LAHORE - Commerce ministers of Pakistan and India have reaffirmed the commitment of their governments to expeditiously establish normal trading relations and provide Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) on a reciprocal basis.
Trade ministers of the two countries meeting in New Delhi also agreed to allow 24 hours non-stop movement of trucks and containers through their main Wagah-Attari land route, as earlier the trade was limited to just 8 to 10 hours of daytime.
In yet another major step, the two ministers also approved a liberalised visa policy for businessmen to help expand bilateral trade, which stood at a bare $2.5 billion in 2012-13 fiscal year against the $10 billion potential, said a statement issued by the High Commission of Pakistan in New Delhi.
The meeting between Commerce and Textile Industry Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan and his Indian counterpart Shri Anand Sharma came on the margins of 5th Saarc Business Leaders Conclave and it was preceded by consultations at the level of the secretaries of commerce of the two countries. Khurram visited India from January 16-18 to attend the conclave on the invitation of Sharma.
The 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. The provision of non-discriminatory market access to Indian companies by Pakistan is an indirect and informal way of granting Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to the neighbouring country, which had already granted that status to Pakistan.
The ministers noted with satisfaction that arrangements have been implemented by both sides to keep the Wagah-Attari Land Customs Station operational on all seven days of each week. They emphasised the importance of trade facilitation measures and directed their respective ministries to workout modalities for the early implementation of all the agreed measures for streamlining and facilitation of the trade.
Khurram Dastgir said the country’s central bank had proposed its Indian counterpart to grant banking licences to three Pakistani banks, a move which would be reciprocated by his side. Addressing a joint press conference after the meeting, he said that in the banking sector Islamabad is hoping to have very rapid progress.
“We have agreed that we will open Wagah-Attari border 24/7 for trade,” India’s trade minister Anand Sharma told reporters. Presently, the border gates remain open only from dawn to dusk. “We have also decided to expedite the process of giving banking licences so that Indian and Pakistani banks can operate in the other country. This would facilitate trade,” he said. Sharma also announced that he will lead a business delegation to Pakistan next month (February), on the invitation of Khurram Dastgir.
When Khurram Dastgir was asked why Pakistan wanted to replace the term Most Favoured Nation with Non-Discriminatory Market Access, he said it essentially meant the same and would result in the seamless flow of goods between the two countries. “There are minorities on both sides who do not desire peace between the two countries,” Khurram said, indicating that it was to quieten these elements, the words describing India’s relations with Pakistan were being chosen carefully.
The ministers agreed that both sides will convene the meetings of the technical working groups of Customs, Railways, Banking, Standards organisations and Energy to devise the modalities for effective implementation of all requisite measures. They noted with satisfaction that there has been enhanced interaction between the business communities of both countries.
Several trade delegations have been received on either side. A Joint Business Forum of Chief Executive Officers in different sectors have also met twice after the formation of the present Pakistan government. Several sub-groups have been formed by this Joint Business Forum to enhance trade cooperation in diverse sector such as textiles, tourism, energy, light engineering, pharmaceuticals and others. The third meeting of this Joint Business Forum is scheduled in Pakistan for mid-February, 2014.
With the objective of enhancing bilateral trade opportunities, FICCI and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan are also coordinating an “India Show” in Lahore in mid-February, 2014. This will build upon the success that was achieved on the business front through the 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 coming ‘India Show’.
Later while returning from India, Commerce Minister Khurrum talked to the media at Wagha border and expressed the hope that Pakistan federal cabinet will allow the national grid to link with Indian grid station by the mid of Feb 2014, removing all hindrances in the way of importing electricity from the neighbouring country. He said that talks are underway in this regard and all issues will be resolved soon.
India and Pakistan had started negotiations to normalise trade ties in January 2011 and had made several concessions for each other before the talks came to an abrupt halt last year due to violence across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Two years ago, the two countries set a goal of taking bilateral trade to $6 billion by 2014, which now stands at around $3 billion.
But both sides are hopeful that trade would go up several times as a result of the trade liberalisation process. India has also agreed to look into the process of liberalising issue of visas to Pakistani businesspersons both bilaterally and under the South Asia Free Trade Agreement.
Pakistan is yet to extend MFN status or Non-Discriminatory Market Access to India by allowing import of all products across the border, although it now allows import of 6,800 items from the country, up from about 2,000 items when the process started. India, too, has to extend lower tariffs to Pakistan that it offers other South Asian countries on key products such as textiles.
NEIGHBOURS EXCHANGE LETTERS SINCE PARTITION ERA
Monitoring Desk adds: Connecting people between India and Pakistan, two red-coloured mail vans have been exchanging letters at the Attari Joint Checkpost every morning since the partition between two countries took place, reported Hindustan Times.
The vans reach the checkpost at 11 am sharp and then exchange the sacks carrying letters, magazines, books, invites and parcels. Messages of hundreds of Pakistanis and Indians are exchanged during the five-minute ritual.
It starts with greetings and thereafter signing the lists. "Aayi yaar sign kari (come friend sign it)" someone from either side would say as language is hardly a barrier between Indians and Pakistanis.
On a cold Saturday morning, HT team met BSF jawans and the officials deployed with the postal van during the letter exchange.