By Shahzeb Jillani
Business leaders from India and Pakistan say there’s new optimism about the efforts their governments are making to improve trade ties. But critics warn that overcoming decades of mistrust may not be that easy.
For the first time in 35 years, a Pakistani commerce minister led a business delegation to India last week. The entourage included nearly 80 leading industrialists, traders and high-ranking officials.
Peace talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbours broke down in 2008 after the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai, which India blamed on Pakistan-based militants.
Nearly three years on, as if to emphasise a sense of normalcy, the Pakistani Commerce Minister, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, stayed at the city’s Taj Mahal Hotel – which was one of the main targets of the 2008 attacks.
There, leading Pakistani traders got a chance to mingle with their equally eager-for-business Indian counterparts.
Between them, they spoke not just of the profits their individual businesses could make if their governments removed the long standing hurdles in their way. But also of how much the people of their two countries, and indeed the wider region, stand to benefit from freer movement of goods, money and commodities.
The only way I see realisation of trade potential between our two countries is for India to remove its non-tariff trade barriers and for Pakistan to reciprocate by granting the MFN status to India”
Vijay Kalantri, president of All India Association of Industries, said traders on both sides feel business between India and Pakistan is a win-win situation for everyone.
“Why are Indians and Pakistanis forced to trade unofficially via third countries like Dubai or Sri Lanka?” he tells the BBC from Mumbai.
“All we are asking is, let there be direct business-to-business contact between us.”
After the talks in Delhi, ministers from the two sides announced their agreement to boost their annual bilateral trade from current $2.7bn (£1.7bn) to $6bn by 2015.
They also pledged to ease business travel and promote bilateral trade through the land route.
For Pakistan, a significant announcement was a pledge by India to drop its opposition to the European Union’s plan to grant Pakistan tariff waiver on select commodities to help it recover from the devastation of 2010 floods.
There was hope that Pakistan might reciprocate and grant India the Most Favoured Nation status (India granted Pakistan MFN status way back in the 1990s).
Even though no such announcement came, Pakistan committed itself to a road map to implement preferential trade ties with India, as prescribed under the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (Safta).
There are a number of explanations why Pakistan has so far withheld the MFN status from India.
At present there are a number of barriers to prevent trade between Indian and Pakistan
First is political. Pakistani leaders have often linked it to the resolution of the core issue of Kashmir.
It’s a stance which has long been propagated for mainly domestic consumption.
But there is a sense in Pakistan that while the country should continue to push for a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir issue, trade and commerce should not be held hostage to resolution of political disputes.
The second is protectionism. For years, domestic industry in Pakistan has feared it would be swamped by imports from India. But even there, the mood appears to have shifted.
Senator Haji Ghulam Ali, president of Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, says there’s a consensus that Pakistan should open up to Indian business.
“Everyone now recognises it will be beneficial for both sides. It’s just a matter of time before it’s done,” he tells the BBC from Delhi.
Business leaders say that less trade barriers would benefit firms in both countries, However, the last, and more plausible, obstacle is the issue of non-tariff barriers.
“In my experience, India has one of the most restrictive trade regimes in the region,” asserts Dr Ashfaq Hasan Khan, a former advisor to Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance. His view matters, given has decades of dealings with South Asian governments on trade liberalization.
He explains that despite granting Pakistan the MFN status, India has a variety of non-tariff barriers in place – such as, stringent certification codes, customs rules, security clearances and movement restrictions – which make it virtually impossible for Pakistani traders to do business in India.
“The only way I see realisation of trade potential between our two countries is for India to remove its non-tariff trade barriers and for Pakistan to reciprocate by granting the MFN status to India,” says Mr Khan.
He adds: “Unless there’s political will to do that, everything else is just talk and photo op.”