ATTARI: In a cavernous warehouse in north India, workers grade and blend mounds of tea for shipping to Dubai, Europe, and Singapore â€“ just about anywhere around the globe, except for the country right next door, Pakistan.
Decades of conflict have decimated trade between the two neighbours. Now, with peace efforts between the rivals stalled, officials are hoping that trade could lead the way to easing tension.
They have promised to throw open their economies to each other by the end of the year and have already liberalised some commercial ties. A new border depot for trade was inaugurated recently. Indiaâ€™s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma said that investment â€œcan form the basis for building political trustâ€.
The three wars they fought did not dampen Pakistanisâ€™ craving for Indiaâ€™s green tea nor Indiansâ€™ longing for Pakistani dates and nuts.
So, Indian traders routed their Pakistan-bound products by ship via Dubai in a 28-day journey that is 40 times as expensive as trucking it over their shared land border.
Rakesh Arora, one of north Indiaâ€™s biggest tea suppliers, canâ€™t sell to the worldâ€™s second largest tea-buying market barely 30 kilometres away from his warehouse. Instead, Pakistan buys tea from faraway Kenya.
The two sides hope that they can quadruple trade that reached $2.8 billion last year by setting aside their competing claims to the Kashmir region and other thorny disputes to focus on restoring economic links.
â€œWhat India and Pakistan are doing is long overdue,â€ says Rajinder Goel, president of the Amritsar Tea Traders Association.
In recent months, Pakistan drastically reduced the number of Indian products barred from the country and said it will eliminate the bans completely by the end of the year. It also said it planned to grant India â€œMost Favoured Nationâ€ status, which would reduce tariffs. New Delhi gave the same status to Pakistan in 1996.
India said this month it would lift the ban on Pakistani investments, held a Pakistani trade fair in the capital and is talking of exporting electricity and petroleum to the energy-starved country. Both countriesâ€™ central banks are exploring opening branches across the border. Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said they were close to an agreement on visas to make it easier for business leaders to cross the border and stop forcing them to report to police.
And India unveiled a new customs depot at the Attari border, which separates Indiaâ€™s Punjab region from the Pakistani Punjab.
In the 100-acre hangar-like warehouse, neatly stacked rows of cardboard cartons filled with dried fruit and nuts stretched to the ceiling awaiting customs checks. An army of blue-uniformed porters waited to load them onto trucks for the vast Indian market.
Nearby, trucks from Pakistan unloaded cement and building supplies bound for Indiaâ€™s booming construction industry.
Like other produce traders, Om Prakash Arora Lati had faced immense losses when his fruit and vegetables rotted in the intense summer heat due to delays at the old checkpoint. â€œNow we can clear customs formalities in hours instead of days,â€ said Lati, president of the Indo-Pak Exporters Association.
Rajdeep Singh Uppal, who has been trading with Pakistan for nearly two decades, said the number of trucks that crossed the border jumped in the very first week of the new customs post. It has â€œsmoothed the movement of trucks from this endâ€, he said, â€œNow we want Pakistan to scale up its facilities.â€
Indian merchants also hope to use the land crossing to reach markets in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and across Central Asia. â€œThe possibilities are endless,â€ Uppal said. The trade optimism has also spurred demands for more crossings along the 2,900-kilometre border, and at least four possible sites have been identified, in the Indian Punjab and Rajasthan. The decision to set aside differences and push ahead with commerce is a formula India has employed before. Despite their own border dispute, trade between India and China has boomed over the last decade.
However, long-time Pakistan watchers remain cautious. Another attack reminiscent of the 2008 siege of the Indian city of Mumbai by terrorists could push the countries back to the brink, analysts say. There are also doubts about how far the Pakistan Army will let its civilian leadership go in restoring ties.
â€œDespite the presence of a civilian regime in Pakistan, it is more than apparent to most observers where power remains ensconced,â€ Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at the Indiana University, wrote in the Asian Age newspaper.
But the army has sent its own signals it wants better relations, with army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani calling for demilitarisation of the disputed Siachen Glacier and for greater emphasis on development and peace.
When Pakistanâ€™s commerce minister opened his countryâ€™s trade fair in Delhi this month, Ghazala Rahman, a Pakistani furniture designer, lamented it was the first time in 35 years her countryâ€™s top business official had come.
â€œWe share so much â€” the same language, the same culture, the same history. I see it as 35 wasted years,â€ Rahman said.
Haseeb Bhatti, a surgical instrument maker from Sialkot, said the two sides have to learn to trust each other again after decades of conflict.
Yet, Bhatti speaks with nostalgia and hope.
â€œOn clear days, when I look at the skies above Sialkot stretching as far as Jammu in India, I wonder, who raised these borders and caused these divides?â€