Indian and Pakistani officials on Wednesday reached an understanding on the visa-free travel of 5,000 Indian pilgrims every day to Darbar Sahib gurdwara via the Kartarpur Corridor but were unable to finalise a draft agreement, people familiar with developments said.
The agreement could not be finalised because of “certain differences on a few key issues”, said a person who declined to be named.
Pakistan insisted on charging a service fee for pilgrims visiting the gurdwara in Kartarpur, which was not “agreeable in the spirit of smooth and easy access through the corridor”, the person said.
The Pakistani side also showed unwillingness to allow the presence of Indian consular or protocol officials at the gurdwara and was urged to reconsider its position, the person added.
The understanding on the proposed movement of pilgrims was reached at the third round of talks between senior officials for finalising the modalities for operationalising the Kartarpur Corridor. The meeting was held against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the two sides at Attari on the Indian side of the international border.
“There was agreement on visa-free travel of Indian pilgrims, without any restrictions based on their faith. Persons of Indian origin holding OCI cards can also visit Darbar Sahib gurdwara using the corridor,” the person cited above said.
A total of 5,000 pilgrims can visit the gurdwara in Pakistan using the corridor every day, and additional pilgrims, over and above this figure, can visit the shrine on special occasions provided there is capacity expansion by the Pakistani side, the people said.
Pakistan also conveyed its “solemn commitment to increase this number to the maximum possible”, the people said without specifying the additional capacity.
The corridor will be operational throughout the year, seven days a week, and pilgrims will have the choice to visit as individuals or in groups, and on foot, the people said.
The two sides also agreed to build a bridge at Budhi Ravi Channel to facilitate the movement of people during the rainy season. Pending the construction of the bridge on the Pakistani side, both sides agreed on the crossing point coordinates of a temporary service road that is being built, the people said.
The two sides also agreed on emergency evacuation procedures, especially for medical emergencies. A direct line of communication between India’s Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers will be used for such emergencies.
A decision made at a meeting of technical experts on August 30 regarding sharing of details of pilgrims using the corridor was endorsed by both sides.
They also agreed on ensuring a “safe and secure environment” for the movement of pilgrims. “Pakistan has been requested, once again, to allow protocol officers from India to accompany pilgrims every day for facilitating their visit,” the person cited above said.
The Pakistani side further agreed to make sufficient provision for preparing and distributing ‘langar‘ and ‘prasad’ for pilgrims.
The people said significant progress has been made to build state-of-the-art infrastructure, including a passenger terminal on the Indian side that can handle more than 15,000 pilgrims a day. This infrastructure is expected to be completed by October.
Work on a four-lane highway up to the international border on the Indian side is on schedule and will be completed by the end of September. All facilities on Indian side will be ready for the pilgrimage through Kartarpur Corridor by the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, in November. Darbar Sahib gurdwara is built at the site where Guru Nanak spent the last years of his life.