By Salman Siddiqui
What will it take to normalise relations between Pakistan and India? Many believe that apart from letting people meet (easing visa restrictions), one of the most powerful tools for goodwill and normalisation is trade. Official trade, that pays the government dividends in taxes while the trader benefits from larger markets and the consumer benefits from competitive prices.
Ahead of the major Indo-Pak trade meet taking place in Delhi next week (May 18-19, 2010) organised by Aman ki Asha, the Indian High Commissioner Sharat Sabharwal's visit to Karachi on the invitation of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) last week provided another boost to those who are hoping for a thaw between the two neighbouring, nuclear-armed South Asian countries.
Mr Sabharwal, who especially flew to Karachi to attend the closed-door FPCCI meeting hosted in his honour, indicated that the land route of trade between India and Pakistan via Tharparkar-Munabao might be re-opened. Participants at the meeting said that he promised to talk to his government on the subject, adding that he expected the Pakistani government to reciprocate. Official trade between the two countries via the Tharparkar-Munabao land route is dependent on nods by both the governments.
Talking to participants, Mr Sabharwal estimated there is a trade potential of up to $10 billion between the two neighbouring countries that can easily be materialised if done through official channels.
"Trade is the only way to eliminate the poverty from the region and elevate the living of at least 350 million people living in absolute poverty in the South Asian region," the Indian envoy told businessmen at the meeting. "If India can expand its trade with China to $55 billion in just a brief period then why not with Pakistan?"
He informed the business community that construction work on Integrated Customs Check Posts (ICCP) at Wagah Border had begun and was expected to completed before the end of 2011.
The ICCP is expected to be fully computerised and equipped with the most modern facilities, he said. Once this is done, allowing traders from both countries to ship their consignments speedily, trade between India and Pakistan is expected to flourish.
Indian High Commissioner said he realises that there are visa problems being faced by the business community but the restrictions and regulations are common and not specific to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He held that all India's trading partners were being treated equally.
The Indian High Commission Islamabad had issued 95,000 visas to Pakistani nationals before the Mumbai incident but this number declined later. He, however, hoped that same number of visas would be issued this year as well. He mentioned that India was issuing more visas than Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.
Regarding the re-opening of Indian Consulate in Karachi, he said that Indian government had accepted this demand and had renovated its consulate building a few years back but the matter now requires the Pakistan government's approval. The matter has been long-pending since the consulates are supposed to re-open reciprocally. However, the Pakistan government has been unable to find suitable premises in Mumbai.
Mr Sabharwal appreciated the idea of creating a Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Shipping Line proposed by Mr Tariq Saeed, former President Saarc Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He said he would pass this proposal on to the concerned quarters.
The Indian envoy assured S. M. Muneer, President Pakistan-India Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that a reciprocal visit of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) delegation to Pakistan was due. The Pakistan delegation had visited India in November 2008, just before the Mumbai carnage. He said he would approach Federation officials to materialise it soon.
Regarding Tariq Saeed's query about the issuance of five-year multiple visas to 500 businessmen of the SAARC Chamber, he said that he would refer this proposal to SAARC secretariat. At present, these coveted visas are limited to a hundred businessmen and women from each Saarc country.
In his welcome address Acting President, FPCCI, Muhammad Mansha Chhurra expressed his dismay over the low volume of trade between the SAARC countries and especially between India and Pakistan.
"India and Pakistan should promote regional trade along the pattern of ASEAN, EU, NAFTA, etc. to boost bilateral trade," he told The News. "Promoting trade is the only way to minimise the political tension in the region."
"The two neighbouring countries should not mix trade with politics," asserted S M Muneer, urging both governments to allow the business community to carry on trade without hurdles.
These recommendations are supported by a Saarc CCI report titled "Overview of India-Pakistan trade" which recommends that Islamabad grant most-favoured nation (MFN) status to India. This, say the report's authors, will not only bring down the cost of imports, but give Pakistani exports access to the vast Indian market as well as save foreign exchange by substituting expensive imports from elsewhere with those from India. Granting MFN status to India should be perceived as an economic obligation rather than a political obligation, said the report.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
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