A 100-member business delegation from Pakistan is in India to discuss boosting trade during the thaw in political hostilities. The delegates are hoping trade can help solve political problems, rather than be held hostage to them.
Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha told leading Indian and Pakistani businessmen it is time for the two countries to step-up economic interaction. He was inaugurating a two-day conference in the Indian capital on how the two countries can revive trade links.
"The challenge faced by India and Pakistan is whether we can truly live together in peace as good neighbors," stressed the Indian minister. "Until now, we have witnessed the simple logic of mutual economic benefit being overwhelmed by political and other differences. I believe the time has come to reverse this trend, and for economics to attain a dominant role in our bilateral interaction."
Bilateral trade has been hampered by the intense political hostility between the two countries, and stands at $250 million per year. But it is estimated trade could flourish to more than $5 billion, if restrictive barriers are removed. Business leaders and officials agree strengthening trade links could also help reduce poverty in the region. Pakistan's new ambassador to India, Aziz Ahmad Khan, says this is crucial because the two countries account for the highest concentration of poor people in the world.
"To fight poverty and provide better life to our people is the biggest challenge facing the governments, corporate leaders and men of conscience in South Asia," said Ambassador Khan. "As the experience in other parts of the world has shown, robust intra-regional trade is an important engine of growth and economic development. South Asia cannot be an exception to this rule."
Businessmen say they are ready to meet the challenge if their governments remove roadblocks to free trade. They want greater people-to-people contact, liberalized visa rules, and open rail and air links for trade.
India's foreign minister has also urged the implementation of a free trade arrangement in the South Asian region similar to the European Union. The project has been discussed for several years, but has not progressed because of the intense political hostility between India and Pakistan.
India and Pakistan are enjoying improved relations due to a recent peace initiative between the rival nations, which have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain. The lingering issue remains the status of Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries and is a continuing source of political tension and violence.