Millennium Post

Fresh irritants in Indo-Pak ties

A paradox and parody without parallel in bilateral relations of any two neighbouring nations is that no sooner they resolved to bury the hatchet and herald a friendlier phase for mutual benefit than a fresh problem occurs to derail the relations. Obviously the dramatis personae are none other than India and Pakistan who with 66 years after chalking out their nationhood remain locked in an ambivalent relationship that is diametrically different from the sporadically documented exuberant relations among people to people.

It is only in the third week of this month that there has been a fresh thaw in the bilateral relations when the commerce ministers of both the countries decided in New Delhi that they should keep open the trade tack at the Wagah-Attari border round the clock, besides brushing aside the grant of the Most Favoured  Nation (MFN) status for bilateral trade in preference to a new nomenclature dubbed the ‘Non-Discriminatory Market Access’ (NDMA) to facilitate the two contiguous countries to trade with each other. The meeting of minds on engaging each other through trade in a more meaningful manner bypassing the costly routing of their trade cargoes by circumnavigating through Dubai was heralded as a pragmatic way of boosting bilateral commerce to mutual benefits.

It needs to be put in proper perspective that India’s exports to Pakistan amounted to $2039.53 million in 2010-2011, $1541.56 million in 2011-2012 and $2064.79 million in 2012-2013, while its imports in these years from Pakistan were $332.51 million, $397.66 million and $541.87 million respectively. In the first seven months of the current fiscal, India exported goods worth $950.35 million to Pakistan and imported from it goods amounting to $211.90 million, reflecting that the balance of trade was perennially  in favour of India.  It is not difficult to understand the skewed pattern of trade as Islamabad has moved to holding a ‘negative list’ of 1209 tariff lines for trading with India from its earlier positive list of trading on only a few, only after the mid-February 2012 meeting between the commerce ministers of both the countries at Islamabad. Pakistan’s belated shift from a positive list regime to a negative list regime is likely to augment substantially the tradable items with India, even as New Delhi has in a kindred spirit liberalised its earlier restrictions on inward/outward investment flows to Pakistan.

Both these gestures purely based on pragmatism and a bonhomie born out of sharing and prospering together through trade and investment suddenly appear to be at risk when a Pakistani truck driver was arrested by the Indian authorities for sneaking in ‘brown sugar’ worth Rs 114 crore through the land border trade route.  The consequence of this drug seizure is the casualty at the border trade across the Line of Control (LoC) with Islamabad halting as a riposte the cross-border-trade and the much-ballyhooed bus service that began in 2008 between Srinagar and Muzzffaradbad. The upshot is 27 Indian truckers are stranded in Pak-occupied Kashmir and 49 Pakistani drivers and trucks including the contraband cargo truck are stranded in Jammu and Kashmir.

Trade analysts here wonder as to how a truck carrying drugs such as heroin should not be detained, the cargo seized and the driver of the contraband goods arrested, as clandestine carriage of obnoxious and dangerous drugs is internationally met with stern action. In theocratic Islamic countries, the punishment for dealing in dangerous drugs is extreme and summary.

Interestingly, an Indian news agency story quoting Islamabad’s Foreign Office spokesperson Tasim Aslam said on 24 January that with intra-Kashmir trade suspended for a week, Pakistan is keen on resolving the impasse which it had the audacity to describe as ‘the first test of the arrangement on contract and movement of goods between the two countries’.

 From Islamabad’s perspective, the new stand-off may be unexceptionable when the fact is that its truck only carried heroine to be transported to India which was seized, thanks to the alertness of the Indian authorities. Showing scant compunction for the heinous action of a Pakistani trader/trucker, the influential Pakistani daily reported on 26 January that the MFN status for India is on the cards. This is despite the fact that the two commerce ministers jointly and pompously claimed that the high-sounding MFN is the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) even as this predates to the post-war General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in which India was a founder member. In fact, the Pakistani Commerce Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan told Dawn that the NDMA terminology was suggested in preference to WTO parlance MFN. This was also eagerly lapped by India’s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma with the obviously dubious intent being to cushion the political concussion in Pakistan!

Islamabad’s latest offer to grant MFN or NDMA status to India whichever name does not offend the sensibility of Islamabad  provided India is ready to give market access to  Pakistani goods numbering 250-300 items at lower duty including mostly textiles and chemical goods needs to be weighed with caution.

No doubt, India currently enjoys a huge trade surplus with Pakistan but that had to be narrowed by Islamabad putting an end to its bloated banned items list to a handful few and facilitating two-way trade through more land border routes. The onus is also on Islamabad to strengthen the composite dialogue in all fronts including taking earnest efforts to end the cross-border terrorism and discourage with an iron hand the export and transport of shady and risky drugs and substances. The ball is always in the court of Pakistan even as New Delhi, despite different political dispensation has been proactive in normalising relations for mutual trust.


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