Kolkata - Likening the “conflict-riddled” relationship between India and Pakistan with that of “saas-bahu” relations, Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit on Wednesday hoped Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to his country for the Saarc summit would lead to resumption of peace talks.
“Indo-Pakistan relation is riddled with conflicts and issues. Despite the abundance of mutual goodwill, we have not allowed this relation to grow as normal. We talk to each other for years... one little incident on the Line of Control and we stop talking to each other like saas and bahu,” Basit said here at an event.
“The next summit will be in Pakistan and we hope that it will be a huge success because all Saarc leaders will be there. One hopes that Modi’s visit to Pakistan would add more to it beyond the Saarc issues,” he said. The envoy said Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhury was very positive and would lead to “something tangible”. Even as he asserted it was an opportune time to carry forward the momentum, Basit said Pakistan was not in a hurry and would wait for India. “If India feels it is not yet the right time to talk, we can wait... but we will like to see this engagement to resume as quickly as possible. We are also not in a hurry in that sense,” he said.
Following media queries, the diplomat subsequently clarified that he did not intend to trivialise the relation by likening it to ‘saas bahu’ and even apologised. “My intention was not to trivialise anything. There is no harm in saying difficult things in a lighter vein. My intention was not to trivialise, but if you think that way, I apologise,” he said.
Talking to media persons during an event organised by the MCC Chamber of Commerce, Basit termed “bizarre” the visa arrangement between the two neighbours, and said the prevalent travel permit terms were not conducive for promoting trade. “It’s a bizarre arrangement that we have. If there is visa restriction, how can you expect trade to realise its inherent potential?” he said.
He said neither India nor Pakistan was “liberal” enough in issuing visas. This was detrimental to the promotion of regional trade, he added.
“If you do not issue (visa) to the people, how can you expect to carry out trade?” he said.
Under the current terms, both Pakistan and India issue visa limiting its scope to five cities.
Criticising the scenario, Basit said: “We issue visa for only five cities. It is again a unique thing. Other countries issue country-specific visa, but in our cases, we issue city-specific visa. Indian citizens cannot visit more than five cities in Pakistan.”
“Similarly, a Pakistani citizen, if he wants to come to India, he cannot visit more than five cities.” The envoy maintained political relations between India and Pakistan need to be conducive to promote bilateral trade. “If you do not have a politically conducive environment, you will continue facing glitches and hitches in trade relations as well,” Basit told the media persons. He said the two countries need to engage in talks to resolve their disputes and promote trade.
“As far as trade is concerned, we are keen to augment bilateral trade and formal trade between the two countries. But obviously, at the moment when we are not talking to each other, talking only about trade would not take us anywhere,” he said.
Terming the ongoing situation “historic”, as both Indian and Pakistani leaderships were keen to move ahead with their relations, Basit said the two neighbours share “a very complex relationship”.
“At the official level there are serious issues which do not allow interaction at the public level so easily,” he said. The envoy said both the countries need to create “inter-dependencies” so that they can mutually benefit from the potential in trade and commerce. “We need to create inter-dependencies... for the two countries to move forward. Trade and economic relations, investments would create positive stakes. We talk about all negative issues unfortunately,” he said. He said India and Pakistan needed to narrow down the list of their sensitive tradable items and work towards improving non-trade barriers to boost commerce in both countries.
“... (there are) 1,209 tariff lines which India cannot export to Pakistan. Under the sensitive list, which is the India sensitive list, we cannot export to India 614 items.
“So there is also a list which needs to be reduced to 100 - from the Indian side from over 600 to 100 and from the Pakistan side from 1,209 to 100 as allowed under SAFTA,” he said.
Under the present conditions, Pakistan allows 137 items which can be imported from India through the land route via the Wagah border.
“We need to work on non-tariff barriers as well as how to synchronise our standards, customs procedures, how to create facilitation centres... these are all the things we need to think through,” he said.
According to Basit, India-Pakistan trade presently accounts for $2.7 billion and has a potential to scale up to $15-20 billion in the coming 5-10 years.
The envoy said the private sector in both counties was making strides to promote trade.
“(The) private sector is working very hard to come up with tenable, plausible solutions to our (India’s and Pakistan’s) economic problems including tariff barriers, non-tariff barriers, sensitive list, South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA)”.
He said the Pakistan-India Joint Business Forum (PIJBF) was working actively towards promoting trade and commerce across the border.
“They (PIJBF) have already established 10 task forces in 10 different fields and they are preparing recommendations and their fifth meeting is to be held in Pakistan hopefully. “The task forces will submit their recommendations and then when our official engagement is resumed, those recommendations will be taken by both governments,” he said.
Basit also expressed optimism about the upcoming South Asia Economic Conclave scheduled in May this year in India where all countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation will participate.