India and Pakistan agreed on Saturday to allow round-the-clock movement of trucks and containers through their main border crossing, signalling a thaw in relations after a year’s tensions on the Line of Control (LoC) and working boundary.
A meeting between the trade ministers of the two countries in New Delhi also approved a liberalised visa policy for businessmen to help expand two-way trade, which was barely $2.5 billion in 2012/13 fiscal year against a potential $10 billion.
Both sides hope closer integration of Pakistan with India’s economy would help lay the ground for a lowering of political tensions between them.
“We have agreed that we will open Wagah-Attari border 24/7 for trade,” Indian Trade Minister Anand Sharma told reporters after his meeting with Pakistan’s Commerce and Textile Industry Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan on the margins of the 5th Saarc Business Leaders Conclave. Wagah-Attari border gates at the moment are open only from dawn to dusk.
The meeting was preceded by consultations between the commerce secretaries of the two countries where matters related to economic and trade relations. Pakistan also agreed to provide non-discriminatory market access to Indian companies.
The two trade ministers decided to intensify and accelerate the process of trade normalisation, liberalisation and facilitation and to implement the agreed measures before the end of next month.
They also emphasised the importance of trade facilitation measures and directed their respective ministries to work out modalities for containerisation of cargo, allowing all tradable items by land route at Wagah.
They agreed that both sides would convene meetings of technical working groups of customs, railways, banking, standards organisations and energy to devise modalities for effective implementation of all requisite measures.
The ministers noted with satisfaction that there has been enhanced interaction between the business communities of both countries as several trade delegations have been received on either side.
Khurram Dastagir said the State Bank of Pakistan had proposed its Indian counterpart grant banking licences to three Pakistani banks, a move which would be reciprocated by his side. “In the banking sector we are hoping to have some progress, very rapid progress,” he said.
Over the last year there was little movement on trade because of a series of skirmishes on the Line of Control (LoC). Two years ago, the two countries set a goal of taking bilateral trade to $6 billion by 2014.
Though the target now seems difficult to attain, of late there have been fruitful interactions between businessmen and trade officials of the two countries.
A Joint Business Forum of Chief Executive Officers in different sectors has met twice after the incumbent government took over in Pakistan. Several sub-groups have been formed by the Forum to enhance trade cooperation in diverse sectors such as textiles, tourism, energy, light engineering and pharmaceutical. The third meeting of the Forum is slated for mid-February in Pakistan.
With the objective of enhancing bilateral trade opportunities, the FICCI and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan are also coordinating an ‘India Show’ in Lahore in mid-February. This will build on the success achieved on the business front through a similar ‘India Show’ in Lahore in February, 2012.
It is envisaged that as part of the ‘India Show’ activities, artists on both sides of the border will jointly create paintings to express the common heritage of the people of both countries.
With the objective of promoting greater people-to-people contact, both sides have also agreed to organise a joint vintage car rally between Amritsar and Lahore, to coincide with the upcoming India Show.
The Indian trade minister will lead a business delegation to Pakistan next month.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2014.