Porters pack up for last time on the Pakistan-India border

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The Independent Online

It is one of the most remarkable and fascinating human spectacles you are likely to witness - so long as you are not taking part.

On either side of the India-Pakistan border in the Punjab, teams of porters are involved in an unnecessary, pointless toil that highlights the fraught relations that have existed between the two countries.

With trucks banned from the immediate area, Pakistani porters wearing orange tunics unload goods lorries by hand, hurl the heavy sacks on to their heads or shoulders and stagger towards the border gate. There they hand their loads to the outstretched arms of Indian porters wearing blue tunics who bundle the sacks on to their shoulders and struggle back towards another truck and stack it with the cargo.

But this daily circus is about to end. Officials from the two countries agreed on Monday that from 1 October, goods trucks will be allowed to cross the border. The porters will keep their jobs but will no longer have to walk across no-man's land.

The decades-old arrangement is one of two spectacles played out every day at the sole land crossing point between the two countries, on either side of which lie the Indian village of Wagah and the Pakistani village of Attari. Every night a gate-closing ceremony takes place in front of hundreds of people from both countries, in which goose-stepping Indian and Pakistani soldiers march up and down before coming face-to-face with each other.

Just inches apart, the two soldiers stare and bristle at each other. Bugles are played and the flags of either country are lowered before the border gate is shut for the night. More recently, with relations between the countries having improved, the soldiers reportedly allow themselves a smile, wink or even a handshake before the heavy metal gates are drawn shut.

Relations between Pakistan and India have improved since 2001, when there was a huge build-up of troops along the border in the Kashmir region.

In October of that year 38 people were killed in an attack on the state assembly building in Srinigar. In December, 14 were killed in an attack on the Indian parliament building in Delhi. India blamed Pakistani-backed militants for both attacks and as troops gathered along the border, India shelled Pakistan military positions.

A month later, perhaps under pressure from the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan's leader General Pervez Musharraf delivered a key address in which he said Pakistan would not allow terrorists to operate from Pakistani soil and again urged India to help solve the Kashmir dispute.

The breakthrough over the trucks at the Wagah-Attari border, appears to be less the result of political developments than of economic pragmatism.

Both sides saw the benefit of speeding up the flow of meat, vegetables and livestock from India, and salt from Pakistan. Pakistan wants to export cement to India and with rail travel expensive, businesses are keen to use road transport.

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