SPEAKING FREELY India, Pakistan need to get serious
By Tridivesh Singh Maini
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Indian and Pakistani officials met recently to discuss some possible measures for improving ties. Rudrendra Tandon of India's foreign ministry and his Pakistani counterpart, Riffat Masood, talked about starting up a Skardu to Kargil bus service, and dealing with some of the infrastructure and visa barriers to trade and travel between the countries.
The Skardu to Kargil bus line was first discussed in 2007, when Islamabad said that it was open to the possibility of such a service, although it had some apprehensions. The 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai and the subsequent suspension of any
substantial dialogue between the two sides for over two years put the discussions on the back burner. But opening up the Kargil-Skardu route - an important component of any scheme for a "new Silk Road" in the greater region - would benefit both sides immensely, promoting personal contacts and increasing economic ties. Both the Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan regions complain of neglect of their sagging economies, and would get a significant boost via trade and tourism from such a transport link.
Also discussed were the serious infrastructure problems that businessmen trying to travel between India and Pakistan encounter. One locus for this is the Wagah-Attari border crossing, which has witnessed a sharp rise in activity over the past few years, but is nowhere near its potential. There has been heavy investment in an Integrated Check Post at Attari, but some serious problems still persist. This includes a lack of integration between the railway stations on both sides of the border crossing. There is also no security scanner on the railway line, and there have been instances of heroin being seized at stations due to a lack of proper security checks. As a consequence, consignments are often held up for a long time, creating 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.
It is important for officials in both New Delhi and Islamabad to think of fresh measures to address some of the challenges that businessmen from both sides have to contend with, and to consider new trade routes. They also need to appraise the effectiveness of confidence-building measures that have already been initiated at border regions like the Punjab and Rajasthan-Sindh.
Tandon and Masood also talked about visa issues between the two countries. While the number of business delegations to and fro has increased, visas for businessmen are still a major problem. Visas have major restrictions, which makes organizing exhibitions and joint trade shows - for which there is great demand on both sides - tough. While there has been talk of simplifying visa procedures, nothing has been done as yet. But the recent talks did cover the possibility of issuing a booklet with multiple-entry visas, with the objective of reducing the inconvenience for passengers who travel by the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus, and making trade across the Line of Control smoother.
The bus services connecting the two Punjabs and Rajasthan and Sindh have similar problems, although they were begun with great fanfare. At the inauguration of the Amritsar to Nankana Sahib bus line, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh even spoke about making borders irrelevant. Unfortunately, neither transport link has achieved anything of the sort. The main reason for the failure of both is the fact that passengers on the Indian side 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.
Perhaps it is time that both governments seriously got down to doing away with draconian visa measures for businessman on both sides. They also need to deal ease travel problems by setting up more Indian and Pakistani consulates.
And both governments need to realize that confidence-building measures need to be taken seriously, and inspire confidence in the people that use them, and not just between the Indian and Pakistani governments. These measures must enhance connectivity between border regions. That means the input of regional governments needs to be taken more seriously, with an institutionalized mechanism for consulting state governments. In addition to this, different ministries in the central governments of both nations, especially the ministries of commerce, home and external affairs, need to be on the same page and not constantly indulging in turf wars.
The question that both India and Pakistan need to answer is whether their confidence-building measures are just "ticking the boxes", or priorities with well-defined goals and objectives.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat.