The $20 fee charged by Pakistan from pilgrims led to lukewarm response.

 

NEW DELHI :After an initial lukewarm response, the number of pilgrims to Kartarpur is increasing, especially during the weekends, following the Indian government taking steps to facilitate issuing passports. The Kartarpur Corridor was inaugurated on 9 November.

India and Pakistan had finally agreed that 5,000 pilgrims would be allowed to use the Kartarpur Corridor between the two countries every day. However, in the first 12 days since it opened, the total number of visitors to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib across the border could barely cross 3,000, the maximum being 562 on 9 November, the opening day.

Sources said a fee of $20 charged by Pakistan from the pilgrims and difficulty in obtaining passport are the major reasons for the lukewarm response. While the Indian side has been taking pro-active steps to facilitate obtaining the passports, the Indian government has also expressed its desire to amend the agreement, so that the $20 fee can be waived.

However, according to sources in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), gradually, the number of pilgrims is increasing, especially during the weekends. One of the major issues which the pilgrims are facing is the lack of passport, which is essential to visit the holy shrine. The Indian government has taken steps to facilitate obtaining the passport.

“Now, there are three passport offices in Punjab, five Passport Seva Kendras and six Post Office Passport Seva Kendras (POPSK) from where one can obtain the passport. Other than this, the MEA is opening a POPSK in Dera Baba Nanak. We have organised six passport camps because people said they face difficulties in obtaining passports and as per the bilateral agreement, passport is a requirement to visit and we have been trying to facilitate it,” an MEA official said.

On the issue of $20 service fee, which was imposed by Pakistan and which is also a reason for the lukewarm response, he said: “We have been requesting Pakistan to remove it. You know that Pakistan did not agree to it and we are requesting them to remove it. If they remove it, it will greatly help to ease the restrictions that some pilgrims are now facing,” he added.

An agreement between India and Pakistan for the facilitation of pilgrims to visit Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, Narowal, Pakistan, was signed on 24 October in order to fulfil the long-standing demand of the pilgrims to have easy and smooth access to the holy Gurudwara and operationalise the corridor in time for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. The agreement provides for visa-free travel of Indian pilgrims as well as Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders, from India to Kartarpur in Pakistan on a daily basis, throughout the year.

India has consistently urged Pakistan that in deference to the wishes of the pilgrims, it should not levy any fee or charge on the pilgrims visiting Kartarpur through the Corridor. India, he said, remains ready to amend the agreement, accordingly. Pakistan, however, continues to levy $20 on every pilgrim for each visit.

To facilitate the visit of pilgrims, state-of-the-art infrastructure, including a highway from the town of Dera Baba Nanak to Zero Point and an Integrated Check Post (ICP), have been built on the Indian side.

Even as India is taking steps to facilitate the process of obtaining the passport, there have been demands to waive the requirement and to replace it with Aadhaar card.

A pilgrim has to apply online for permission to travel through the corridor. The application seeks passport, Aadhaar and Pan Card details. Since the verification process, which involves correspondence between India and Pakistan, takes almost 10 days, applicants are given a date of travel almost a fortnight after the date of application.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal urged the removal of the passport clause and the police verification process. “Lakhs of Sikh pilgrims wanted to visit Kartarpur Sahib, but the cumbersome procedure coupled with the requirement of passports was coming in the way of their pilgrimage to the holy site. Instead of 5,000 pilgrims slated to visit Kartarpur Sahib, the figure is in a few hundred as a majority of devotees who want to go on the pilgrimage do not have passports,” Badal wrote.

“Making a passport is a time-consuming and expensive proposition with an expenditure of nearly Rs 2,000 per person. Since devotees are likely to travel as family units, this puts a heavy financial burden of Rs 10,000 per family as passport expenses,” he wrote, adding that along with the service charge of $20, the total cost would come to over Rs 20,000 per family.

Badal suggested that pilgrims should be allowed to give identity proof like Aadhaar cards instead of passports. He also said a mobile application can be introduced and special counters created for registration.

The  six-kilometre-long corridor connects Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district of India to Kartarpur in Narowal district of Pakistan, which is home to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, where Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last years of his life. The corridor was inaugurated by both countries on 9 November with Prime Minister Modi being a part of the opening ceremony at Dera Baba Nanak and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan at Kartarpur. A VIP delegation led by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had visited the Gurudwara on the opening day.

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