India will propose on Monday a railway link connecting Kabul in Afghanistan and Chittagong in Bangladesh to ferry passengers and goods, despite heightened tensions with Pakistan because of recent border skirmishes.
“We need to develop wide-ranging and efficient freight and passenger railway links from Kabul to Chittagong, linking Pakistan, India, Nepal and the foothills of Bhutan, along with trunk highways, feeder road systems, and affordable air services,” commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma will say in a prepared speech. “The process of finalizing such regional transportation agreements has remained pending for far too long.”
Mint has seen a copy of the speech Sharma is expected to deliver at a partnership summit in Agra organized by lobby group Confederation of Indian Industry and the commerce ministry.
Sharma has referred to the first transcontinental railroad and the creation of a national highway system that provided the US with quantum leaps to create a vast and integrated market. “This is how it should be in our region as well,” Sharma is expected to say.
Earlier this month, tensions between India and Pakistan rose after two Indian and two Pakistan soldiers were killed along the Line of Control border separating the disputed Kashmir region. A semblance of calm has been restored following talks between military officers of both nations.
However, Pakistan’s trade minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who was to visit India for the partnership summit, cancelled his visit, citing domestic preoccupations. An 11-member trade delegation from Pakistan scheduled to participate in the summit is also not coming.
“We all agree that we have a shared objective of regional economic and commercial engagement in this region and trade and economic interest alone can bring enduring peace, development and prosperity for all our people,” Sharma is likely to say. “We need to find effective mechanisms for achieving these objectives.”
The single market vision that Sharma intends to talk about will depend on seamless connectivity to take advantage of the strengths that lie within, according to Biswajit Dhar, director general of Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a Delhi-based think tank.
“Despite the huge potential that is there in this region, we are allowing fragmentation to pull us down,” Dhar said. “All that is required is to build bridges and this should be done at the earliest.”
“If you allow latent economic forces to unleash their strengths, the vested interests feeding on fragmentation will be reduced to mere spectators. Separatists (those propagating violence) are a small minority, who are keen not to allow benefits of economic integration to spread,” Dhar said. “If the common people can be made partners in economic progress, the pool of people in favour of economic growth and integration will be much larger than the minority of vested interests groups.”
Collaborative work in developing energy-related infrastructure and connectivity grids involving India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan should be given top priority, according to Sharma. Besides reducing cost of energy consumption, the common power grid will “enable us to follow a sustainable development path,” he will say in his prepared speech.
Sharma in the text of his speech holds that the South Asian region has been the slowest to realize the fruits of integration for historical reasons. From a high of 19% trade in 1948 in the region from Kabul to Chittagong, trade within South Asia has dropped to 2%, according to him.
“We have reached a stage that we now need to break out from the shackles of the past and write a bold new essay,” the text of his speech says. “This will have to be based on new ideas which emerge from amongst our nations and pass the litmus test of economic viability.”
Without naming Pakistan, Sharma has noted that Asia has had a troubled past and there are elements in our neighbourhood that have vested interest in maintaining a status quo.
“I would urge the business community present here to carry back a message home that the political leadership effectively counter these forces and under no circumstance allow any seeds of violence or terror to be sown in the country,” Sharma intends to say on Monday.
Asit Ranjan Mishra and Elizabeth Roche are attending the CII Partnership Summit 2013 as guests of CII.