India, Pakistan to hold talks on liberalising visa regime

November 14th, 2008 - 6:00 pm ICT by IANS  

Islamabad, Nov 14 (IANS) Top officials from the interior ministries of Pakistan and India will meet here Nov 25 to discuss liberalizing their visa regime, as also issues related to counter-terrorism and counsellor access to prisoners in each other’s country.Indian Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta will reach Lahore Nov 24 from where he will come to Islamabad the next morning for bilateral talks with his Pakistani counterpart Syed Kamal Shah, an official of the interior minister said.

The official said that the talks will mainly focus on liberalizing the visa regime and making the process simpler for applicants especially for pilgrims, journalists, students, academics and senior citizens aged over 65.

The Pakistani side will also brief the Indian delegation on the renovation work on the sixth century Katasraj Temple in Punjab province on which the government is estimated to be spending some Rs.20 million in three phases.

Katasraj Temple is counted among the holiest of Hindu shrines, and Pakistani officials expect that more than a million pilgrims from India and other countries would be visiting it annually once the complex is fully renovated.

The official told IANS that the Pakistani government is keen on making the visa process easier for pilgrims visiting Hindu and Sikh holy places in this country. He said that presently about 10,000 Sikhs were in Pakistan to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

Pakistan is set to propose eliminating the mandatory police reporting for pilgrims and would be proposing multiple entry visas for the business community. However, the official said that India has conditioned such visas on being granted MFN (most favoured nation) status Pakistan.

India has already granted MFN status to Pakistan, which says that the step will only benefit India in increasing its exports while Pakistani businessmen will get no benefits from such a status.

The official said that India, at a previous meeting, had suggested transit visas for each other’s national but Pakistan objected to this as it would create “more complications.”

“We don’t want to jump ahead. We first need to build trust by abolishing the police reporting and making the visa process simpler,” the official said.

Pakistani and India citizens have to report on arrival to the police in each other’s country and are issued city-specific visas and not for the entire country. Recently, Pakistani singer Hadiqa Kiani was deported from Mumbai as she had been issued a visa only for New Delhi.

Both the countries also have a dispute over entry points. Pakistan wants Amritsar to be added to the existing entry points list while India has rejected this proposal.

According to interior ministry officials, both the sides would also discuss transit trade between India and Afghanistan through the Wagah border in Punjab. Presently only trucks carrying fresh fruit and emergency aid are allowed till the border, where they have to shift the goods from Indian trucks to Pakistani trucks that carry them to Afghanistan.

Likewise, the Pakistani trucks are not allowed to cross the border and porters walk across the no-man’s zone to hand over the goods to the other country’s porters for loading them on Indian trucks.

“In our proposals in 2006, we suggested that the trucks be allowed to travel to their final destination but it wasn’t agreed to by India. We plan to take up this issue again,” said the official.

The two sides will also take up issues like exchange of civilian prisoners, human trafficking, illegal immigration and measures to prevent the circulation of counterfeit currency.

The talks will be part of the fifth round of the composite dialogue process launched four years ago. The parleys will precede the meeting of the interior secretaries and interior ministers of the SAARC countries scheduled to be held in Islamabad Nov 26-27.

The interior secretaries of India and Pakistan had last met in New Delhi in July 2007 and discussed drafts of the revised visa and consular access agreements that were aimed at liberalising and making existing provisions more effective.

The two countries are also working on a memorandum of understanding between the Anti-Narcotics Force of Pakistan and the Narcotics Control Bureau of India to make existing cooperation more effective.

The issues in the eight-point agenda under the composite dialogue process are terrorism, drug trafficking, military standoff on Siachen glacier, Tulbul navigation project-Wullar barrage, Sir Creek boundary dispute, economic and commercial cooperation, peace and security and Kashmir.

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