- Rajive Kumar
The Hindu The Commerce and Industry Minister, Mr Anand Sharma, and his Pakistani counterpart, Mr Makhdoom Mohammad Amin Fahim, at the Indo-Pak Business Conclave in New Delhi earlier this week.The Pakistan Commerce Minister's visit will hopefully provide the platform from which commercial relations between India and Pakistan move into a higher trajectory.
For once, we in South Asia have been ahead of the expectations curve in the rest of the globe. Earlier this week, I was in Washington attending the third Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) Brooking India-US Strategic Dialogue and also a series of meetings with a cross-section of academicians, policymakers and think-tankers.
The state of affairs in South Asia came up in almost every conversation I had during my meetings. The inevitable questions were regarding when, and if ever, South Asian economies will become more integrated, and a less dangerous place for a region populated by two nuclear powers. The fear expressed was that the ongoing stalemate in Indo-Pak relations, and the recent withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, all have the possibility of plunging the region into a more volatile phase.
BILATERAL ECONOMIC TIES
It was, therefore, a matter of great satisfaction that I could, for once, report new developments from South Asia, which others had neither expected nor anticipated.
With Ficci having been given the responsibility of organising the visit of Pakistan's Commerce Minister, Mr Makhdoom Muhammad Amin Fahim, and the accompanying business delegation, I was privy to information regarding the possibility of a major breakthrough in Indo-Pak commercial and economic relations. This information, when conveyed during my meetings in Washington, came as a pleasant surprise to all concerned, and gave me the utmost satisfaction on events in South Asia being ahead of general expectations.
The Pakistan Commerce Minister's visit, along with nearly 80 business delegates and high-ranking officials, comes after three-and-a-half decades.
This follows a very successful round of meetings between the two Commerce Secretaries in Islamabad in April this year. Encouraged by the progress made during the Commerce Secretaries' talks, the Indian Commerce and Industry Minister extended an invitation to his counterpart, which was readily accepted.
The five-day visit, the official part of which ended on September 30, with a dinner hosted by Delhi's Chief Minister, will hopefully provide the platform from which Indo-Pak commercial relations could move to a completely new and a higher trajectory.
This hope is based on reading of the joint communiqué issued after bilateral talks by the two Ministers on September 28.
THE WAY FORWARD
The communiqué, one of the most clear and focused articulations of the intentions of the two governments, not only provides a realistic framework, but also a strong political mandate for the officials to pursue liberalisation of economic ties between the two countries in a time-bound manner. The communiqué, in fact, states that the two Ministers see the normalisation of economic and commercial ties as an uninterruptable and irreversible process.
This is unprecedented and holds out significant promise not merely for the two countries, but also for the entire South Asian region and could have even wider implications. I realised that we can have a certain level of confidence in the progress in Indo-Pak relations; the current sequence of events, starting with the Commerce Secretaries' talks in April, the ongoing visit of Pakistan's Commerce Minister, and the planned follow-up of official talks in November, should give us reason for being more hopeful.
The way forward has been clearly laid down. On India's side this will include a relaxation of the present visa regime, especially for business visitors, and the removal of as many non-tariff barriers on imports from Pakistan as possible.
These were discussed in great detail between the visiting Pakistan business delegation and officials concerned, who participated in a technical session of the business conclave organised by Ficci.
TRADE, VISA BARRIERS
There is an ever-increasing demand for Indian visas by Pakistanis wanting to travel to India, not only for business, but also for tourism and family reasons.
During my recent visit to Pakistan in July, I noticed a predominance of good sentiments towards India in business and civil society. India needs to encourage and strengthen these sentiments as much as possible. The current visa regime, practised by both sides, which permits only city-specific visas, and requires compulsory reporting to the nearest police station, is a travesty which is not seen anywhere else, except, perhaps, in Palestine.
We need to discard this as soon as possible. Our security concerns, which are, of course, very relevant and important, can surely be taken care of by technological upgradation and greater focus on surveillance and intelligence.
On the Pakistani side, there is now a strong demand by the business community, to move from the present regime of bilateral trade being conducted, shifting it to a negative list, which would be in conformity with South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) provisions.
It is also hoped that Pakistan will also grant India the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status as a part of the roadmap to normalise economic ties. It was heartening to see the confidence of Pakistani's businessmen, who now do not suffer from any fears of being eliminated by their Indian counterparts, and who repeatedly said that they were eager to compete for the larger share of the Indian, as well as their own, domestic market.
The Indian Commerce and Industry Minister has accepted the invitation to visit Pakistan in February 2012. Let us hope that this visit, unlike high-level visits planned earlier, that were aborted due to unfortunate events, will not only go ahead, but will also mark the culmination of successful negotiations on normalisation of economic and commercial ties. This will, no doubt, change the face of South Asia, and bring the region in to a new period of stability, peace and prosperity.
(The author is Secretary-General, Ficci. email@example.com)