Fancy a road trip from Agartala to Kabul via Lahore? A train journey to the scenic green plains of Chittagong in Bangladesh or a family vacation in Colombo travelling through Chennai?
Seamless travel via road or rail across south Asia may be a reality soon if the current season of India-Pakistan goodwill holds.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Christmas Day stopover in Lahore has breathed fresh life into frosty bilateral ties and also fuelled hope that the two neighbours will finally get going on an agreement that will allow free movement of people and goods in the Saarc region.
After months of disruptions, New Delhi will host a meeting of the transport secretaries of India and Pakistan. “We are planning to hold a meeting of transport secretaries of the two countries to thrash out details of the protocol for the motor vehicle pact,” an official said, adding details were being worked out.
It will be followed by a meeting of transport ministers of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) countries with renewed hope of rolling out the motor pact at the earliest.
“Saarc initiatives often fumble because of the problem between India and Pakistan. If they work together, it is good for the region’, said a south Asian diplomat posted in New Delhi.
If all goes well, agreements for motor and rail travel across the Saarc countries – India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives – may be signed at the next summit in 2016, when Modi is scheduled to travel to Pakistan.
Founded in 1985, Saarc remains one of the least integrated groupings in the world. Less than 5% of the region’s global trade takes place among member countries compared with 66% for the European Union and 25% for Southeast Asia.
The motor agreement, which would make it possible for a truck to carry walnuts from Afghanistan’s Kabul to Thimphu in Bhutan without multiple customs and security checks – has been caught in a India-Pakistan tangle for months now.
Last year, Pakistan backed off from the MVA.
In July, it indicated it was willing to attend a meeting, but then India wasn’t ready. India on June 15 signed an agreement pact for a motor corridor with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh corridor after Pakistan refused to seal the motor pact.
Also expected is movement on the stalled regional railway agreement, for which India moved a draft way back in 2008 but Pakistan refused to play ball.
“Prime Minister Modi has said it time and again that regional connectivity and neighbourhood — are his key focus areas in the foreign policy” another Indian official said.
Though differences between New Delhi and Islamabad pose a challenge to the connectivity plans, the recent launch of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project shows the neighbours can come together for multilateral ventures.
An ambitious Saarc transport study of 2005 proposes 10 road and five rail corridors apart from inland waterways and maritime gateways that will shorten routes, save transportation cost and provide port access to landlocked states such as Nepal and Bhutan, bringing about greater regional integration.