[Opinion] Mere ticks in the box?
By: Tridivesh Singh Maini
Indian and Pakistani officials met recently and discussed some possible measures for improving ties between both countries. During the deliberations between the Joint Secretary (Pakistan), Rudrendra Tandon and Riffat Masood, Director General (South Asia) last week some of the issues discussed were commencement of the Skardu-Kargil bus service and a multiple entry booklet along with the proposal for power trade between both countries.
The Skardu-Kargil bus service was mooted nearly a decade back, and Pakistan had apprehensions about it. However in 2007, Islamabad stated that it was open to discussing the issue. The 26/11 terror attacks, and the suspension of a substantial dialogue for over two years, put the discussions on a back burner. Opening up the Kargil-Skardu route will benefit both sides immensely, not just in promoting greater people to people contact, but also in strengthening economic ties between the regions.
Both Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan regions complain of neglect, and their sagging economies will get a significant boost via trade and a potential increase in tourism. It would be worth pointing out that the Kargil-Skardu belt was an important component of the ‘New Silk Road’ as well.
The other issues that were discussed was the issuance of a booklet with multiple entry visas, with the objective of reducing inconvenience for passengers who travel by the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus as well as making cross-LoC trade smoother. The issue of power trade between both countries, which has been on the agenda for a while, was also taken up.
In addition to the above, India also took up the issue of investigation of the Pakistani truck driver who was caught with over 100 bags of brown sugar on January 17. The arrest of the driver resulted in tensions with the Pakistani side. Such instances do not help the relationship between both countries, they only vindicate the naysayers on both sides.
Both New Delhi and Islamabad need to think of fresh measures, and new trade routes and cannot be tied down to any one specific route. It is important for officials on both sides to also address some of the challenges businessmen from both sides have to contend with, as also to appraise the performance of the confidence building measures (CBMs) that have been initiated so far between the other border regions like the two Punjabs and Rajasthan-Sindh. Currently business persons have to encounter serious logistical problems.
While trade through the Wagah-Attari border has witnessed a sharp rise in terms of percentages over the past few years, it is nowhere near its potential due to a number of reasons. First, while the government invested heavily in the ICP (Integrated Check Post) at Attari, some serious problems still persist. This includes the lack of integration between the railway station at Attari.
Integration will help since there is no security scanner at the railway line as a consequence of which consignments are held up for a long time. In addition to this, there have been instances of heroin being seized at the railway station due to the lack of proper security checks. Such episodes create an apprehension in the minds of traders on both sides, especially the Indian side. While local businessmen have been raising this issue, it has fallen on deaf ears so far.
In addition to this, while the number of business delegations to and fro has increased, visas for businessmen are still a major problem. It is for this reason that organising exhibitions, and joint trade shows, for which there is a great demand on both sides, is tough. While there has been talk of simplifying the visa procedures, nothing has been done on the ground yet. Perhaps it is time both governments seriously got down to doing away with the draconian visa measures currently in place for businessmen on both sides.
Similarly, the bus service connecting the two Punjabs and Rajasthan-Sindh was started with great fanfare. At the inauguration of the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had in fact spoken about making borders irrelevant. Unfortunately, neither CBM has achieved much success.
The main reason for the failure of both is the fact that passengers need to travel all the way to New Delhi for a visa, which is much longer than the journey from Amritsar to Lahore or the train journey from Munabao to Khokhrapar. The remedy to this would be to set up more Indian and Pakistani consulates and also ease out visa procedures.
Both governments need to realise that CBMs need to be taken seriously. These CBMs are not just between India and Pakistan, they also enhance connectivity between border regions so the inputs that sub-regional governments provide should be taken more seriously. While over the past few years state governments are consulted on issues pertaining to trade, there is no institutionalised mechanism for consultation.
In addition to this, different ministries in the Indian central government, especially the ministries of commerce, home and external affairs, need to be on the same page and cannot continuously indulge in turf wars.
The question both countries need to answer is whether CBMs are just a tick in the box or important priorities with well-defined goals and objectives.
The writer is associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat.