The economic ramifications of opening up this land route for trade are significant for western Rajasthan
The United Progressive Alliance regime’s foreign policy, especially toward Pakistan, may have been criticised for vacillation (true to a large extent), but one area where the alliance made significant progress was in improving connectivity between the border areas of India and Pakistan — the two Punjabs, Rajasthan-Sindh and the two Kashmirs. While the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service and the weekly Thar Express train connecting Munabao with Khokhrapar began in 2006, the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus service began in 2005.Expanding trade
Trade between the Kashmirs and the Punjabs also commenced in this period. While trade between the two Kashmirs has been marred by political and logistical problems, trade through the Attari (India)-Wagah land route has significantly improved over the past decade, especially over the last two years, ever since the inauguration of the Integrated Check Post in April 2012. A perfect illustration of this point is the fact that while bilateral trade between the two countries was $664 million in 2004, it was approximately $2.6 billion in 2012-2013. There are of course some major constraints, the main one being that only 137 goods can be traded along the Attari-Wagah route. Once Pakistan grants Non-Discriminatory Market Access to India, the number of goods which can be traded across the border will increase along with the number of trading hours.
While the Kashmir and Punjab borders draw more attention, there have also been demands of late for opening up the Munabao-Khokhrapar for bilateral trade, and demands for a goods train service. While trade along this route was first brought up during a Commerce Secretary level meeting in September 2012, the issue of opening up the land route was also raised during the parliamentary election by former minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Jaswant Singh who contested as an independent from Barmer (130 km from Munabao). Mr. Singh argued that this is a peaceful border. It was also Mr. Singh, who pushed the envelope for the Thar Express when he was Finance Minister. That it commenced in 2005 during the UPA regime is a different matter. A railway connection between Munabao and Khokhrapar had existed before the 1965 war, but was disrupted as a result of the strained relationship between the two nations in the aftermath of the war.
The economic ramifications of opening up the Munabao-Khokhrapar land route for trade are significant. Western Rajasthan will be the biggest beneficiary. Once the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited Refinery and the petrochemical complex at Barmer, inaugurated in September 2013, actually commence operations, there is immense scope for selling products such as chemical dye, plastic and wax. Western Rajasthan has also made significant strides in solar energy, and cooperation with neighbouring Sindh can be explored, too.
Apart from Barmer, Jodhpur, 325 km from Munabao, is known for its handicrafts and furniture and could emerge as an important economic hub, not just of western Rajasthan, but northwestern India as a whole.
Some businessmen from Rajasthan have begun to establish links with entrepreneurs in Pakistan. A large number of furniture and handicraft items are already in demand in Pakistan, and some businessmen have begun trading via Dubai. This is a very tedious procedure, however, since goods first have to be transported to Kandla or Mundra which are more than 500 km away. Other goods from Rajasthan which are in demand in Pakistan and which may benefit from opening up the route are marble, henna and some food items.
Jodhpur also has a number of medical institutions, including an AIIMS. If visa regimes are eased out, a lot of patients from Pakistan, especially from Sindh and Karachi, who travel to other parts of India for treatment may no longer have to do so. Inconveniencing families
It would be pertinent to point out that apart from business and trade, it is also important to address some of the major lacunae of the weekly Thar Express. The train is especially important for certain Hindu sub-castes like Sodha Rajputs and Sindhi Muslims who have relatives on both sides of the divide.
The major shortcoming of the train is that while most passengers belong to Barmer, they have to undertake a journey of 200 km to Jodhpur, the only place where passengers are permitted to board the train. Similarly, while the train service was begun with the intention of connecting separated families, the families can only meet at Jodhpur since foreign nationals are not allowed to go west of NH-15 at Barmer. In addition, passengers have to cover a long journey of 800 km — far more than the journey from Munabao to Khokhrapar — from Barmer to New Delhi to obtain a visa. Setting up a Pakistani consulate at Jodhpur would be extremely helpful in this context.
While national interest and security cannot be overlooked, for regions like western Rajasthan and Sindh, impermeable borders and unimaginative rules have been a bane. The Rajasthan government has not been pro-active in lobbying with the central government for closer trade links with Pakistan. With the BJP government in the State as well as the Centre, and with some pressure from pro-trade lobbies, this can change.
Significantly, closer economic links with neighbours and a greater role to states in foreign policy seem to be the key thrust areas of the new regime as far as relations with the outside world are concerned. It remains to be seen whether the new National Democratic Alliance government will follow the same approach with Pakistan, with border regions such as Rajasthan and Sindh being key drivers of economic ties.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst. He was a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre of Politics and Public Policy.)