Tridivesh Singh Maini
With dialogue between India and Pakistan moving ahead and giving hope for peace, it is time to examine the tremendous potential for improving interactions between the border provinces - both sides of Kashmir and Punjab, as well as Rajasthan and Sindh.
Since 2004, connectivity through rail and road links between India and Pakistan has improved markedly. Buses plough between the two Kashmirs and Punjabs, and there is rail connectivity between Rajasthan and Sindh. Some dismiss such initiatives as useless exercises but it is noteworthy that while the Indian and Pakistani governments were engaged in a slugfest following the Mumbai attacks of Nov 2008, trade at the Wagah border (which divides the Punjab province and forms the main land crossing between the two countries) nearly trebled - the total value of India's exports to Pakistan from April to October 2009 rose to $66.71 million from $23.59 million during April to October in 2008. Trade between the two Kashmirs also continued.
The Amritsar and Lahore business chambers have been pushing for better infrastructure at the border and more trading hours, as have traders on both sides of Kashmir. The formation of the Federation of Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce, the first official cross-Line of Control (LoC) institution, is a major development. The respective trade and commerce chambers of Muzaffarabad (capital of PaJK) and Srinagar (capital of IaJK) played a pivotal role in finalising modalities for cross-LoC trade.
Like trade, communication linkages between the border provinces have carried on without too much interruption. This strengthens the argument that border provinces are the most solid bridge between both countries, due to economic incentives, geographical proximity and shared cultures.
Both Indian and the Pakistani political leaders have supported such initiatives. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in India has been positive towards such interactions. The Indian PM has reiterated again and again that borders should be made irrelevant. He obviously takes these initiatives seriously, as at the launch of every bus or rail connection he has made it clear in unequivocal terms that India is willing to walk an extra mile to ensure peace in South Asia.
On the Pakistani side, politicians across the board have encouraged such interactions from Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, to the PPP. As a businessman with roots in Indian Punjab, Sharif well understands the importance of direct trade rather than through a third destination. His recent speech in Lahore, addressing a function organised by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) echoed this sentiment. "My parents migrated from Amritsar, but I was born in Pakistan," he said. "We are from the same place. A large number of people migrated from Pakistan to India, where they are known as Lahoris, Gujratis, Sialkotis, Lyallpuris and Kasuris... We are members of the same society and share the same background, culture and even the dishes and vegetables. Like you, we also eat 'aaloo gosht'... When all these things common between us, then we must conduct trade with each other and develop our infrastructure".
The previous regime of General Pervez Musharraf also encouraged connectivity and trade between border provinces, and oversaw an unprecedented interaction between the two Punjabs and Kashmirs.
However, despite easier transport and commerce connections, and confidence building measures, the logistical challenges of cross-border travel continue to deter people-to-people contact. Because of this, none of the initiatives has quite lived up to expectations. In Punjab, it takes barely an hour to travel from Amritsar on the Indian side to Lahore on the Pakistani side. But Indian travellers have to go all the way to Delhi to secure a visa, an exercise that many do not have the time or money to afford. In addition to a visa, Indians are required to obtain a security clearance from their government to travel to Pakistani Punjab.
The situation is no different in Kashmir, where a myriad of security measures hinder smooth people-to-people contact between the two sides.
Two bus routes, Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkot, run between Kashmir and Jammu divisions. But the complicated procedures required to cross the heavily militarised LoC make it extremely difficult for common Kashmiris.
In Rajasthan, the Khokhrapar-Munabao train has not been successful, again because passengers have to go all the way to Delhi to secure a visa. This, when Khokhrapar is much closer to Karachi than to Jaipur, the Rajasthan state capital. On the Pakistani side, to catch a bus from Lahore to Amritsar, passengers have to obtain a visa from Islamabad (which they can obtain via courier, but not everyone can do that). The visa process for India includes obtaining an attested (from India) character certificate.
Similarly progress on even religious tourism between the two Punjabs has been tardy - for example, the Kartarpur Corridor, which will link Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur district in India, to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, where the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak is reported to have spent his last days. The Indian government has been promising completion of the corridor, after hectic lobbying by some politicians and the Washington DC based Institute of Multi-Track Diplomacy headed by retired US Ambassador John W. Mcdonald. The delay is attributed to security reasons, but there are plenty of ways to address the security concerns.
Governments on both sides have promised to increase the frequency of trading hours, improve the infrastructure at border crossing points and increase the frequency of bus services. These issues were discussed during the Commerce Secretary talks between both countries in April and talks between External Affairs Ministers of both countries.
With the central governments pre-occupied with numerous foreign policy issues and bilateral tensions impeding progress, it is time that the border provinces themselves took a lead in developing a framework for sustainable cooperation.
On the Indian side, the three northern states - Rajasthan bordering Sindh, the Indian Punjab and Kashmir (Indian side) - should identify common impediments which they have to contend with regard to trade, visa issues and exchanges in the realm of culture, education and sports and urge the central government to look into them seriously. The Pakistani sides of Punjab and Kashmir, and Sindh, should do the same.
These states or provinces on either side must earmark certain areas like agriculture, trade, medical tourism, and exchanges in the spheres of culture, education and sports. Cooperation and exchanges in these areas must not be disrupted, no matter how tense the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan gets.
Giving a fillip to closer ties between border provinces will not only give a boost to the economies of these provinces, but also the India-Pakistan relationship which is in dire need of some out-of-the-box solutions.
Caption: (Above left) A passenger on the first Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus waves happily; (centre) Srinagar, April 7, 2005: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flags off the historic first bus to Muzaffarabad; (Above right) A billboard in Srinagar showing the distance in kilometers to Muzaffarabad (file photos)
The writer is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and one of the editors of 'Warriors after War: Indian and Pakistani Retired Military Leaders Reflect on Relations between the Two Countries, Past, Present and Future' (Peter Lang, 2011). Email: email@example.com
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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