine trucks, only three are left,” says Singh.
Surinder Kumar and his brothers used to run a tiny all-purpose store at Attari. As trade improved, so did their business. The brothers became truckers, sent their children to private schools and built independent homes for themselves. Kumar wryly points out the crescent and star his younger brother had put on his rooftop, “as a way of saying thanks.” At the peak of the trade, the family owned seven trucks. Only one is left now, used as a tying post for livestock. The store’s daily income, thanks to the influx of drivers and porters, was anywhere in the vicinity of Rs 12,000-14,000. Now they struggle to make Rs 4,000.
“It’s not just about those immediately involved with the trade who have been hit hard. The cost, hidden or otherwise, is passed on to the consumer also,” says RK Sandeep, the rock salt trader. He is importing salt via Dubai now but is struggling to sell it in the market “because traders are happy to sell adulterated salt at the same price,” he claims. The dry date market has, however, suffered a blow. Available for Rs 60-70 a kg, dry dates, often referred to as the poor man’s dry fruit, is now selling at Rs 240-260 per kg.
Torn between hope and despair, Amritsar and Attari are at a crossroads. Tourism is thriving but crime is also increasing. “The only time this road springs to action is an hour before and after the ceremony at the Wagah-Attari border. Earlier, this road would be busy at all hours. Now, after 7 pm, it is dangerous to venture out,” says Amritdeep Singh. Despite the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, traders are concerned that business may not revive for a long time. “Even if it does, who will put money and trust in it again?” asks Arora. But Jassa Singh, who refused to speak but broke into a song as we left, will continue going to the ICP daily. As will Amritdeep and Sandhu, and countless others.
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