New Delhi: India on Monday cleared the decks for pilgrims to visit the Darbar Sahib Gurdwara in Kartarpur in Pakistan’s Narowal district, saying it would sign a pact with Pakistan to enable the movement of devotees on 23 October.

This comes despite Pakistan refusing to waive a $20 service fee that New Delhi had said was one of the impediments in the way of signing the pact. News reports quoting home ministry officials said on Sunday that registration of Indian pilgrims, which was to start on Sunday had been delayed.

New Delhi is signing the pact to respect the religious sentiments of India’s Sikh community who had expressed a wish to visit the Darbar Sahib Gurdwara in time for celebrations to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on 12 November, India’s foreign ministry said.

“In view of the long pending demand of the pilgrims to have visa free access to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib and in the interest of operationalization of the corridor in time ... the government has today (Monday) conveyed that we would be ready to sign the agreement on Kartarpur Sahib Corridor on 23 October 2019," the ministry said.

“While agreeing to sign the agreement, the government of Pakistan has been once again urged to reconsider its insistence to levy service fee on pilgrims. India would be ready to amend the agreement accordingly at any time," it said.

“It is a matter of disappointment that while understanding has been reached on most of the elements for facilitating the visit of pilgrims from India, Pakistan continues to insist on levying a service fee of $20 per pilgrim per visit. The Indian government has consistently urged Pakistan that in deference to the wishes of pilgrims it should not levy such a fee," it said.

“Imposing a service fee will limit the number of pilgrims who want to visit Pakistan and this in turn will hurt sentiments," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “This is a religious programme and the charge levied is not a visa fee but a service charge", which could have been done away with, he said.

The proposed corridor will connect Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district of Punjab and facilitate visa-free movement of Indian pilgrims, who will have to just obtain a permit to cross into Pakistan.

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