Monday June 17, 2024

Why not Pakistan?

Gandhara Corridor must be announced today, not tomorrow, to promote interfaith harmony

By Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani
May 17, 2024
A vendor holds a Pakistani flag as he waits for customers beside his stall alongside a street in Islamabad. — AFP/File
A vendor holds a Pakistani flag as he waits for customers beside his stall alongside a street in Islamabad. — AFP/File

Recently I was asked to give a briefing on the Gandhara Corridor in a high level meeting of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), attended by federal ministers and the military leadership as well as the representatives from all provinces, at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

While highlighting the significance of establishing a Gandhara Corridor for connecting Pakistan with the Buddhist world, I categorically mentioned that our neighbouring country has identified faith tourism as a key sector for socio-economic uplift, cultural preservation, spiritual enrichment and promoting the soft image. In this regard, a strategic step to attract pilgrims from Buddhist majority countries has already been taken in the form of developing the Buddhist Circuit.

The Indian government with the collaboration of World Bank, Asian Development Bank and foreign investors is developing a holy network of sacred sites and destinations associated with the spiritual journey of Gautama Buddha, spanning across several states in India, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha.

The World Bank, under the India Buddhist Circuit Development Project (IBCDP), has been a key partner in this endeavour, providing financial and technical assistance to support the development of infrastructure, tourism facilities, and community engagement programs in our neighbouring country.

The key focus areas of the IBCDP include: (i) infrastructure development for upgrading and construction of roads, airports, and tourist facilities to improve access and amenities for pilgrims; (ii) site development for conservation and restoration of Buddhist monuments, museums, and cultural heritage sites; (iii) community engagement, capacity building and training programmes for local communities to promote their participation in tourism development and cultural preservation; and (iv) most importantly, marketing and promotion to raise awareness about the Buddhist Circuit and attract international tourists.

Due to its potential to generate employment opportunities, stimulate local economies, promote interfaith harmony, and preserve cultural heritage, several countries and international organizations are also showing interest in supporting the initiative. Reportedly, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has provided financial support for the development of tourism infrastructure and improvement of heritage sites under the Buddhist Circuit Development Plan, whereas the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) is also collaborating with the Indian government with a focus on strengthening people-to-people exchanges and cultural understanding.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has also shown keen interest to invest in the Buddhist Circuit and willingness to work on infrastructure development. Interestingly, many private companies are also cooperating for the conservation and restoration of Buddhist monuments and cultural heritage sites under the public-private partnership, supported by the World Bank.

However, during the SIFC meeting, an objection was raised by a provincial representative that tourism in Pakistan is a provincial subject. I once again elaborated that the purpose of establishing the Gandhara Corridor is not at all to control or take over any heritage site located in any province but to establish a tourism corridor connecting Islamabad, the federal capital of Pakistan, with capital cities of Buddhist majority countries, including China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, etc through air link.

Unfortunately, we are seeking financial support and foreign investment from the international community to revive our national economy, but are not ready to take advantage of the priceless treasure that God Almighty has gifted to Pakistan in the form of heritage. It is a pity that others are welcoming faith tourists at a large scale to boost their national economies, but we are still not getting out of such a hostile stereotype mindset.

I concluded my briefing with an emphasis that: “Today, if the government of Pakistan just shows its determination to provide a roadmap and vision for establishing the Gandhara Corridor, it will not take long for the foreign investors, international donors and private sector to step forward for transforming the initiative game-changer for Pakistan.”

In my view, this is a real challenge that needs to be addressed by our national leadership on a priority basis to ensure that the Gandhara Corridor must be announced today, not tomorrow, to promote interfaith harmony, tolerance, international connectivity, soft image, eliminate terrorism and boost our national economy.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council. He tweets/posts @RVankwani.