Hope floats, on water

Beena Sarwar
In Lahore for an Indo-Pak conference on environment, climate change and cooperation organised by Young Global Leaders (YGL) alongwith various organisations, I was again struck by the camaraderie and ease with which Indians and Pakistanis interact, at all levels. Even when there are major ethnic or linguistic differences — as between, say, the Pathans of the northwest areas of Pakistan and the Malayalis of South India — one sees a yearning for peaceful, friendly relations between the two nations and a desire for ease of travel between both countries.
 
It’s not just about meeting friends and family, or tourism (for which there is no provision between our two countries). Given our shared natural resources and periodic natural disasters, we also need to develop the understanding and trust necessary for equitable resource-sharing and joint disaster management. If people in countries like Jordon, Israel and Palestine can join hands towards these ends, why not Pakistan and India? 
 
Yana Walid Abu-Talib, the Jordanian project manager for the Transboundary Advocacy of Parliamentarians at EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), brought this point sharply home, talking about FoEME, “a unique regional organisation that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to promote sustainable development and advance peace efforts in the Middle East”. The organisation has offices in Amman, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv, employs over 60 paid staff and actively involves hundreds of volunteers. It is a member of Friends of the Earth International, one of the world’s largest grassroots environmental organisations. One of its projects is Good Water Neighbours, which has succeeded thanks to the involvement of community members and decision-makers as well as schools and adult community centres.
 
“Water should not be held hostage to the peace process,” commented Abu-Talib. “It was very difficult for us to convince people in all three countries that we need to cooperate on shared water resources as the people do not like each other. We have a history of enmity. But I have observed that Pakistani and Indian people love and respect each other, and seriously want to solve the issues. I don’t think there should be a problem to come up with a solution on shared water resources in this region, unlike in our situation,” she said.
 
See? Even ‘outsiders’ notice this strange phenomenon, of two governments maintaining stiff, tense relations marked by ‘reciprocity’ (read: refusal to move forward unilaterally on matters they could easily resolve), in sharp contrast to the ‘awam’, which has no such reservations or formality. This has been proved true time and again, whenever and wherever Indians and Pakistanis meet, barring a few exceptions. 
 
Heartened by the findings of surveys before and after the launch of the peace initiative Aman ki Asha on January 1, 2010, Sushant P Rao, Director of Asia, World Economic Forum, urged students present at the conference to “lobby your leaders” to ease visa restrictions. As he pointed out, “We need these interactions for business, wealth-creation, health and human development.” 
 
It seems that both governments are starting to understand this basic truth, following the lead provided by the people of India and Pakistan, even if the ‘breakthroughs’ that journalists on both sides keep watching out for don’t happen. Pakistan has adopted a policy “based on the Chinese model, wherein the priority is to provide peace, development and prosperity to the people of Pakistan,” Foreign Office spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua told journalists. “It is a successful model for internal and regional peace.” 
 
This model, based on economic ties, does not allow for military engagement. Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stated as much after a meeting with her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir on June 24 in Islamabad: “The ideology of military conflict should have no place in the paradigm of our relationship in the 21st century.” 
 
Does the changing public discourse in Pakistan, where calls for financial and policy accountability of the military are being heard in the public sphere for the first time thanks to multiple live TV channels and other media, support this emerging paradigm? Only time will tell. However, the truth is, this is a hopeful trajectory.   
 
The YGL conference in Lahore was supported by the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Aman ki Asha, Beaconhouse, Centre for Social Markets, Norwegian Embassy, Department for International Development (UK), and The Third Pole

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2011