Hope, zeal dominate Indo-Pak business meet
Indian and Pakistani business tycoons met at the historical city of Lahore under the auspicies of Aman ki Asha to pave a smooth path for peace and trade
Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Indian and Pakistani flags hanging in a symmetrical sequence along the walls of the atrium wing at Pearl Continental Hotel Lahore add a festive look to the energy-packed venue. Attendants beam, the smiles on their faces betraying the excitement of a dream about to be realized, and perhaps it is.
It's the day before the Aman Ki Asha Indo-Pak business conference - a rare opportunity for people from India and Pakistan to meet in such a cordial atmosphere. As delegates from Pakistan and India arrive in groups, it's like a reunion of friends separated by history as well as current politics.
The hotel staff can't tell the guests from the hosts in most cases as "we resemble each other a lot", to quote Dr Sania Nishtar, President, Heartfile Pakistan who is a member of Aman ki Asha's Health Committee. She is asked five or six times by the staff if she is Indian.
It's not just appearance. The way Indians and Pakistanis talk, eat, live, think and even dream is not very different. This is obvious from the expressions and body language of the Indian delegates as they cross the border to Pakistan, where several break into a spontaneous dance to the beat of the drum (dhol) that heralds their arrival along with songs in Punjabi. There are smiles, handshakes, hugs, and commotion.
Despite being questioned in English and Urdu, many charged up Indian delegates respond in Punjabi. Parmeshwar Godrej, wife of Adi Godrej, President of Godrej Group declares herself a "Jatti" and shuns everything that doesn't look indigenous to her.
The scene at the airport where some Indian guests arrive isn't much different. The cheerful hosts extend garlands for the Indians as they emerge from the lounge one by one. As they greet each other, they seem to have known each other for ages although some are meeting for the first time. Some of the Indian tycoons arrive on private jets in a land that has been alien to them throughout their lives.
Back at the hotel, there are welcome messages for the delegates all over the place. Everyone greets them, whether related to the event or not.
Much has been said, reported and aired about the proceedings of the conference. But the event goes beyond what's on the scripted agenda. Emotions flow freely, and the sessions and talks on the sidelines are flexible enough to accommodate anything that fits into the scheme. There is a clear focus on how to move ahead.
It's exciting to see all the stakeholders under one roof with no room for excuses. Legendary Pakistani businessmen including Hussain Dawood, Syed Babar Ali and Mian Muhammad Mansha come face to face with Indian legends like Adi Godrej, Rahul Bajaj, Rakesh Bharti Mittal. The High Commissioners of both countries in each other's land sit together in a session that Hina Rabbani Khar, the young and glamorous foreign minister of Pakistan addresses. The prime minister of Pakistan Yusuf Raza Gilani, chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, and Chairman of the fast emerging Pakistan Tehreek Insaf Imran Khan, represent the political leadership.
And even more interestingly, there is hardly a question asked by a panellist or a delegate that cannot be answered by a relevant person.The participants adopt an appreciably pragmatic approach. Descon Chairman Razzaq Dawood declares in clear words he is not concerned about the long-term developments as liberalization of trade between the two regional countries is imminent. "I am concerned about the short term; how to start moving in right direction."
Dr Sudhir Kapoor, CEO of Country Strategy Business Consultants gladly takes a question about agricultural trade in the presence of subsidies and agrees there's a dire need to look into the issue. This counters the perceptions of those who think that Indian businessmen will serve their own interests alone.
Then there's the reality check from Commerce Secretary Zafar Mahmood who confesses his task has started now, as he has to ensure a level playing field.
While there may be apprehensions about Pakistan getting a smaller share in case of mutual trade, there is no second opinion about the immense benefits of cooperation in healthcare and IT for job creation.
Pakistani patients regularly visit India for medical treatment like liver transplant, open heart surgery and renal transplant, notes Dr Neelam Mohan, director of Department of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Liver Transplantation, Medanta Medicity Hospital, Gurgaon, Haryana. The treatment is world class and cost quite low, which can be further reduced if telemedicine progresses fast, she adds.
An unexpectedly light mood prevails throughout the conference. Jokes, anecdotes, and poetry are shared freely. Comparing the IT industries of both the countries, Humayun Bashir, Country General Manager of IBM Pakistan shares a joke about a baby elephant who asked a mouse why he's so small in size and the mouse replies: "I got sick when I was young". The cure, suggests Bashir, is for India to
outsource some of its work to Pakistani IT workers who are talented and available in large numbers - something that Indian members of the Aman ki Asha IT Committee have already suggested.
A musical evening and dinner on the first day of the event brings the delegates from both sides of the border closer. The music and lyrics are part of a shared culture and have meanings for Indians and Pakistanis regardless regardless of their religion and nationality. Folk singers and qawals recite Sufi poetry that the audience generously applauds.
The weather, too, remains kind. A gentle wind wafts through the city and makes even more blissful the venue - a garden between the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, adjacent to the Gurdawara. The event leaves the Indian delegates moved and nostalgic. Many are sad to leave this lovely city, but happy with all they are taking back. Not just the momentos and gifts they were given and the shopping they managed to do, but, as they leave Lahore, they carry with them something far more priceless: connections and friendship and warm wishes.
The writer is a staff member. Photo credit: Rahat Ali Dar/ The News photo
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