Originally Published 2011-07-16 00:00:00 Published on Jul 16, 2011
Suggesting that a trilateral grouping between Punjab, Kashmir and Rajasthan to improve ties with its neighbouring Pakistan provinces, the author says border provinces had shown time and again that they are the most solid bridge between India and Pakistan.
Needed: A trilateral of northern states
OVER THE past few years, there has been increased, though not substantial, interaction between border provinces like the Punjabs, Rajasthan and Sind and the two Kashmirs. The current UPA dispensation under the aegis of Manmohan Singh has encouraged such interaction and the Prime Minister, who has reiterated that borders should be made irrelevant, obviously takes these initiatives seriously, as on every launch of a bus or rail connection he has made an overture to Pakistan.

Manmohan Singh said during the launch of the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service in March 2006 that, "When President (Pervez) Musharraf had come to visit us in New Delhi last year I had said that the journey of peace must be based on a step-by-step approach but the road must be travelled. As an ancient saying goes, a road is made by walking". Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran too has been quite vocal in arguing that border regions have become extremely crucial as points of mutual interaction with neighbours. While easier transport and commerce connections, as well as confidence building measures, have been initiated, it is still important to ensure that they serve their purpose of facilitating people-to-people contact.

However, because of the logistical challenges of cross-border travel, none of the initiatives have quite lived up to expectations. In Punjab, travelling from Amritsar to Lahore takes barely an hour - but first, Indian travellers have to go all the way to New Delhi to secure a visa, an exercise that many do not have the time for or the money to afford. In addition to a visa, security clearance is required to travel to Pakistani Punjab. This is a tedious process.

The situation is no different in Kashmir, where measures in the name of national security legislations as a major impediment to smooth people-to-people contact between the two sides. Two bus routes, the Uri-Muzaffarabad and the Poonch-Rawalkote, run between the Kashmir and the Jammu divisions. But the current procedures for crossing the heavily militarised Line of Control (LoC) are extremely complicated, and they discourage most people from cross-border travel; detailed scrutiny of applicants makes obtaining a travel permit an effort that takes months.

In Rajasthan, the Khokhrapar-Munabao train has not been successful because passengers have to go all the way to New Delhi to secure a visa. This, when Khokhrapar is much closer to Karachi than it is to Jaipur.

Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan seem to have taken the adage of slow and steady wins the race, too seriously. Shyam Saran, in an article, Reimagining India's borders, for the Business Standard on June 24, says, 'The vision of an economically integrated south Asia cannot become reality without efficient transport, communication and, now, digital connectivity'.

This, when the border provinces have proven time and again, in the past few years, that they are the most solid bridge between both countries. A good illustration being the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, where in other regions even saner elements were swayed by the hysteria and frenzy generated by the media. However, in the border provinces, even in the attack's aftermath, trade continued as normal and buses ploughed as usual, with minimal disruption, between the two Punjabs and Kashmirs.

WHILE THE Indian and Pakistani governments bristled with hostility and acrimony, trade at the Attari-Wagah border nearly tripled. The value of exports to Pakistan between April and October 2008 was approximately $23.59 million; during the same period in 2009, it nearly tripled to $66.71 million. Trade between the two Kashmirs continued after the attack as well. Interaction between border provinces will not strengthen if the provinces criticise the policies of the government of India, or if one province says that they are looked at with suspicion, while interaction between other provinces is less tedious.

One way of giving a fillip to interaction between border provinces could be that the northern states, such as Rajasthan which borders Sind, the Indian Punjab and Kashmir at the Indian side, form a grouping among themselves. They can identify common problems with regard to trade, visa issues and exchanges in the realm of culture, education and sports, and urge New Delhi to pay serious heed.

This trilateral should identify areas like agriculture, trade, medical tourism and exchanges and make sure that interaction in these areas should not be disrupted, even if the bilateral relationship between both countries is not cordial. A good beginning can be made by bringing academics, prominent political leaders and journalists from these states onto one platform.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with  Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: Tehelka.com

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