Blood versus Boom

 Published in: The Daily Star on October 12, 2016
Blood versus Boom

After the second US presidential debate, which was aired less than 48 hours ago, nothing is a political surprise anymore. Elections in South Asia used to be termed as farcical; South Asian leaders were called temperamentally intolerant and as a region, it also used to be called the hopeless/hapless third world. Well . . . not anymore. The latest presidential race in the US has set or rather unset all democratic comparisons anywhere in the world.

Therefore, the latest situation of the Indo-Pak borders being redrawn in blood is no more unexpected. The fact that in the Parliament, Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former home secretary RK Singh openly shared that India should have attacked Pakistan after December 13, 2001 does not come as a surprise. The fact that India has also made it clear that the Line of Control (LoC) will no longer be sacrosanct for India if Pakistan continues to “export terrorists”is also part of the predicted route. The game goes on. On the other hand, on September 29, when Indian troops crossed over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs instantly argued that CNN News18 has televsied a “forged” interview of police officer of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, in which he has allegedly confirmed India’s surgical strikes. Apparently, the Indian surgical strikes were pure constructs of the Indian imagination!

Amidst all these claims and blames, and while bombs go off in Pakistan at routine intervals, the international organization “Emerging Markets” declared Pakistan the ‘Best Country for Infrastructure Development in South Asia,’ according to a publication of the IMF/World Bank Annual Meeting 2016. Pakistan has won this award for launching various mega projects, including China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Liquefied Natural Gas Pipeline, Lahore to Karachi railway line, power generation plants and industrial zones. Authorities of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have also declared Ishaq Dar, the best Finance Minister in South Asia of 2016. With so many accolades, the political circus clouds the region, with SAARC getting called off with most South Asian countries backing off, putting, quite deservingly, Pakistan in an alienated cornered position. China, however, stands with Pakistan, with full vigour as the USD 46 billion trade route running from Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China’s Xinjiang represents the “One Belt, One Road” initiative designed to help China expand its economic and political outreach in Asia.

Yet, amidst all the political somersaults and retaliations, the region moves on.

It is essential to sense and honour the South Asian potential. A recent report of the World Bank, which was launched focusing on South Asian competitiveness reveals many prospects that the region cannot ignore. The report examines four sectors including agriculture, apparel manufacturing, automotive industry and ICT proving a single point that the region has greatly benefitted from global integration. With share of industry leaping from 18 percent to 29 percent between 1960 to 2013, the region has gained prominence of global value chains. In spite of relatively low product sophistication, by 2030, South Asia could triple its export share of electronics and motor vehicles. If only the region could cut its cost price by 10 percent in apparel, then that could lead apparel exports to surge anywhere between 13 percent to 25 percent. In brief, this region does have “multiple pockets of excellence”.

What then is holding us back? I write “us” with a lot of hope and audacity of a South Asian. Why is regional integration still unlikely? Why is the intra-regional trade still less than 5 percent and has been so for decades? In spite of the zero tariff on the readymade garment sector, Bangladesh exported only USD 104.25 million in 2014-2015 to India, where non-tariff barriers hinder growth. Added to these barriers, there also exist other countervailing duties on other products from Bangladesh. With so many South Asian platforms existing on track 1,2,3 and even 4, why would our “Amanki Asha” be wasted on watching regional leaders thrusting the region to a dark pit of unreliability?

For years, we have watched culture conquering controversy. For decades, we have witnessed Pakistani artists frequenting concerts in India and Indian artists crossing borders to cater to the Pakistani crowd. For as long as I can remember, many Indian boutiques have been proudly carrying the full range of Pakistani shalwarkurta sets. Forever, the cricket heroes of both the lands have been adored and worshipped in one breath. Very recently, it took me almost two months to get a Pakistani colleague to come and visit Dhaka for work. While his visit was absolutely a necessity, justifying his visit to the authorities was critical. What has actually gone wrong in the South Asian landscape? If one singles Pakistan out in this South Asian equation, one then naturally wonders, why the leaders of a single country that is projected to take off as the next investment friendly area, are unwise to jeopardise regional integration that could turn South Asia to record the highest GDP growth by 2030? South Asia is projected to have a substantial increase in per capita to USD 3,400 by 2030. World Bank study further predicts skilled workers to rise by 84 percent, the real GDP in the region to rise by 6 percent every year, merchandise export to rise by 264 percent in 2030 from what it was in 2011.

Amidst all these promises, one must also not forget the bitter 2011 experience of Samsung backing out from Bangladesh, with its USD 1.25 billion investment, when we could not offer 250 acres of land in the export processing zone that it had asked for, in order for Samsung to set up an electronics industry that would provide job opportunities for 50,000 people. Opportunities like this will just come and evaporate into thin air, if we do not address our infrastructural hiccups and improve governance in all sectors. Above all, if this region is to soar at all, we will all need to come together and build our bridge of faith, while the rest of the world seeps deeper into insanity. Time is ours to seize.