New Delhi: India and Pakistan are poised to adopt a more liberal visa regime with particular focus on the business community, adding to recent attempts by both countries to reduce the decades-long trust deficit between them.
Both countries have, in a joint draft, agreed to calibrate the easing of norms to the size of the business, with larger firms entitled to more relaxed rules. This includes multiple entries, freedom to travel to five cities and withdrawal of the rule that requires visitors to report to the local police station.
The move is significant since it will enable more people-to-people contact between the neighbours, which have fought three wars against each other since partition and independence in 1947. It will also spur ongoing efforts to reduce tensions in South Asia at a time when the region is witnessing unprecedented growth.
The move also builds on the momentum generated by Pakistan’s decision to give India the most-favoured nation (MFN) status, 15 years after India had granted this special trade facility to its neighbour.
Privileges for businesses
According to the proposed norms, businesses with a turnover exceeding 50 lakh Pakistani rupees will be classified as a large enterprise.
“They (those who work for such businesses) no longer have to go to a police station after arriving in a city,” said a high-ranking Indian government official on condition of anonymity as he’s not authorized to talk to the media. They will also be able to stay longer and be entitled to more entries than those who belong to smaller businesses.
Small businessmen visiting India currently don’t have to make personal visits to the local police station, but these need to be made instead by local associates or the organization that has invited the person to the country, the official said. This requirement will be scrapped under the draft norms.
Non-business visitors from either country will still need to report to the local police station. Around 50,000 Pakistanis and 40,000 Indians cross the border every year.
The proposed rules will enable businesses in both countries to take greater advantage of the MFN status granted to India earlier this month. India granted MFN status to Pakistan in 1996.
Trade between the neighbours was $2.6 billion (around Rs 13,160 crore today) in the year ended March and is projected to grow nearly threefold in the next five years. While India principally buys cement from Pakistan, the latter’s focus is on tea, chillies, soya and potatoes.
All travellers will need to inform the destination country about their itinerary in advance.
“The biggest advantage for them is that they can now travel to up to five cities,” said the official cited above. “Earlier, people were given visas for only three cities.”
India had initiated the move to liberalize visa norms at a meeting in New Delhi between home ministry officials of both countries on 29 March. A joint working group met in New Delhi and Islamabad to reach a consensus on the draft visa norms.
After both nations give their formal assent, the agreement is likely to be signed at a meeting between the home secretaries in Islamabad in December.
A second official, who also did not want to be named, said both countries have decided to encourage group tourism.
“People travelling in groups would be encouraged. Both sides will identify tour operators and nominate them. The onus of security and other issues would then rest on these tour operators,” the official said.
Entry and exit points as well as the mode of travel norms will also be relaxed for all travellers. For instance, someone who flies into Delhi can choose to leave from Amritsar by bus.
“People would be able to exit from another city, if they intimate this while applying for the visa,” the official said. Currently, travellers need to leave the same way they came.
India rejected a proposal by Pakistan to limit the number of pilgrimage visas.
“Pakistan wanted the same number of pilgrimage visas (to be) given by both countries, but India shot it down saying its population is many times that of Pakistan. So India would require more visas for its pilgrims,” the official said.