India and Pakistan need to learn from East Asia

The Pakistani Government recently announced even more stringent norms for issuing visas for Indians. According to the latest notice, all Indian citizens need to apply for a Pakistani visa 8 weeks in advance! The latest action was a source of great disappointment for Indian citizens, who expected some sort of reciprocity on Pakistan’s part after India eased visa regulations for Pakistanis. In March, India announced that Pakistani nationals under 14 and over 65 could receive visas on arrival at the Wagah border. This was after easing of visa restrictions on Pakistani businessmen, cultural delegations and journalists.

This isn’t to say that India doesn’t make it difficult for ordinary Pakistanis to visit. A casual glance at the letters to the editor section of Pakistani newspapers will give an idea of the kind of ordeals that many Pakistanis have to go through to get an Indian visa. The worst affected are those Pakistani nationals who live in Sindh and have to travel all the way to Islamabad thrice to get an Indian visa. While the people of India and Pakistan are pressuring their governments to resolve all differences and normalise relations, elements in both governments are bent on keeping the people apart. India and Pakistan don’t issue tourist visas to each other’s nationals and each issued visa is only valid for a particular city, beyond which the visa-holder cannot legally travel. This is a counter-productive measure where citizens of both countries lose out.

A year ago, this author wrote about the need for open borders across South Asia. Unfortunately this will remain nothing but a pipe dream for the moment. Authorities in India and Pakistan still play the terrorism and national security card every time talk of open borders comes up.

India and Pakistan need to take a few pointers from fellow Asian countries. China, for instance, has more neighbours than India and Pakistan and is more obsessed with security concerns. Despite this, the country has put economics first opened up several border points for day (or short-term) trips with several neighbouring countries. Take for example, the once highly militarised China-Russia border by the Amur River. The twin cities of Blagoveshensk and Heihe, which lie on opposite sides of the river, are now a friendship zone for the former Cold War rivals. A special agreement exists for Russians and Chinese to cross the border for day trips. Both countries are reaping the economic benefits of a boom in the region. Thousands of people cross the border every day for shopping, recreational activities, cultural programmes and business transactions.

Russia fears illegal immigration from China but has allowed Chinese citizens access to Blagoveshensk and a few other nearby towns. Sleepy former Soviet towns with defunct industries are now thriving economically. There is a ready and easily accessible market for processed Russian meat, spirits, souvenirs and other products. The Chinese government agreed to issue special border documents for citizens only valid for Russia’s Amur Region and easing Russian fears that Chinese citizens would go further into Russian territory.

China has set up similar border points in the Yunnan-Myanmar border on the old Burma Road and is pushing India to open a similar post in the Tibet-Sikkim border. Besides this China’s economic zones like Shenzhen and special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macau offer visas on arrival to most nationalities. These regions have a large turnover in the sale of Chinese products. It’s not just China that is opening border posts; Southeast Asian countries are also opening certain regions for day trips. A visitor to Thailand’s northern capital of Chiang Mai can visit certain areas in Laos and Myanmar on day trips. This has caused a tourism boom in the region.

There is no reason why India and Pakistan can’t set up such points in bordering regions. On a reciprocal basis, India and Pakistan can allow tourists for day trips to designated places in each other’s Punjab. The whole experiment can start with government run visa-free package tours that include sightseeing, shopping, lunch and a cultural programme or movie. Lahore and Amritsar’s nostalgic value as well as proximity to the border, make them ideal destinations for these group tourists. Neither government can claim a security risk in such a programme.

If India and Pakistan can allow a Srinagar-Muzzafarbad bus service in “disputed” Kashmir, then why not allow this goodwill gesture, which is sure to provide immense economic benefits for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis? As witnessed by the “cricket-bonhomie” of 2004-5, there is a genuine air of warmth and friendship in the sub-continent. This is as good a time as any to take an initiative that will generate enormous mutual goodwill and further erase the hurt that has existed for the last 57 years. The governments of India and Pakistan owe the people this much.