In what was described by Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar as the first step towards normalisation of relations with India, the long-pending visa agreement to ease travel was inked here on Saturday.
The agreement was signed by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Interior Minister Rehman Malik after the conclusion of the Foreign Minister-level engagement at the end of the second round of the resumed dialogue process. The new visa regime — the first major overhaul since 1974 — in particular eases travel restrictions for businessmen and introduces a new category of group tourism. Besides, persons aged above 65 will be issued visa on arrival.
The regime also mandates a time frame for issuing visas. From the earlier indefinite time taken to issue a visa, the two missions have now been tied down to a 45-day period for deciding on an application. Visas will continue to be city-specific, but now in place of three cities, applicants can hope to visit five in one visit. And now visitors can enter and exit the country from different checkpoints and change the mode of travel. Earlier, the port of entry and exit had to be the same, and the mode of transport could not be changed.
The agreement had been initialled in May during the Home/Interior Secretaries talks here, but the signing had been delayed as Pakistan wanted it to be done at the political level. This being the first ministerial engagement in either country since May, Mr. Krishna came authorised by the Cabinet Committee on Security to sign the agreement which, in effect, is the domain of the Home Minister.
Another significant decision taken by the Foreign Ministers pertained to the cross-Line of Control (LoC) confidence-building measures (CBMs). The cross-LoC travel will be expanded to include visits for tourism and pilgrimage. Such visits to designated sites will initially be from the Chakoti-Uri and Rawalakot-Poonch crossing points.
Both sides also agreed to extend assistance to valid entry permit-holders to cross the LoC in emergency situations on crossing as well as non-crossing days.
Like the visa agreement, the decisions on the cross-LoC travel are aimed at ensuring that people remain at the heart of the bilateral relationship, said the joint statement issued after the meeting.