Karachi: It was around 11 pm. Being hungry, I was
looking for food at the Port Grand food street, a newly developed
food and entertainment complex along the seaside of Pakistan's
The complex, spread over 13 acres, has nearly 50 outlets that
serve popular Pakistani dishes -- the aroma is alluring with pot
roast beef fillet, kebabs, tandoori chicken, naan, and delicacies
prepared with Basmati rice and much more.
I was looking for some vegetarian food but unfortunately, there
was none at the complex, developed with an investment of around
Rs.1 billion. Not on menus at least. But that is where the warmth
of the people of Pakistan stood out!
When a restaurant owner discovered I was from India, he said:
"Just give me 15 minutes. I will get some vegetarian food for
you." Although there was no vegetarian food listed on his
restaurant's menu, he served me a delicious meal, within the
This kind of hospitality was amply visible during the recent
Pakistan visit by an Indian team led by Commerce Minister Anand
Sharma. Be it Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad, people were
hospitable, going out of their way to make their Indian guests
feel at home.
When you move around Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad, the look and
feel is no different from Indian cities. Karachi looks like
Mumbai. Lahore resembles old Delhi, with the famous Anarkali
Bazaar looking no different from Chandni Chowk.
The people -- it is difficult to say whether they are from India
"We look similar. Our language is almost the same. Our cultures
are similar. Then why is so much distrust and hostility? When will
things change?" wondered one shopkeeper at Anarkali Bazaar in
"We want to re-discover our roots. Our grandparents were from
Delhi. We want to visit there. But it's very difficult. I am
unable to get a visa to travel to India," added Israr Hussain, a
restaurant owner at Fort Road in Lahore.
"I am really impressed by the Pakistani hospitality; however, a
lot needs to be done to improve trade and business relations.
Businesspersons should be allowed to move freely," said Sunil Kant
Munjal, chairman, Hero Corporate Services.
Despite the cultural and geographical proximity, people-to-people
contact between the two countries is very low. And citing security
reasons, both the countries also don't allow roaming facilities on
mobile phones. Visa regulations are amongst the strictest.
According to the World Bank, South Asia is the least-integrated
region -- only seven percent of international phone calls are
regional against 71 percent for East Asia. Intra-region trade is
below two percent of gross domestic product, against 20 percent
for East Asia.
When we consider the figures between India and Pakistan, the two
largest and influential countries in the South Asian region, it is
far more dismal. Only 0.5 percent of India's $750 billion foreign
trade is with Pakistan and there is no bilateral investment.
"Even my number is not working here. I am not able to make a phone
call," said Commerce Minister Sharma, who was the first Indian
minister holding the portfolio to travel to Pakistan on an
official visit in over three decades.
During his interactions here, leading the largest-ever Indian
business delegation of 150 top corporate leaders, his message to
the business and political leaderships of both the countries was
on the need to promote communications.
Rajan Bharti Mittal, managing director of Bharti Enterprises, said
a liberal visa regime should be introduced, even as roaming
facilities should be allowed to promote greater communication
between the people of the two neighbours.
"It's a policy decision. If the government allows, we would be
happy to provide roaming facilities at very competitive rates,"
said Mittal, whose group firm Bharti Airtel is India's largest
telecom service provider.
Political leadership of the two countries have made several
promises to ease visa norms, trade and overall business ties. The
current norms are governed by a pact signed in 1974 that call for
city-specific, short-duration visas.
There is also the requirement of a visitor having to report to the
The two countries have set up a joint working group to ease visa
norms. A working group, comprising officials of home, commerce and
external affairs ministries of the twe sides, are scheduled to
meet next month to finalise the issue.
There is also the issue of virtually non-existent air
connectivity. Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal said promoting
trade and investment and people-to-people contact was the only way
forward to bring long-lasting peace across the border.
Pakistan International Airlines is the only carrier that has
direct flight between the two countries. It runs 12 flights a week
from Lahore and Karachi to two Indian cities, Delhi and Mumbai.
Asked if Jet Airways was willing to introduce flights to Pakistan
if permitted, Goyal said: "Of course! It's a good market for us.
But a lot will depend on visa and other regulations."
(Gyanendra Kumar Keshri was part of the media delegation that
accompanied Commerce Minister Anand Sharma to Pakistan. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)