On either side of a small stretch of the border between Pakistan and India—the part that lies between the Pakistani city of Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar—sits a small region that is undergoing a quiet but remarkable transformation. The growth of trade in this part of the Punjab region, which spans both India and Pakistan, could mean the beginning of a new bond between these two powerful nations and historical rivals. Following Pakistan’s announcement that it plans to grant India most-favored-nation (MFN) status, Pakistan has begun to lift its heavy trade restrictions on India. Many in Pakistan fear that this move will cause its smaller economy to drown in a sea of Indian exports, but others believe that increased trade could help stabilize the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan.
TIME’s South Asia Bureau Chief Krista Mahr traveled to the Pakistani town of Jhelum and the major road crossing of Wagah to meet the people most affected by these changes; the miners, traders and families separated by a border drawn over half a century ago. TIME spoke with Mahr about her story in this week’s magazine story, which is available to subscribers here.
You’re based in New Delhi. What’s the process for people wanting to cross the land border from India into Pakistan?
When I went into Pakistan I crossed overland from India. I had flown to Amritsar and drove to the border. The Indian side was very blocked off and there was nobody there. There were several layers of security to get through the border and I was the only person there crossing on foot. I boarded a government bus where they take you to the end of Indian Territory and then you cross the border on foot. First you are met by a group of soldiers dressed in Indian uniforms and then, after you cross, by soldiers in Pakistani uniforms. There’s a very famous military salute and flag ceremony that happens there every day between the two armies. It’s extremely orchestrated and flamboyant with Pakistanis on one side and Indians on the other and has become a famous ritual.
From there you visited the mining district of Jhelum?
The mining area was quite a bit away from the border, a couple of hours outside Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. But it was in the same general part of Pakistan as the border. I decided to go to the border on the Pakistani side to see what these big changes in this influx of goods really meant for the country. Since this whole exchange of products has begun, Pakistan’s exports have really jumped up. Exports have almost doubled in the last two years.
And what is life like for the people who work in these mines?
It’s a very rugged district and the worksite is extremely basic. They had absolutely no safety equipment; they’re really just blasting rock with sticks of dynamite. Their drills were hand drills, literally drilling the rock by hand. It’s incredibly hard work; the group said they loaded 14 tons of rock every day. There were only about a dozen men on each team.
The gypsum these workers are mining in rural Pakistan will be used to construct something that seems almost emblematic of Pakistan’s economically powerful neighbor and riva—the track for the new Formula One racing track outside New Delhi. Is that Indian wealth trickling across the border to the miners?
It’s so removed from them, but they did say that the demand for what they’re mining has increased significantly. There’s a lot more interest in what they’re digging but they haven’t really benefited. Their pay has gone up incrementally but conditions haven’t improved. They didn’t say they have any particular feeling about the fact that their goods are being used down in Delhi. Other people along the chain do though. The mining companies really question whether exporting the goods to India is the best deal that they could be getting. But at the same time they are selling more, and the middlemen who are buying the rock and selling it to India are making more on gypsum than they ever have. So there is an acknowledgment that people are definitely benefiting from this for now, despite the long history of mistrust.
What about people actually living near the border, how do they feel about these trade agreements?
People there generally feel that the trade movement is a positive move. When you look at parts of Pakistan near the border, like the city of Lahore, there is a lot of shared culture with people in nearby India. Across this border they have distant family members that they have never been able to see. But there are some in Pakistan who feel that there are unresolved issues, like India’s claim to Kashmir and water rights in the area. They want their governments to work on those issues first. They feel if they don’t solve those issues, trade will never work out. This defaults back to the historical mistrust between the two countries.
You mentioned that there are families spread across these border areas.
Yes, it’s incredibly difficult for people to get visas between the two areas but recently a series of restrictions were eased. India decided to allow senior citizens from Pakistan to get visas on arrival at the border so people could come visit their distant relatives. Unfortunately after the recent skirmishes at the border—three Pakistani and two Indian soldiers were killed in January—India has put a hold on this, which is a disappointing move for the locals.
What is daily life like on the actual border?
Wagah, on the Pakistan side of the border, is a bit of a dusty outpost of a town, but people down there are really starting to flourish. A lot of little stands are selling Indian snacks and jewelry. People from Lahore come to buy this stuff and they love it. They can’t just hop over to India and get their favorite snacks and they couldn’t buy these products before. In India, there have been several recent trade shows featuring a lot of Pakistani textiles. People in India love the clothes. The point is they are natural markets for each other and in some ways the trade over the border is a very natural move.
You say that one of the reasons Pakistan never reciprocated after India granted it Most Favored Nation (MFN) status in 1995 is that Pakistan feared its smaller economy would be overwhelmed by Indian goods. Can you explain this fear?
Indian officials are hoping that the MFN will be reciprocated really soon. Pakistan is still saying it’s going to do it although it hasn’t happened in the timeline India would have liked. Some members of Pakistan’s business community are hesitant because of commercial reasons; for instance, pharmaceutical companies in Pakistan are worried about letting Indian pharmaceuticals into Pakistan. The pharmaceutical industry in India is enormous and the much smaller Pakistani industry is concerned that they will go out of business. At this point it doesn’t appear to be a political problem that is holding up the MFN status. But the government may feel it has to get everyone on board before it moves ahead.
Do you think a permanent economic alliance between Pakistan and India is possible, given their troubled history?
India has pursued economic relationships around the South Asia region as a soft way of reaching out and developing diplomatic relationships with different nations. There are no official diplomatic talks going on right now between India and Pakistan but the trade talks have been happening. People on both sides of the border feel this is an important step because once you get your economies entangled with each other it becomes harder for things to fall apart and harder for the countries to stop talking to each other. That’s what happened after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, which was carried out by militants trained in Pakistan. Ties were cut off for years. People who are lobbying for more free trade say that the countries need to keep talking, even when things go badly like they did this last month. It’s a small but important first step to building something that’s lasting.
(TIME MAGAZINE: Border Crossing)