Opening the Wagah border

A typical day at the Wagah border, usually ends with a show of muscle. Giant, hulking soldiers stride defiantly on the ceremonial border separating India from Pakistan.

A typical day at the Wagah border, usually ends with a show of muscle. Giant, hulking soldiers stride defiantly on the ceremonial border separating India from Pakistan. 

With each menacing step, they  confront each other, while their citizens’ cheer on from the stands. It’s a sort of diplomatic haka dance played out in front of hundreds, finally culminating in the two countries flags being unfurled and folded. 

Today, April 13, it’s different.

Instead of a hyper nationalistic performance, there’s a whiff of hope – and yes, even peace – in the air. And what’s bringing this change is good old fashioned business.

It’s taken years of lobbying and endless meetings, for the oddly named “Integrated Check Post” to be inaugurated today. In other words, Indian and Pakistani traders can finally do business officially by road and with better facilities.

“Previously we were asked a lot of questions and had to go through multiple security checks. Now, I’m hoping its different,” says Subhash Chandra, an affable trucker who ferries soy beans to Pakistan. 

And it seems it will. The integrated check post boasts of world class facilities. There are dedicated terminals for cargo and passengers. Its spread over a hundred acres and among the facilities, there are x-ray scanners, customs buildings and additional space for trucks to move through.

Earlier, the only way traders could sell their goods to Pakistan was by sending them through a tedious route involving the high seas and  dusty roads.

With their relationship strained, India and Pakistan forbade certain items from being exported by road. So, from the Indian side, the goods would first reach the shores of Mumbai, from where they would be taken to the ports of Dubai, and finally, they would reach the hustling markets of Karachi or Islamabad or Lahore.

Not only was this expensive, it also gave rise to a thriving black market estimated to be worth $10bn.

Fractured history

With a porous and long border stretching across thousands of kilometres, traversing through the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab on the Indian side, through Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan, you’d think using roads is the most natural approach to trade.

But the two countries share a fractured history. Ever since they broke away from each other, divided by the then British rulers in 1947, their present has been shaped by their past.

They’ve fought wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both sides claim as their own.

Add to the list, an intense disagreement over water sharing in the Rann of Kutch as well as other border disputes, and you have two neighbors who quite simply cant get along with each other.

There are also vast interest groups who don’t want them to walk on this peace path. Various lobbying groups in India, such as right wing politicians who want a Hindu state, and similarly ideologically placed groups in Pakistan, whose very existence is based on India’s destruction, are some of them.

The attacks in Mumbai in 2008 effectively also halted any peace process with India blaming the founder of the banned group, Lashkar E Toiba, for those attacks. 

So, ask the naysayers, with such heavy political baggage how will the opening of one border post change anything?

Business over Politics?

History has shown where politics has failed, business has flourished. China and Taiwan have had long standing business ties, despite their political animosity.

India and China for that matter have also managed to make a lot of money despite being intense rivals in South Asia. Trading with China topped $74bn last year and it’s predicted that by 2015 this figure will rise to $100bn.

Supporters of this business diplomacy theory say that commerce will be the adhesive, which brings India and Pakistan closer on the road to peace. The more interdependence you have for each other’s goods, the less likely you’ll go to war.

Soumya Kanti Ghosh from the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry shares this view. 

“If you look at the political relations between India and China that has not been exactly excellent over decades. But still China is one of India’s largest trading partners.In the same vein, if I say that India and Pakistan relations also the political relation may not have been so much bonhomie in the last couple of decades or so. I think economic compulsions demand that both the countries should engage into a free trade between them.

And so day one of the trading ends. The last of the trucks leave for their home countries. And they take with them a little bit of each other’s dust. The road to peace may not be so simple, but there’s little doubt, the first steps have been taken.