Governments spar, but people of Pakistan, India want to connect

By Gyanendra Kumar Keshri, IANS,

Karachi : It was around 11 pm. Being hungry, I was looking for food at the Port Grand food street, a newly developed food and entertainment complex along the seaside of Pakistan’s commercial capital.

Support TwoCircles

The complex, spread over 13 acres, has nearly 50 outlets that serve popular Pakistani dishes — the aroma is alluring with pot roast beef fillet, kebabs, tandoori chicken, naan, and delicacies prepared with Basmati rice and much more.

I was looking for some vegetarian food but unfortunately, there was none at the complex, developed with an investment of around Rs.1 billion. Not on menus at least. But that is where the warmth of the people of Pakistan stood out!

When a restaurant owner discovered I was from India, he said: “Just give me 15 minutes. I will get some vegetarian food for you.” Although there was no vegetarian food listed on his restaurant’s menu, he served me a delicious meal, within the promised time.

This kind of hospitality was amply visible during the recent Pakistan visit by an Indian team led by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma. Be it Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad, people were hospitable, going out of their way to make their Indian guests feel at home.

When you move around Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad, the look and feel is no different from Indian cities. Karachi looks like Mumbai. Lahore resembles old Delhi, with the famous Anarkali Bazaar looking no different from Chandni Chowk.

The people — it is difficult to say whether they are from India or Pakistan.

“We look similar. Our language is almost the same. Our cultures are similar. Then why is so much distrust and hostility? When will things change?” wondered one shopkeeper at Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore.

“We want to re-discover our roots. Our grandparents were from Delhi. We want to visit there. But it’s very difficult. I am unable to get a visa to travel to India,” added Israr Hussain, a restaurant owner at Fort Road in Lahore.

“I am really impressed by the Pakistani hospitality; however, a lot needs to be done to improve trade and business relations. Businesspersons should be allowed to move freely,” said Sunil Kant Munjal, chairman, Hero Corporate Services.

Despite the cultural and geographical proximity, people-to-people contact between the two countries is very low. And citing security reasons, both the countries also don’t allow roaming facilities on mobile phones. Visa regulations are amongst the strictest.

According to the World Bank, South Asia is the least-integrated region — only seven percent of international phone calls are regional against 71 percent for East Asia. Intra-region trade is below two percent of gross domestic product, against 20 percent for East Asia.

When we consider the figures between India and Pakistan, the two largest and influential countries in the South Asian region, it is far more dismal. Only 0.5 percent of India’s $750 billion foreign trade is with Pakistan and there is no bilateral investment.

“Even my number is not working here. I am not able to make a phone call,” said Commerce Minister Sharma, who was the first Indian minister holding the portfolio to travel to Pakistan on an official visit in over three decades.

During his interactions here, leading the largest-ever Indian business delegation of 150 top corporate leaders, his message to the business and political leaderships of both the countries was on the need to promote communications.

Rajan Bharti Mittal, managing director of Bharti Enterprises, said a liberal visa regime should be introduced, even as roaming facilities should be allowed to promote greater communication between the people of the two neighbours.

“It’s a policy decision. If the government allows, we would be happy to provide roaming facilities at very competitive rates,” said Mittal, whose group firm Bharti Airtel is India’s largest telecom service provider.

Political leadership of the two countries have made several promises to ease visa norms, trade and overall business ties. The current norms are governed by a pact signed in 1974 that call for city-specific, short-duration visas.

There is also the requirement of a vistor having to report to the local police.

The two countries have set up a joint working group to ease visa norms. A working group, comprising officials of home, commerce and external affairs ministries of the twe sides, are scheduled to meet next month to finalise the issue.

There is also the issue of virtually non-existent air connectivity. Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal said promoting trade and investment and people-to-people contact was the only way forward to bring long-lasting peace across the border.

Pakistan International Airlines is the only carrier that has direct flight between the two countries. It runs 12 flights a week from Lahore and Karachi to two Indian cities, Delhi and Mumbai.

Asked if Jet Airways was willing to introduce flights to Pakistan if permitted, Goyal said: “Of course! It’s a good market for us. But a lot will depend on visa and other regulations.”

(Gyanendra Kumar Keshri was part of the media delegation that accompanied Commerce Minister Anand Sharma to Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected])