India and Pakistan are finally moving ahead together. Both countries have come to a realisation, that there is a common enemy, poverty. According to the CIA World Fact book, 25% of Indians and 35% of Pakistanis live below the poverty line. The good news is that trade barriers and restrictions are being removed. This means Pakistan can save millions of dollars by importing diesel from India. India can also gain substantially from trade with Pakistan.
Cricket lovers are in for a treat in March as India tour Pakistan for a test and one-day series for the first time since 1989. Direct air, rail and road links have been restored. Serious talks are underway to start a Karachi-Mumbai ferry service.
The people of India and Pakistan are the real beneficiaries of the recent breakthroughs in the SAARC summit in Islamabad and the ever-improving relations, between the neighbours. Several people have relatives across the border. Arranged marriages between Indians and Pakistanis are common.
Travel restrictions have caused many people to miss weddings, funerals and important family occasions. Getting an Indian or Pakistani visa is a tiresome and unnecessary torture. People have to travel from all over India to New Delhi, which is the only place to get a Pakistan visa. The queues at the Pakistan High Commission are maddening. The under-staffed consular department finds it extremely tough to cope with the demand. The situation is no better in Pakistan. Pakistanis from Sind have to go all the way to Islamabad and the visa procedure is equally tiresome.
It’s not just the divided families who are suffering because of the visa regime. The youth of India and Pakistan are eager to see the other side. Lahore and Karachi have millions of bollywood fans, who dream of visiting Bombay. India’s youth want to see Mohenjo-Daro and have a chance to climb K2. Many urban Pakistanis want to visit the villages of Kerala and Indians from the east coast would like to visit the Khyber and Bolan Passes. There is so much that both countries have to offer. It’s a shame that university students in Lahore can’t go to Amritsar, watch a movie, have lunch and head back to Pakistan the same day.
While European countries have had much worse conflicts than we’ve ever seen in South Asia, the borders are completely open in Europe. Even the former members of the Soviet Union have an open border policy. So, Russians are free to go to the Ukraine and spend a weekend in a Crimean resort.
The SAARC countries need to work out an open borders agreement. India and Nepal have a successful open-border agreement. Indians and Nepalese can go to each other’s countries without a passport and just need a valid government identity card. Such an arrangement might not be feasible between all SAARC states at the moment. A good alternative would be a visa-on-arrival and 72 hour police registration system. This ensures that only citizens with valid travel documents visit the neighbouring countries and registration helps the authorities keep a check on the visitors.
Hawks on both sides would oppose such a proposal, citing reasons such as national security and terrorism. SAARC members however cannot speak of economic co-operation and maintain a hostile and suspicious environment. Sri Lanka had the courage to offer a visa-on-arrival to all SAARC citizens, in spite of fears that LTTE sympathisers from India could misuse this scheme. The influx of Indian tourists has completely revived the tourism-industry, which was all but destroyed by the ethnic strife. India sends more tourists to Sri Lanka than any other country. There is no reason why this cannot be replicated in other SAARC countries.
South Asia needs to put a complete end to decades of hostility and march ahead together. SAARC countries have the advantage of a common history, heritage and culture. The people of this region lived together in peace and harmony for thousands of years, before 1947. With the youth of South Asia eager to be a part of the global community, this is the right time to permanently bury the hatchet. People-to-people contact will help remove suspicion and bring the countries closer together.