Pakistani and Indian officials met on Thursday and agreed to resume stalled trade between the two countries across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir starting Aug 8.
The officials from both sides of the border held a two-hour-long meeting on the Kaman bridge over a water channel that marks the divide between Azad Jammu and Kashmir's (AJK) Chakothi sector and India-held Kashmir's (IHK) Uri sector, some 60 kilometres south of the Muzaffarabad.
Trade across the Chakothi-Uri crossing point suffered a blow on July 21 after India alleged that a truck from AJK had ferried across a "huge quantity of heroin."
As many as 14 trucks from AJK and 29 trucks from IHK had transported different mercantile goods under the barter trade system to the opposite sides of the border from the crossing point earlier that day.
However, Indian authorities alleged that IHK police had recovered 300 packets of heroin with a total weight of 66.5 kilograms from one of the trucks from AJK hidden in the boxes purportedly containing textile goods.
The consignment, reportedly booked by one Anjum Zaman in AJK, was meant for Kuloo Suppliers and addressed to Gul Ayazudin Gouhar at Fruit Mandi Parimpora Srinagar.
The driver of the truck, identified as Syed Yousuf Shah, a resident of Charwaya village near Muzaffarabad, was arrested.
Under the Standard Operating Procedure of the trade, the empty trucks are required to return to their respective sides by 5pm, but due to the controversy, the trucks were stuck on the opposite sides of the border till 1:30am.
While AJK authorities sent all 29 trucks back, the IHK authorities sent back all but one of the 14 trucks from AJK. The one they alleged had transported drugs was withheld along with its driver.
Since then, trade at Chakothi-Uri had come to a halt.
However, from the same point, travel did take place on July 24 as per schedule. Travel was suspended on July 31 due to a closed holiday in AJK but will take place as per routine on August 7.
Travel between AJK and IHK ─ through the Chakothi-Uri crossing point in Muzaffarabad division and Tetrinote-Chakan da Bagh crossing point in Poonch division─ takes place on every Monday, whereas trade is conducted from Tuesday to Friday, every week.
In Thursday’s round of talks at Kaman Bridge, the AJK side was represented by AJK Trade and Travel Authority Director Col (retired) Mohammad Shahid and Trade Facilitation Officer (TFO) Chakothi Major (retired) Tahir Kazmi.
Those who represented IHK were Senior Superintendent Police Baramulla Mir Imtiaz Hussain, Sub Divisional Police Officer Uri Syed Javid Ahmad and Custodian Trade Facilitation Centre (TFC) Salamabad (Uri) Ghulam Muhammad Bhatt.
Participants of the meeting decided to reduce the number of trucks carrying mercantile goods from both sides to 40 from the earlier figure of 70 per day starting August 8.
Apart from that, they agreed that the officials and representatives of traders from both sides would separately hold meetings with each other after every one and three months, respectively, at the LoC to sort out irritants.
The officials also decided to equip the TFCs on both sides with internet facility so as to enable the TFOs ti maintain regular contact with each other.
Both sides also agreed to repatriate the stranded passengers of the Tetrinote-Chakan da Bagh crossing point to their respective sides from Chakothi-Uri on August 7.
The travel and trade activity at the Tetrinote-Chakan da Bagh crossing point was suspended on July 7, due to heavy cross-LoC shelling in Poonch division.
When contacted, Mr Kazmi said the IHK officials had handed over a copy of the First Information Report registered against the alleged drug recovery "but failed to address our concerns and objections".
"When we raised objections as to why the truck from which they allegedly recovered heroin was scanned in the absence of its driver in sheer violation of the mutually agreed SOP, they had no answer," he claimed.
However, notwithstanding the agreement between the two sides, the traders in AJK appeared reluctant to resume trade until the authorities took stock of their reservations about the scanning process.
"The first and foremost thing our government and TATA need to do is to install a modern vehicle scanner in TFC Chakothi so as to find a lasting solution to allegations of drug trafficking through this activity," said Ajaz Ahmed Meer, a former office bearer of a cross-LoC traders’ body.
"Unless this is done, hardly anyone will risk his freedom and investment," he said, in a reference to the arrest of drivers and retention of trucks across the LoC amid drug trafficking allegations.
It is not the first time the AJK-IHK trade, which was launched in October 2008 as a confidence-building measure (CBM) between India and Pakistan, has been impacted by allegations of drug trafficking.
Previously, at least twice, India had alleged that trucks from AJK had transported contraband items across the border. Those two trucks and their drivers are still held up across the LoC.
In January 2014, India had alleged that it had recovered 114 packets of heroin concealed in the consignment of almonds from AJK. Consequently, all trucks — 49 from AJK and 27 from IHK were stuck on opposite sides of the border for several days.
Later, all but one of the 76 trucks were allowed to return to their respective sides. The truck that had allegedly ferried the contraband item is still held up, and its driver Shafique Awan, a resident of Muzaffarabad, is under detention in IHK.
Similarly, in February 2015, India alleged that it had recovered heroin "concealed in the boxes of oranges" in one of the 22 trucks from AJK.
While all trucks were allowed to return after a day or two, the one that was accused of carrying the contraband item is still held up in IHK with its driver Inayat Shah, also a resident of Muzaffarabad, in a prison there.