PAKISTAN has exempted tomato and onion import from Afghanistan and Iran from sales and withholding tax for four months. However, after initial consideration, the federal government deferred a decision on the import of such commodities from India. Torrential rains and flash floods have put additional pressure on Pakistan’s already ailing economy, and the government has yet to reveal a comprehensive work plan to deal with the looming crisis.

International aid has started to pour in, which can help deal with the immediate challenges, but the rehabilitation and rebuilding of infrastructure will require over $10 billion. The floods have washed away about half the cropland of the country, and the threat of food insecurity is very real. The government is looking for external assistance to deal with the challenges building on the premise that the flooding was caused by global warming gases to which Pakistan contributes less than one per cent but on account of which it still has to pay a hefty price in terms of environmental damage.

Pakistan’s claim may hold water but is it the only explanation for the destruction the flooding has caused? Will someone be held responsible for state policies, institutional responses, society’s overall mindset, and most importantly, the kind of politics displayed during the calamity? However, the dichotomous attitude at the state level is that it wants foreign assistance, but without changing and reforming the institutes responsible for dealing with disasters.

The National Disaster Management Authority’s response to such disasters is too slow, which gives less relief and causes more damage. INGOs have been asking since July for access to the affected areas, and the NDMA was responsible for assisting and facilitating them. But it was only towards the end of last week that 15 INGOs were allowed to help the authorities deal with the crisis. It is not only about NGOs from the West but also people from China who faced similar problems when they wanted to participate in the relief activities.

The federal government fears a political backlash if it allows vegetable imports from India.

Federal Finance Minister Miftah Ismail has disclosed in his tweets that international aid agencies are requesting that they be allowed to bring relief items from India through the land border for faster aid supply to the affected. However, the government has not decided to give this concession to the aid agencies. Pakistan can attract more international assistance with an inclusive policy to manage the ongoing catastrophe.

The federal government is weak and fears a political backlash if it allows imports of vegetables from India or gives permission to aid agencies to help. Once the finance minister floated the idea of importing vegetables from India, the former ruling party, the PTI, immediately reacted and opposed the idea. Interestingly, the Imran Khan government had earlier allowed the private sector to import 0.5 million tonnes of white sugar, as well as cotton and yarn, from India, though there was no emergency to allow such imports, which benefited the business elites of the country. The import of vegetables can give huge relief to the common man, though it may not benefit the country’s profiteering mafias.

People deserve relief as they are already under immense pressure from inflation including the skyrocketing prices of vegetables. It is estimated that 40 per cent of food is wasted in Pakistan because of insufficient capacity for storage and hoarding, and manipulation by middlemen in the agriculture sector. The government and industrial sector would have to pay attention to address such deficiencies, and until then, Pakistan would have to open its markets for cheap vegetables, fruit and grain.

On the one hand, the establishment has assured the world that its strategic priorities are now economic-centric. This view has not been translated into action. State institutions, too, are not taking this ‘shift’ seriously. Maybe, the so-called shift was linked to Afghanistan, from where the state decided to import tomatoes and onions. Although the supply of vegetables and fruit from Iran and Afghanistan wasn’t stopped, it had only been fulfilling the demands of the bordering towns.

Nothing new can be said about the advantages and disadvantages of trade with India as the debate has been going on for decades. But when Pakistan claims that geo-economics is its top priority, peaceniks in the region get excited. However, bitter realities remain in place. Internal political dynamics are the primary hindrance to progress. The ruling party in India is into the business of hate when it comes to religious minorities (mainly the Muslims), and for the BJP, it is difficult to hold out an olive branch to Pakistan. The current economic and political crisis has rendered Pakistan’s leadership unable to take bold decisions. Had Pakistan removed taxes and duties on the imports from India, it would have been a test for New Delhi to scrap a 200 per cent duty on its imports to Pakistan.

However, the crisis also brings opportunities, and natural disaster is an area where India and Pakistan can evolve cooperation as both countries face similar challenges. Environmental catastrophes ruin lives, businesses and infrastructure, but they also soften hearts and provide potential space for peace-building initiatives. Trade and cooperation on disaster management would not damage the position of either country on political disputes, including Kashmir. Interestingly, both countries cooperate to protect their common interest at international forums. A few weeks ago, Pakistan joined India, Cuba and 44 African countries in moving a resolution at the WTO forum to seek sufficient flexibility in intellectual property rights for developing countries to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pakistan and India are celebrating their diamond jubilee year, and both need to do some soul-searching regarding what they have achieved with their mutual animosity. As peaceniks often say, leaders from both sides should think about the kind of legacy they want to leave behind.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2022

Categorized in: