The inauguration of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari in India on April 13 is important for a number of reasons.
After a long time, one saw dignitaries from both Pakistan and India at the inaugural ceremony — Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma and his Pakistani counterpart Makhdoom Ahmad Fahim, and the Chief Ministers of both the Punjabs, Parkash Singh Badal and Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif. All this was at the Attari-Wagah border, famous only because of a jingoistic border retreat ceremony.
Looking beyond the ceremony, the setting up of the ICP is significant as it will naturally boost bilateral trade between the two countries, taking it closer to the target of $10 billion. Built at a cost of nearly Rs.150 crore and spread over about 130 acres, the ICP will have passenger and cargo terminals, security and scanning equipment, and passenger amenities, besides waiting areas, restaurants, restrooms, duty-free shops, banks and other financial services. The ICP can handle about 600 trucks at a time. As a consequence of this enhanced infrastructural capability, trade, earlier conducted only between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. can now stretch to 12 hours — between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thus more trucks can drive to India and cross over to Pakistan every day.
The ICP is important for a number of other reasons as well.
First, 12 other ICPs are likely to be inaugurated at other border points, improving connectivity with countries in the neighbourhood including Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Second, it will help Punjab in general and Amritsar in particular, which was virtually a twin city with Lahore but which suffered on two counts — economically as a consequence of the 1965 war and later during the decade long militancy.
Other land routes
As a consequence, Amritsar, once a trade hub of North India, was left behind, while Lahore continued to grow.
It is no surprise that Pakistan's decision to grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India — welcomed in India — and the setting up of the ICP at Wagah has come as a boon for businessmen of Punjab, especially in Amritsar The political class, especially the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab has not missed the opportunity to take the credit for this development. Politicians across the board have also demanded that Pakistan expand the list of trade items — a paltry 137 at the moment — that can be exported through the Attari-Wagah route.
On expected lines has been the demand by the political class in the State to ask for the opening of more land routes with Pakistan such as Sadki in Fazilka and Hussainiwala (both in the Malwa region of Punjab). Mr. Badal is said to have taken up the issue of opening the Hussainiwala border during his meeting with Mr. Sharif.
Even during his speech at the function, Mr. Badal urged central ministers of both sides to examine the issue. It might be mentioned here that nearly 100 trucks carrying dry fruit and other fruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan used to pass through Hussainiwala before the 1971 war, while Indian traders exported rice-shelling equipment and farm machinery to Pakistan and beyond. With the Bathinda oil refinery likely to be operational soon, the Punjab government is exploring the possibility of selling petro-chemicals via this route.
Political parties are bound to spar over claiming credit for the ICP and this will continue when other trade routes open. Indirectly, this is a positive development as it shows that there is a genuine yearning for peace and closer economic ties with Pakistan in Indian Punjab. Perhaps, some of our politicians need to learn a thing or two from this development in Punjab as far as fostering neighbourhood relations are concerned.
Those who are sceptical about the role of provinces in foreign policy should appreciate the maturity of Punjab's political class as far as relations with Pakistan are concerned and also not overlook the potential role of the State, which can act as a strong interface between India and Pakistan
( Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation . Email: email@example.com)