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Why it’s time Indian and Pakistani experts begin talking and build a runway for policymakers

The trouble is, everything and anything to deal with Pakistan is hitched to Kashmir, at least in Islamabad’s eyes.

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A small paragraph in a national paper observed that ‘backchannel’ talks have begun between India and Pakistan. A second one referred to Pakistan buying half a million tonnes of wheat from the international market at a 45 per cent higher rate than last year. This is at a time when Islamabad is struggling with a record fiscal deficit. Meanwhile, a severe heatwave has hit wheat crops in both countries. Climate change doesn’t recognise borders, nor global catastrophes differentiate between nations. The tragedy? India could help out a neighbour in distress if it chooses to. After all, it did send four consignments of wheat to Afghanistan and diesel to Sri Lanka at a time of crisis.

But the trouble is, everything and anything to deal with Pakistan is hitched to Kashmir, at least in Islamabad’s eyes. So, talks, front channel or back, will be hit by the usual front-loading of a perpetual bug-bear.

The Kashmir thing 

Pakistan seems to be trapped in a narrative of its own making. A recent video showed a schoolboy and others swearing to fight in Kashmir in response to the life imprisonment of separatist leader Yasin Malik last week. There’s fire and brimstone on social media, but the truth is that sponsored militancy has only worsened Pakistan’s plight. Back in 2012, then-army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani warned that internal threats were far worse than external ones. As the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, terrorism in Pakistan worsened. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — closely allied with the Taliban— swung back into its home State. The current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa realises this, and in 2021 and 2022 called for“breaking the shackles of history” to bring prosperity to the region. Since then, the Line of Control (LoC) has turned mostly peaceful, and Indian aid permitted to Afghanistan. That’s quite a bit in terms of signals.

Infiltration is down, but a poisonous social media campaign continues to keep the youth aflame in a strategy that also affects migrants and Kashmiri Pandits. Make no mistake. Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism continues but in a different guise and lower volume. However, it is also true that even if it stopped all its activities entirely, the unsettled districts in Kashmir Valley will take a while to settle down, given three decades of terrorism. The bottom line, however, is that the Indian government can still soldier on — quite literally — into infinity. And Rawalpindi knows it.


Also read: Quaid Post to Bana Top: How the Indian Army took back a critical post in Siachen 35 years ago


On the other side

Meanwhile, Islamabad has been offering full provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. The proposal was first examined by a committee headed by veteran diplomat Sartaj Aziz when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, and it recommended ‘de facto’ integration so as to not overturn Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. There’s no knowing where that could have ended since, and at the same time, Sharif also assisted ‘Azad Kashmir’ in getting extensive administrative autonomy through the 13th amendment. Both moves were completely  reversed by the Imran Khan government. But a series of events — including elections in a state that is not a constitutional part of Pakistan — led Islamabad to reconsider a status for Gilgit-Baltistan that would allow it some legal leeway to push projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the insistence of the Chinese. That is yet to happen.

Now it appears that General Bajwa and company want India to give some concession on Kashmir and Article 370, which they do not recognise since it was never part of the Kashmir Constitution, without any shift in its position on their slice of the region. And they haven’t been, at any time, even considered Delhi’s proposals to open an existing trade route into the north. That is not just unacceptable, it is unworkable.


Also read: Prison doors have shut on Yasin Malik & decades-old peace bid. What’s Delhi’s new road-map?


The problem with talks 

The problem with talks at this stage is simple. First, there is no clarity on just how long the Shehbaz Sharif government in Pakistan will last, given not just infighting but also the clamour outside generated by Imran Khan. He’s playing a smart game — not allowing the government to function and then decrying it for not doing so. Besides, any deal on Kashmir will lead to Khan shouting ‘sellout’ from every street corner. He, like any other Pakistani politico, secretly hopes to ‘bring peace with honour’ on his own terms and get into history books forever.

The best way forward in the immediate term — that is, at least till mid-2023 when, presumably, a new Pakistani government would have settled down — is to cultivate a habit of talking to each other through non-political actors with the sanction of the governments on issues that are of vital interest to both and will bolster the capabilities of each. A few of many are given below.

Farmers on both sides 

Remember the farmer’s protests in India that made big news and divided everyone, including those who knew next-to-nothing about farming? Agriculture is a hugely political issue in both countries, given that it involves about 54 per cent per cent of the workforce in India and about 50 per cent in Pakistan. That’s a lot of clout. Agriculture accounts for about 20 per cent and 24 per cent of the GDP in respective countries. Neither figure says much about productivity. In India, the issue of raising farmer produce and profits, while cutting back on subsidies, will certainly figure in the next Lok Sabha elections in 2024. In Pakistan, farmers are protesting high urea and power tariffs even as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants subsidies cut. PM Sharif is already aware that both his party and his son, Hamza Shahbaz, the chief minister in Punjab for now, are going to take a beating on this.

Meanwhile, the new Aam Aadmi Party government in India’s Punjab is mulling ways to reduce overwhelming agriculture costs too. Both Punjabs can benefit from learning from each other – for instance, India’s ‘Soil Health Card Scheme’ meant to allow farmers to choose the crops that will suit them or the highly successful concept of ‘Zero Budget Farming’. They might even consider how best to reduce water-intensive cultivation — given a severe crisis of a lowering water table that could emerge just three years down the line — or of aligning positions at the World Trade Organization where both are targeted on subsidies. No food, no economy as Pakistan is finding out.

As for India, the terrible heatwave forced a ban on wheat exports, which was a huge foreign policy setback, given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to “feed the world”. That’s climate change cutting down politics like a scythe. A decade ago, then-chief minister Shehbaz Sharif and his counterpart, Parkash Sindh Badal, issued a Joint Statement calling for people-to-people contacts and “leveraging each other’s potential”. They didn’t have a crisis back in 2013. They do now.


Also read: How women break the India-Pakistan wall over WhatsApp, biryani & banoffee pie in Dubai


Gasping for breath 

That’s not all by a long chalk. Soon, farmers in India and Pakistan are again going to start stubble burning, worsening the already bad air situation. Highly toxic air endangers 600 million people in South Asia, particularly in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Earlier, both sides would start the fires, leading to a pall of smoke that lay motionless across Delhi and Lahore. But last year, Pakistan did something right. According to satellite imagery, Pakistan had a mere 27 fires while 2,620 fires were alight on the Indian side. Lahore, however, continues to be among the top-most polluted cities in the world, with Delhi vying for the position. Farm fires are, of course, not the only pollutants in either State, and causes of poor air quality include everything from poor construction practices to ‘Waste to Energy’ plants.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Lahore High Court has begun to ensure a crackdown, while in India, the  Supreme Court seems to have got no further. Perhaps the two sides, including their Chief Justices, need to share notes, or air quality monitoring agencies, or even those sidelined institutions that have been crying hoarse about air pollution dangers for years. Yes, we’re both the worst in the world. Think about that. Children in other countries will remain healthy. Ours won’t.


Also read: Indus Water Treaty: Officials from India, Pakistan hold talks


That tempestuous glacier 

A recent video from Gilgit-Baltistan showed rampaging waters completely destroying a Chinese bridge due to what is called a Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). Studies by the University of Kashmir confirm that a repeat of the 2014 Gya GLOF is likely to be much worse, even as the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology finds that 252 glaciers in the Suru sub-basin have been degenerating over the last 46 years, the rate accelerating after 2000. This means that future incidents could be far worse. Remember the 2013 Kedarnath floods? Experts point to the same cause. And another in Chamoli last year. Could it happen again? Most definitely.

Guess who else is affected. China is facing severe glacial lake outflows in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau area, but that’s another story. If Delhi and Lahore think these far-off glaciers don’t matter, they’re dead wrong. Your cities began on the banks of rivers, and there they will stay while the water runs, filthy or otherwise. And no, none of this has anything at all to do with the Indus Water Treaty. It’s time to bury that dead horse that India is ‘stealing’ Pakistan’s rightful waters. That was thrown out of the window by Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioners in 2012 and then in 2017. Instead, let institutes dealing with these issues get together and hammer out a sustainable programme to reduce glacier melt. Perhaps, both could also present a united front at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences.

As we wait for Pakistan to stabilise, it’s worthwhile to start conversations between experts with no stake at all in politics even as politicos and bureaucrats mull over what is possible in future.  In simple words, prepare a runway first, and then look ahead at a possible take off. You can’t have the second without the first. True, as more Pandits get killed in Kashmir, the temptation is to tell Pakistan to go chase itself around the block and give it back in full measure. But here’s the thing. That is truly the ultimate zero-sum game of power and big money with the Kashmiris as pawns. The only way to have a win-all situation is to asphyxiate them with truly practical peace.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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