Two bus routes and a few questions

B. Muralidhar Reddy

TWO SEPARATE agreements between India and Pakistan on Wednesday to provide bus services connecting Amritsar with Nankana Sahib (birthplace of Guru Nanak) and Lahore came as great news for the people of Punjab on either side of the divide.

The general expectation during the third round of technical level talks between officials of the two countries at Lahore was that the agreement on a Lahore-Amritsar bus service would be sealed and the talks on Nankana Sahib-Amritsar service would spill over to at least another session. But both materialised in one meeting.

With this, the number of bus services between the two countries will increase to four. At present, buses ply between Delhi and Lahore, and Muzaffarabad and Srinagar. The Samjauta Express connects the two countries by train, and Lahore, Delhi, Karachi, and Mumbai are linked by air.

The developments reflect the desire of the leadership of both the countries to forge a new era in promoting people-to-people contacts. But to make the new services meaningful and truly people-oriented, the two Governments need to take a look at the fare structure and ensure visas are made available easily.

The bus fares for the new services have taken away the charm of the bonhomie generated by the confidence-building measures (CBMs). The one-way fare of Pakistani Rs.900 and Indian Rs.750 for the less than 45 km travel between Amritsar and Lahore, and of Pakistani Rs.1200 and Indian Rs.1000 for the just over 100 km Amritsar-Nankana Sahib route — essentially meant for Sikh pilgrims — smack of an anti-poor mindset.

In contrast, the fare on the Samjauta Express that runs between Lahore and Wagah (less than 20 km from Amritsar) is Pakistani Rs.50 and Indian Rs.35. The official position on the tariff is that it is justified because it involves international travel.

Another issue pertains to visas. There have been demands on both sides for either consulates or visa camp offices in Lahore and Amritsar to help people obtain visas. At present, a person wishing to travel from Amritsar to Lahore and vice-versa has to travel all the way to New Delhi and Islamabad to get his or her visa.

So far, there is no proposal for visa facilities in Lahore, Amritsar or other cities. In the next few days, India and Pakistan will have their consulates in Karachi and Mumbai. They will be reopened after a gap of 11 years.

However, not much has been done on the liberalisation of the visa regime. In a majority of cases, visas are granted to only those who have relatives or friends with a verifiable address. Any person, irrespective of the status, intending to visit either India or Pakistan for the first time, is entirely at the mercy of the intelligence agencies for clearance.

If both sides are serious about promotion of people-to-people contacts, a liberalised visa regime is a must. Even if Pakistan is not ready for a liberalised visa regime, India should take the lead.

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