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Kashmir or Food: Pakistan’s Next Tough Choice?

Economic and foreign affairs experts differ over net benefit of Islamabad resuming trade with Delhi to overcome looming food shortages and curb inflation

by Sumeera Riaz

File photo. Narinder Nanu—AFP

This year’s devastating floods across Pakistan have threatened food security, prompting the government to announce it will import vegetables and other food items from neighboring countries to overcome shortages. Finance Minister Miftah Ismail has also said reopening trade with arch-rival India is under consideration, attracting controversy, as detractors claim it will diminish Islamabad’s principled stance on Jammu and Kashmir even if helps reduce inflationary pressures on Pakistanis.

The floods, spanning all of Pakistan, have been estimated to cause a financial impact of at least $13 billion, including the destruction of large swathes of farmland and transportation infrastructure that is already paying off in record prices of essential commodities for consumers. According to authorities, this year’s rice, cotton, sugarcane, onion and tomato crops have been badly damaged and require intervention to prevent starvation and unrest.

Independent agriculture experts have estimated Sindh faces 80 percent loss to its date crop; 43 percent to cotton; and 30 percent to rice. In Punjab, 30,340 acres of cotton crops have been damaged, while in Balochistan standing crops spanning 108,285 acres are now unusable. For Khyber-Paktunkhawa, authorities say over 482,767 acres of maize have been washed away.

The scale of the devastation—unseen in Pakistan’s history—requires the government to import almost all essential food items to overcome losses, but for many reopening trade with India remains a “red-line” unless Delhi is first willing to reverse its abrogation of India-held Kashmir’s special constitutional status.

Among the voices disagreeing with the proposal is Abdul Basit, a former high commissioner of Pakistan to India. “In a holistic manner, if we look at the trade issue, we see that it was India which imposed 100 percent duty on all items after the Pulwama attack [of 2019],” he told Pakistan Standard. “One should also remember what India did on Aug. 5, 2019—it wasn’t a small thing—it amounted to completely changing the whole nature of the Jammu and Kashmir issue,” he stressed.

On Aug. 5, 2019, India unilaterally abrogated the special constitutional status of India-held Kashmir, virtually declaring it a part of the state rather than a disputed territory, triggering protest from the international community, especially Pakistan, which suspended all diplomatic ties with Delhi. Three years later, the ties remain largely frozen, as Delhi has vowed it would not reverse its position.

Acknowledging the “emergency situation” created by floods, Basit said this did not mean Pakistan should rush to resume “even partial trade” with India until the Kashmir issue had been resolved, especially as “it was India which deteriorated the situation.” Claiming India had often used such disasters to undermine Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, he added: “We have other options like Iran, Central Asia and China rather than considering India.”

Lamenting the “irony” of the government counting the benefits of resuming trade with India even before floods, he recalled Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had discussed the issue months earlier. “Now they are using floods as alibi, as a pretext to resume trade with India,” he alleged, stressing the “timing” of resuming trade was wrong without thinking through the consequences.

“You can’t run your foreign policy with flash, casual approaches. It’s a serious matter, it requires serious thinking, long-term thinking, rather than reacting to emerging situations,” said the former diplomat. “Don’t make floods a pretext to resume trade with India, tell India to restore Most Favored Nation status of Pakistan first,” he said of Delhi’s 2019 decision to revoke the designation.

Economy most important

By contrast, former diplomat Salman Bashir, who also served as a High Commissioner to India from Pakistan, said a more measured response was required. “Trade had always been there between the two countries through the Wagah and Attari borders from 2012-2014. But it was disrupted after abrogation of Article 370 by India in Kashmir,” he told Pakistan Standard.

Bashir said the prevailing floods were a good reason to discuss resuming trade with India, stressing the economic bilateral aspects of trade could be delinked from the Kashmir issue. “Our national security strategy states Pakistan’s economy and diplomatic interests are to derive Pakistan’s external policy, especially its policy with neighbors,” he said, emphasizing that the country’s economic interests should prevail over other considerations. “I don’t think it would compromise our stance on Kashmir as our position on Kashmir is based on principles and we should continue on this unambiguously and articulately,” he said.

As an example, said the former diplomat, China had maintained strong trade relations with the U.S. and Japan, despite being at loggerheads with both states often. Even India and China’s bilateral differences, he noted, had not impacted trade between them crossing $100 billion.

For now, Indian officials have said they have not received any proposal to normalize trade with Pakistan, adding it would be premature to discuss it. However, they have said, Delhi is ready to extend humanitarian aid and assistance to help Islamabad tackle the floods. Bashir said this was no surprise, as India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a mission to destroy its ties with Pakistan. The prevailing bad blood, said economist Sartaj Aziz, was reason enough to resist the urge to resume trade.

“It’s not advisable to see India [as a trade option] when we can import vegetables from Afghanistan, Iran and Dubai,” he told Pakistan Standard. “It can provoke a public reaction and it can give the impression that Pakistan has reneged its position on Kashmir,” he said, noting no one could argue that the government did not need to urgently import vegetables from neighboring countries to avoid disaster.

“However, without India reversing its Aug. 5, 2019 actions, it will be a major reversal of our policy with India,” warned the former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan.

Looming food insecurity

For Zafar Mehmood, a former commerce secretary, the direct beneficiary of normalization of trade between Pakistan and India would be the consumer. “In the past, both countries have benefited each other whenever there has been damage to onion crops,” he said, recalling Islamabad had once enjoyed duty-free trade with India and this had helped stabilize vegetables prices in both countries. The academic debate, however, means little to the public that is currently reeling from record-high prices of vegetables, adding to the miseries of flood-hit populations.

Human rights activist and focal person on relief activities in Balochistan Areeba Magsi told Pakistan Standard millions of people needed uninterrupted access to nutrition and the destruction caused by the floods had left many agrarian regions incapable of supporting their residents. “We are already facing food insecurity as there are reports of vegetable shortage in Karachi,” she said, stressing Pakistan needed international assistance to drain standing water, as the longer fields remained inundated, the longer it would take to resume normal activities.

“The crisis is so huge that it has completely paralyzed our agrarian economy,” she warned, voicing concern many wouldn’t be able to grow crops for the next year in addition to this year’s losses. “There is a need to evolve our next strategy on how to face food insecurity in the country,” she added.

For now, the government has said it is tabling the prospect of resuming trade with India, as it hopes people’s needs would be met through the import of vegetables from Iran, Afghanistan and the U.A.E. But with many experts warning the country could need “years” to fully recover from this year’s devastating floods, ignoring the possibility—even under public pressure—might not remain a luxury we can afford to indulge in perpetuity.

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