Sandeep Singh, coolie number 985 at the Attari–Wagah international border crossing between India and Pakistan, does not find too many goods to carry these days. But instead of lessening the load, it has heightened a burden that he is struggling to bear.
Once bustling with trucks and goods heading in opposite directions, Attari–Wagah was hit by the deteriorating relations between Indian and Pakistan. In February 2019, more than 40 Indian security personnel were killed in Pulwama as part of a terrorist attack. New Delhi blamed Islamabad and, as ‘punishment’, withdrew the status of ‘most favoured nation for trade’ granted to Pakistan, imposing a 200 percent custom duty on imports. Similarly, Pakistan placed curbs on trade following India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.
Less trade means fewer trucks and lesser business. It also means little or no work for porters such as Sandeep. “Life has got infinitely more difficult,” he says. Earlier he would make approximately INR 800 a day, but now he barely makes INR 200. Unable to pay the fees, he and his wife, Rekha, have had to pull their children out of private schools. The children now go to a nearby government school where education is free. The couple has also had to part with family gold. “I sold it since I needed money for my wife’s surgery,” Sandeep says. In between, they decided to let go of a portion of the ration the family gets under the National Food Security Act. “We sold wheat for INR 400 to buy medicines for my child when he fell sick,” he adds. Sandeep now also works as a mason to make ends meet.
“Only the central government can help,” says Malkit Singh, another porter. He along with other porters have been petitioning the Indian government to make them permanent employees under the Land Ports Authority of India. Though several politicians and political parties in Punjab have called for the resumption of trade at Attari–Wagah, the stalemate continues. “There are no factories and all that we have here is the border. Our lives depend on that,” says Malkit.
Sanskriti Talwar is an independent journalist who writes about gender, human rights, and sustainability.
This is an edited excerpt from an article that was originally published on Village Square.
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