A recent news story about how Pakistani rangers returned livestock belonging to a man from Katiyal Kalai village in the Jammu region of India that had been swept away in flash floods to the Pakistani side underscores how political barriers haven’t overcome geographical realities.
Both the Indian and Pakistani governments have realised the necessity of better connecting provinces on both sides of the border as a possible means of improving broader relations between the two nations. On the Pakistani side, politicians across the board have encouraged such interactions, including the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s Nawaz Sharif. Sharif, being a businessman with roots in the Indian Punjab, fully understands the importance of direct trade rather than trading through a third destination. And we shouldn’t forget the role played by the previous Pakistani regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who never really obstructed connectivity and trade between border provinces.
But the reality is that the logistical challenges of cross-border travel have meant that none of the border initiatives have quite lived up to expectations. In Punjab, for example, travelling from Amritsar (on the Indian side) to Lahore (on the Pakistani side) should take barely an hour. But first, Indian travellers have to go all the way to Delhi to secure a visa, an exercise that many don’t have the time or money for. In addition to a visa, security clearance is required to travel to Pakistani Punjab. It’s a tedious process.
The situation is no different in Kashmir, where measures in the name of national security act as a major impediment to smooth people-to-people contact between the two sides. Two bus routes, the Uri-Muzaffarabad and the Poonch-Rawalkot, run between the Kashmir and Jammu divisions. But the present procedures for crossing the heavily militarized Line of Control (LOC) are extremely complicated, and discourage most people from cross-border travel. Detailed scrutiny of applicants, meanwhile, makes obtaining a travel permit a months-long ordeal. And, while the foreign ministers of the two countries recently discussed the issue of making cross-LOC trade and travel easier, it’s highly doubtful that anything concrete will come of this in the foreseeable future.
In Rajasthan, the Khokhrapar-Munabao train hasn’t been successful because passengers have to go all the way to Delhi to secure a visa for travelling. This despite the fact that Khokhrapar is much closer to the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi than it is to the Rajasthan state capital of Jaipur. On the Pakistani side, to catch a bus from Lahore to Amritsar, passengers have to obtain a visa from Islamabad, as well as numerous other clearances.
Yet despite border provinces proving time and again that they are the most solid bridge between India and Pakistan, the national leaderships have generally paid little attention to the issue. A good illustration of the resilience of ties in the border areas came following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, when trade and bus journeys continued with little interruption. Despite the two central governments bristling with hostility, trade at the Wagah border (the main land crossing between both countries) nearly tripled. The total value of exports to Pakistan from the April to October 2008 period, before the Mumbai attack in November, was approximately $23.59 million; during the same period in 2009, that figure nearly tripled to $66.71 million.
Apart from trade, there’s also immense potential in other areas, such as religious tourism. For example, as Eddie Walsh noted in Flashpoints this week, a Virginia-based organization, the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD), under the aegis of Ambassador John McDonald, has been lobbying hard for a bus service between Muzaffarabad and Hazratbal and a Kartarpur corridor between Indian and Pakistani Punjab for facilitating a visa-free pilgrimage.
Even if the central governments don’t give sufficient priority to such initiatives, a fillip to interaction between border provinces could be provided through greater coordination between them. On the Indian side, the three northern states—Rajasthan, which borders Sindh in Pakistan, the Indian Punjab and Indian Kashmir—identify common impediments in terms of trade, visa issues and exchanges in culture, education, and sports. They have rightly asked that such obstructions be studied and addressed. On the Pakistani side, Punjab-Kashmir and Sindh should do the same. The trilaterals on both sides could then also do more to ensure that cooperation and exchanges in these areas aren’t disrupted, whatever the state of the bilateral relationship. If they can manage this, the rewards for both countries could be huge.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.