It's really good news that India and Pakistan have decided to open up the Atari-Wagah border to trade. In case you missed it, this was one of the decisions by Zardari and Manmohan Singh when they met in New York on 24th September.
Atari-Wagah is the main land crossing between the two countries ( the other one is the Munabao-Kokhrapar crossing, and trade is also going to be allowed on that one). The A-W crossing has been closed to all normal traffic of people and goods of the two countries since the 1965 war. Four decades and three years! Maybe they'll also think of opening it to people traffic one of these days.
This must be the only land crossing in the world between two countries that is closed to the two categories of people that stand to gain the maximum from it -- Indians and Pakistanis. Of all the perverse things in the world, this has to take the cake. The whole world can go through it provided they are americans, canadians, british, australian, whatever, but not indians or pakistanis -- not unless they hold passports of some other country, or they are diplomats of either country, or have SPECIAL permission. Meaning?
Meaning, a royal runaround to get that SPECIAL permission. I have experience of the Pakistani side, so let me recount that. I had to make a sudden trip to New Delhi in May, and having just returned from India the month before, I wanted to save money, plus what the hell, I wanted to experience the border crossing. For two years, I'd heard my Indian diplomat friends swap stories of how long it took them to drive from Islamabad to Amritsar, where they dump their car with a pal, board a plane or take the Shatabdi and voila, they're in Delhi by 11pm. As part of the working classes, I can't drive my car through, but I figured I could ask for permission to walk through. "On Foot" permission, it's called. Bureaucrats will think of the clunkiest ways to label things.
My chase began with writing to the Pakistan government Information Ministry's External Publicity Wing (it deals with foreign journos) asking for the permission. They would forward my letter to the Interior Ministry, who would then give me the permission, and a letter to carry with me that I would show at the border. No problem, I was assured by an official. I was lulled. I concentrated on the next task on the road to Atari, which was to get a clearance from the Min of External Affairs that I could walk through the Indian side of the border. That was not really a problem, it was granted almost immediately.
When the countdown to my departure began and with the permission from the Interior Ministry still nowhere in sight, I started panicking and started calling the Information official three times a day. Each time she said it's on its way. The day before, I asked her, are you sure it's coming? And she said yeah, yeah, sure. Hope so, I said, hanging up. That afternoon, at 4 pm, I got a call from her saying, please make some other arrangement to go or postpone your visit, because your permission has not yet arrived from Interior.
Angered almost to tears. I'm afraid I was plenty rude to her. But never get mad, work on getting the job at hand done. Which is what I set out to do next. I trained all my heavy guns on getting the permission, spoke to one minister, got a message through to three others -- like using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. But no assurances from anyone. I packed my bag that night, and caught a bus to Lahore the next morning, determined at least to make a scene at Wagah if nothing else. On the way, I worked the phones, and finally one official gave the good news that it was done.
Phew!!! At least 700 of the hair on my head must have greyed, and I must have gained a 100 more wrinkles on my face with the sheer effort of getting this wretched SPECIAL "on foot" permission.
Compare and contrast with what a British journalist based in New Delhi told me when I bumped into him once in Lahore. We were both in the city to cover Benazir Bhutto's house arrest in November 2007.
When did you get here, I asked him. Oh, just a few minutes ago, he said. It was early afternoon, and I said, what do you mean a few minutes ago? There are no flights at this time from Delhi.
No, no, he said, I didn't fly out. It's so easy with this Shatabdi from Delhi. I got on the train in the morning, got to Amritsar in five hours, got to Atari and crossed over. Here by lunchtime....
I was really angry when I heard how easy it was for him, and thought about how difficult it is for Pakistanis and Indians who own that border.