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EDITORIAL: Addressing a large gathering in the Azad Kashmir capital Muzaffarabad last week, former prime minister Imran Khan said “you know very well that every country derives benefits from trade. India is a big country and Pakistan would also have benefited from trade with it,” adding that it had to be stopped due to India’s August 2019 illegal revocation of occupied Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status.

Even before that formal bilateral trade was a little over $ 2 billion while informal commerce via third countries and smuggling, at an estimated $3.9 billion, was almost double that amount. Still, the total volume has been far short of the real potential. According to the World Bank’s 2018 report “Half Glass Full: Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia”, it could be as high as $ 37 billion.

Every time tensions rise between the two neighbours over the Kashmir issue, trade becomes the first causality; either it is restricted or suspended altogether.

On the contrary, despite a prolonged standoff along India’s north-eastern border with China that at one point caused several casualties, their bilateral trade is growing. Between January and July of this year it hit the $79. 77 billion mark.

The nature of this conflict and the one over Kashmir, however, is very different; one is about territory and the other about a people’s right to self-determination. The late Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and its successor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, well understood the benefits of conflict resolution.

Along with Pakistan both leaders took important steps towards normalisation of relations. Looking for a durable resolution of all outstanding issues of discord, including Kashmir, Congress party’s Dr. Singh, an economist by training, tried to take forward the peace process initiated by BJP’s Vajpayee.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, he expressed his desire to make Indian economy “more closely integrated with our immediate and distant neighbours [Central Asian states via the shorter and low-cost route through Pakistan]”.

He dreamt, he said, of a day when “one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul.” Unfortunately, that dream has since been supplanted by that country’s new rulers with their Hindu rashtra vision, which seeks to establish Hindu hegemony not only inside India but also over Pakistan by stoking tensions. This is not in the interest of the peoples on either side of the border.

India, of course, is far ahead of Pakistan in terms of economic progress. Yet, like this country, nearly half of its population lives under the poverty line. Both sides have a lot to gain from geographical proximity and cheap factors of production.

There is substantial dynamism in exchange of goods and services to create millions of jobs, and also to impel businesses to innovate so as to become competitive. Exacerbation of tension, on the other hand, undermines socio-economic well-being of the people as well as peace and stability of this region.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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