Tomatoes sell for Pakistani Rs300 a kilo in Lahore when, just a few kilometer away across the border, they are available at Indian Rs40 in Amritsar. But the Pakistan government is hesitant to resume tomato imports from India ….writes Rifan Ahmed Khan
Tomatoes sell for Pakistani Rs300 a kilo in Lahore when, just a few kilometer away across the border, they are available at Indian Rs40 in Amritsar. Rather than do something about it, perhaps, importing tomatoes from India – or even elsewhere – a Punjab Government’s minister blames the public outcry to “vested interests” trying to resume tomato imports from India.
Past governments have swallowed their pride born of anti-India attitude and imported from India a wide range of commodities from sugar to onions and swallowing that pride further, even the Indian ‘namak’ the salt that would proverbially require them to express some bonhomie, if not loyalty, towards the neighbour-in-need.
In their blind anti-India frenzy, Pakistanis forget that India, too, imports from Pakistan things it falls short of at home. Nobody shouts anti-Pakistan slogans on Indian streets for this.
If Pakistan is hostile to India, it is even more so to Afghanistan, its western neighbour, whom it tries to choke from time to time, taking advantage of the latter’s landlocked compulsions. It blocks the passage of goods and closes the trading posts every time there is any violence along the border.
Not surprising, it turns out, Pakistan is fast losing its Afghan market to India, China and Iran, among others, — even distant England and Germany — and blaming those countries instead of improving its own supplies and doing business as business should be done.
This explains – but one reason – for the mess Pakistan’s economy is in even as it dares its biggest economic benefactor, the United States, in diplomatic bravado.
Traders and businessmen in Pakistan blame their federal government’s security-oriented on trade. Pleas from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that suffers the most are ignored by Islamabad.
Afghanistan was Pakistan’s second-biggest export destination after the United States until 2011. Presently, China has acquired this position, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany.
India, of course, has been a special target with its goods not allowed to traverse through Pakistan. Pakistan is peeved that India has begun air cargo to reach Afghanistan. It is further upset that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has threatened that if Indian goods are not allowed to pass through Pakistani territory, Kabul will not join the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. This is at once a dual message, both to Pakistan and China. Beijing has better lean on its “all weather friend” to allow free and smooth movement of goods to the benefit of all. But Pakistan remains adamant and its dog-in-the-menger trade policy is angering people at home.
Over the past two decades improving trade relations with Afghanistan has not been a priority for Islamabad. This is a major concern for Pakistani exporters. Recent border closures have also increased problems for exporters.
There are several reasons, both internal and external, for the decline in exports to Afghanistan.
Pakistani economic analysts say that Afghanistan is not on a priority list of the federal government. The Ministry of Commerce has recently approved a package to promote exports to distant the African continent while ignoring issues that hinder exports to Afghanistan.
‘When it comes to Kabul, why are we are so quick to close the border over every incident? Islamabad needs to shift from a security-centred policy to an economic one,’ Dawn newspaper quoted a businessman affected due to fall in exports to Afghanistan.
While wanting to trade with those far-off and prosperous nations, Pakistan ignores its immediate neighbourhood and here, Afghanistan is a special target. It has never bothered to improve the infrastructure at borders, even though the Asian Development Bank has funded a project to build modern land ports at Torkham, Chaman and Wagah border with India. The pace of work on these projects is slow. It has yet to establish the land port authority which will oversee the project and its implementation.
KP Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Zahid Shinwari has pointed out that local investors in Afghanistan also hesitate to invest in real estate. “Not a single big factory has been established in the last couple of years in Afghanistan,” he said.
On top of it, Pakistan resorts to high tariffs on its own products like juices, pharmaceuticals and PVC pipes. That has made Indian and Iranian products cheaper.
In transit trade also, Pakistan has lost its position of first choice to Iran. Tehran offers many facilities from handling to onward transportation. In Pakistan, the cost of handling and transportation increased substantially over the years.
Official data shows that the number of cargo containers fell from 75,300 in 2009-10 to 49,500 in 2014-15. This decline was the outcome of the change in transit agreement with Kabul.
Returning to the tomato saga, eminent Pakistani analyst Anjum Altaf has lambasted the government for raising the India bogey and for trying to protect the domestic producer who has in any case produced less, causing shortages, which is suicidal for the economy.
Altaf has ridiculed the argument that imports should be discouraged to prevent passing the trade advantage to foreign suppliers.
Pakistan imports most of its needs and “even common pins are being imported from China and garbage collection is being contracted out to the Turks.”
The government’s love for ‘our own’ is confined to producers, ignoring entirely the welfare of millions of consumers. “Why? Are consumers not equally our own,” Anjum wondered.
On the no-Indian tomato bogey he has demanded to know “who is this ‘influential mafia’ trying hard for resumption of import from India? What does it have to gain from the import? And, if this is actually a resumption of something that was taking place earlier, why wasn’t this mafia hauled in for anti-state activities at that time?”
He has deprecated the ‘mindlessness’ of the minister concerned and the “sheer vacuousness of the logic”.
“The fact of the matter is that a blind nationalism is at the bottom of this ridiculous anti-trade stance that is hurting the budget of the vast majority of citizens who have to purchase essential commodities in the market.”
He calls it “a visceral Indo-phobia”.
“Our ministers are not alone in articulating such puerile logic emanating from their Indo-phobia. I recall a meeting in which an ex-chief of the ISI similarly railed against trade with India because it would destroy “our own” industry. The specific example he gave was of footwear that was being produced at lower cost across the border and whose import would put Pakistani producers “out of business”. During a break, a participant jokingly inquired about the make of the shoes the chief was wearing — it turned out they were Italian.”
“The point to note is that this India-centric anti-trade hysteria is shared by many who have no compunctions consuming products imported from all other countries and whose income brackets are such that commodities like tomatoes and onions are a minuscule proportion of their budgets.
“These are people who tell their car drivers to fill up the tank without ever asking the going price of petrol. They are indulging in the psychic pleasure of ‘hurting’ India at no cost to themselves while pushing millions of people who can afford to buy only a litre of gas at a time below the poverty line.”
Altaf Anjum points to “the ultimate irony” that “such callous and shallow prejudice does virtually nothing to hurt India. On the contrary, the gap between the two countries continues to widen while our leaders make fools of themselves trying to prove to a wide-eyed world that India is the ‘mother of all terrorisms’.
“It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs,” Anjum laments, “and a sign of the extent to which people have given up that nobody even bothers to point out these follies before the narrow window for questioning inevitably draws tightly shut.”