Mirpur se Birmingham tak

A thrilling ride across continents

This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in the Indian Express.

For a mere $200 you get a 12-day, 6400 km “thrilling ride” across the English channel through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran before the journey–and perhaps your enthusiasm–ends at Mirpur, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

If the ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir transport minister’s plans come to fruition, Birmingham and Mirpur, two parts of the same city separated by distance but joined together by immigration, shall be connected by the world’s longest local bus route. Families will reunite more frequently. Nephews will find jobs more easily. Tourists who have plenty of accumulated annual leave will be able to spend $525 more on supporting the local economies instead of on air tickets.

It’s hard for many of us to get our minds around the idea of a bus that crosses a dozen national borders today. Yet, just over three decades ago, there were many intrepid travellers who could make the journey.

Between 1968 to 1976, Albert Tours operated a Sydney-Calcutta-London route, doing 15 overland trips in those years. I found an old brochure advertising departure from London’s Victoria terminus on July 25th 1972 and arrival at Calcutta’s Fairlawn Hotel on September 11th. You could experience “Banaras on the Ganges, The Taj Mahal, Afghan Tribesmen, The Khyber Pass, The Peacock Throne, Communist Bulgaria, The Blue Danube and the Golden Horn”, while enjoying shopping days in New Delhi, Tehran, Salzburg, Kabul, Istanbul and Vienna. Unscheduled adventures included having to “dig out a dry riverbed plus a piece of the mountain.” The fare for the journey of around seven weeks, including food and sundries was £145, which in those days was a lot of money.

Geopolitics put an end to those adventures. By the late-1970s, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup in Pakistan and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made it all but impossible for an ordinary passenger to innocently sit in a bus and get off at the next continent.

Violence, sanctions, travel restrictions and international suspicions cut off the Indian subcontinent from Europe since then. Hiram Warren Johnson, the US Republican politician who declared that truth is the first casualty of war was obviously wrong. It’s the bus route that suffers first. (Our own Atal Bihari Vajpayee thought starting a bus would end the war, with rather mixed results).

Is a trans-continental bus service from Birmingham to Mirpur feasible today? Three decades ago, the European leg had to traverse two geopolitical blocs. Today the entire stretch from the United Kingdom to the border with Turkey is within the European Union. It’s the journey from Turkey to Pakistan that is, to put it mildly, rocky. Turkey to Iran across restive Kurdish areas, Iran to Pakistan through a Balochistan under an insurgency and military occupation. Then through a Pakistan undergoing a political transformation under the shadow of severe violence.

While it may well be possible to squeeze past these conflicts, it is unclear if people will want to take the risk to save a few hundred dollars. Or, whether it will be possible to price the ticket at $200 after factoring in security risks. In any case, twelve days’s food, accommodation, transit fees and other administrative costs might already bring the fare close to that of a cheap air ticket. It is quite likely that the Pakistani politician allowed his excitement to get ahead of the business case.

Given the differences in purchasing power in Birmingham and Mirpur, the bus is likely to appeal more to those making the journey into the EU. Immigration authorities in the UK and elsewhere in the EU are likely to scrutinise visa applications a little more than they usually do. The security dimension adds to the economic one. Birmingham’s MP, a British politician of Pakistani origin, was putting it mildly when he suggested that “there could be a guarantee from the Pakistani government that there would be rigorous security checks.” A Pakistani government guarantee? On rigorous security checks? Seriously, now.

The idea of seamless overland connectivity across countries and continents is a good one. It is possible, for instance, to drive from northern Thailand, across Malaysia into Singapore. Even if few people actually drive down this route, international road connectivity has contributed to the economic development of South East Asia. China is plugging into South East Asian road networks by building good connections. India is late in the game and trying to build its own road links to the region. The ASEAN-India car rally, covering 7448 km from India to Indonesia is a showpiece of this effort (and has been scaled down due to budget cuts at the Ministry of External Affairs). There is sound economic, strategic and common sense in building good road connections.

It does not follow, though, that good overland connectivity must have an end-to-end bus route. The economics of bus routes might not hold up favourably compared to air, rail and sea transport for distances that span several thousand kilometres. Like the old Albert Tours, the journey will certainly appeal to those with the time, taste and money for adventure. It is unlikely to result in bringing Birmingham and Mirpur any closer together.

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