The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tourist visa on Pak talks table
- Proposal to lift TV ban; Invite to poll panel chief for ‘free & fair’ tips

New Delhi, Aug. 3: Shedding years of reluctance, India and Pakistan are likely to start issuing tourist visas to each others’ citizens. The move is likely to increase people-to-people contact and boost tourism in South Asia.

The proposal, which came up for discussion today, is being mulled over by both sides. Indications are tourist visas may be issued only to groups and not individuals to begin with and for a period of 14 days.

India and Pakistan began talks this morning on promotion of friendly exchanges between the countries. The two-day talks, headed by Indian culture secretary Neena Ranjan and Pakistan counterpart Jalil Abbas, are part of the composite dialogue that the two sides began in June this year.

A number of other proposals were also put on the table, including lifting the Pakistani ban on Indian TV channels, newspapers and periodicals. “The ban is on both sides. And (lifting) it will take its own due course,” Abbas said.

India also suggested that efforts be renewed to trace and free 54 prisoners of war believed to be languishing in Pakistani jails for decades. The two sides spoke about bringing changes in protocol to give consular access to officials to more jails in which civilian prisoners are kept.

There were suggestions to hold book fairs, film festivals and engagements between educational institutions of the two countries.

Unlike other countries, India and Pakistan do not give tourist visas to each others’ nationals. But there are a number of other categories under which visas are given — officials and diplomats, journalists, artistes, religious pilgrims, members of divided families — under the existing regime.

A large number of people were given visas earlier this year to visit Pakistan when the Indo-Pak cricket series was held. Though some travel agents managed to sell packages that included travel and sightseeing, tourist trade between the two countries is almost non-existent. But this does not mean that there are no takers in India and Pakistan to travel to the other country.

At the moment, the proposal is to give tourist visas to groups to visit specific cities. If all goes well and the tourist trade picks up, the visa period and number of cities may be increased. There are indications that the number of visas given to pilgrims may be increased from 3,000 to 5,000.

Suggestions have also been made to liberalise the existing visa regime so that artistes, cultural troupes, businessmen, students and journalists from India and Pakistan could more easily visit each other’s country.

India also made an interesting proposal for an exchange of visits by the two chief election commissioners. It is not clear how Pervez Musharraf — who claimed he got the support of over 90 per cent Pakistani voters when he became President — will react.

But India invited the Pakistani chief election commissioner to Delhi to share the experiences of his Indian counterpart on how “ free and fair” elections in a democracy should be held.

The Election Commission in India has been singled out for praise in many parts of the world. Most of the appreciation is, however, done in private by the Pakistani people. The leadership in Islamabad has made no comment on how elections are conducted in India.

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