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India, Pak agree on visa-free travel by Kartarpur pilgrims

Last updated on: September 05, 2019 00:38 IST

India and Pakistan on Wednesday agreed on visa-free travel by Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib using the Kartarpur corridor but stopped short of finalising an agreement on the cross-border route, officials said.

Pakistan will allow 5,000 Indian pilgrims to visit the gurdwara every day using the planned corridor, and the numbers could be more on special occasions.

But the two sides could not finalise the draft agreement on the corridor, with Pakistan insisting on charging a service fee from Indian pilgrims and not allowing protocol officials to accompany them.

 

"Owing to inflexibility, persistent inflexibility shown by Pakistan, the agreement fell short of finalisation today," said S C L Das, Joint Secretary with the Ministry of Home Affairs who led the Indian delegation.

He hoped Pakistan will reconsider its position on the two 'genuine demands'. Another meeting is planned.

In Lahore, Pakistan delegation leader Mohammad Faisal also said India will have to show 'a little flexibility'.

"Two or three points of the draft agreement are left to be agreed upon as there has been consensus on the remaining ones," Faisal, who is also the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson, said.

Persons of Indian origin holding OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) card too can visit the gurdwara using the Kartarpur corridor, officials said.

The two sides agreed that additional pilgrims will be allowed on special occasions like Baisakhi, subject to the expansion of facilities by the Pakistan side.

Entry will be on the basis of cards given out to the pilgrim, Faisal said.

"According to the agreement, over 5,000 Sikh yatris are set to visit Kartarpur daily. However, if the number of visitors exceeds this, we will welcome all of them," he said.

In November 2018, India and Pakistan had agreed to set up the border crossing linking Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, the final resting place of Sikh faith founder Guru Nanak, to Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district.

Kartarpur is located in Pakistan's Narowal district across the Ravi river, about four kilometres from Dera Baba Nanak.

"The corridor will be operational throughout the year, seven days a week. Pilgrims will have a choice to visit as individuals or in groups, and on foot," Das said after the meeting, the third round of talks on the corridor at the joint secretary level.

Officials said Pakistan has suggested a fee of USD 20 per pilgrim for visiting the gurdwara.

"The issue is not of an amount or that we do not have the paying capacity. On auspicious occasions, no fee is charged for visiting any gurdwara in the world," Das told reporters.

On Twitter later, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh called the Pakistan demand "disgraceful".

Both sides agreed to build a bridge at Budhi Ravi channel.

Pending the construction of the bridge on the Pakistan side, both sides agreed on the crossing- point coordinates of the temporary service road, sources said.

Faisal said 90 per cent work on the corridor has been completed on the Pakistani side and the country will open it to visitors next month.

Before leaving for the talks with about 20 other officials, Faisal said, "Pakistan has decided to open the corridor on the wishes of the Sikh community. Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken the initiative for the minority community of India.”

This was the second meeting on the Kartarpur corridor after New Delhi revoked Jammu and Kashmir's special status, triggering fresh tension between the two neighbours.

Technical experts from the two countries met on August 30.

The two sides plan to open the corridor before the year-long celebrations to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak begin in November.

Indian officials said a state of the art passenger terminal, which can accommodate up to 15,000 pilgrims, will be completed by October 31.

Das expressed satisfaction over the work on a four-lane highway to Dera Baba Nanak, saying it will be completed by the end of this month.

India again raised the issue of safety and security of Indian pilgrims.

The delegation expressed concern over Pakistan-based individuals or organisations that could disrupt the pilgrimage or use the opportunity to play with the sentiments of the visitors, officials said.

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