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India and Pakistan are united by language and history, divided by commerce

Pakistani laborers secure boxes of tomatoes, just arrived from India, that will continue their journey inland on Pakistani trucks.
Pakistani laborers secure boxes of tomatoes, just arrived from India, that will continue their journey inland on Pakistani trucks. (Karin Brulliard - The Washington Post)

The little existing trade often falls victim to what look like political whims. In December, cargo trains sat idle for three weeks while Indian conductors awaited the visas that allow them to park just inside Pakistan.

That same month, spiraling onion prices prompted India to drop import tariffs and standards for the staple, triggering a surge in Pakistani onion exports. But Pakistan abruptly halted overland sales amid concerns about a domestic shortage.

"I had 400 trucks stuck on the other side," said Rajdeep Uppal, a trader who is vice president of the Amritsar Exporters Council. "For a week these onions were standing there, and eventually they had to be sold within Pakistan for half the price. Who loses? Both the countries."

Tensions aside, scenes of goodwill abound along the border. Pakistani and Indian train conductors sip tea and gripe about red tape together. Satanam Singh, a turbaned Indian driver - wearing a regulation yellow vest stamped "Indian Driver" - beamed as laborers unloaded his ginger on the Pakistani side. Coming to Pakistan, he gushed, was delightful compared with Mumbai, where the language is different and people hostile.

"It is a strange feeling, like I am going to a strange land," said a smiling Mohammed Zafar, a Pakistani whose vibrantly painted truck, brimming with dates, was about to make its virgin voyage across the Indian frontier. "I am very happy."

Here in Lahore, just 20 miles from the Indian border, Khan's shop was the pioneer in a winding lane of stores now crammed with Indian silk and cosmetics - all smuggled into Pakistan illegally.

He said he would welcome friendlier business relations, even if they lessened the luxury value of his stock. Even his Afghan smuggler, who stopped by on a recent evening, agreed, on grounds that it would lessen the need to bribe border officials.

Among some merchants, skepticism about trade prospects remains, with Pakistanis fearing that open trade would lead to a glut of cheap Indian imports. S.M. Akhter, a top Indian customs official at the border, said national security concerns must trump market demands.

But despite the tangle of rules, some trade is quietly rising. Tahir Habib Cheema, the top Pakistani customs official at the border, said he realized last year that truck exports from Pakistan were allowed, but that "status quo" and "fear" had prevented them. He decided to change that - without notifying his bosses.

A comedy of errors ensued. By Oct. 7, Cheema had found one willing exporter and one importer. After hiccups on each side, a meeting at the frontline was arranged.

All parties agreed, Cheema said - and then the truck would not start. Someone proposed pushing it into India, an idea that was nixed by border guards who said the pushers would need visas. Finally, another vehicle nudged the truck over the line.

"This was something for the national cause,'' Cheema said proudly. Since then, he added, Pakistani trucks have exported $2.5 million worth of products to India. He expects that to escalate this spring, when the two nations open a dedicated truck passage.

Correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this article from New Delhi.


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