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'Visa pact will make Indo-Pak friendship unstoppable!'

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September 07, 2012 15:36 IST's Sheela Bhatt, who is travelling with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on his tour of Pakistan, examines the relevance of the visa agreement that is bound to have significant impact on the relations between the countries

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has arrived in Islamabad for a three day visit during which he will be signing the long-brewing visa agreement.

The visa agreement, which will be signed in a few hours from now, will bring cheers in thousands of families in both countries.

The frequent travellers, who till now had to go through the torturous visa seeking exercise for a journey across the border, will find the agreement one of the biggest confidence building measures ever taken between two countries.

The agreement will help corporate honchos on both sides in a big way. It will also open up the tourism sector. The Murrey hill station and the archeological site of Taxila in the Rawalpindi district of Pakistan's Punjab province will be within the reach of Indian tourists if the visa agreement is implemented. While old travellers will be given visa on arrival, children and women will get favoured treatment.

Visa restrictions around the world are a sign of security phobia. Britain and the United States imposed stringent rules after the World Trade Centre attack in 1993, to allow people to enter their country.

In view of the West's paranoia, the signing of the visa agreement shows increased confidence levels.

Given the history of distrust and animosity, the signing of the agreement between India and Pakistan will be watched closely and reviewed by the respective governments and policy hawks on both sides.

Many in New Delhi believe that, in reality, the visa regime may not change much because the discretion is always there. The rejection of visa to Praveen Swamy, a distinguished journalist representing The Hindu, is an instance. However, small steps are significant when the two countries have fought three wars and had gone through a bloody conflict in Kargil.

Upon his arrival, Krishna said, "The leadership of India and Pakistan have mandated building of trust and confidence between our two countries. We are committed to finding solutions of all issues that have beset our relationship through peaceful bilateral dialogue, while we look to the future where our two countries are able to live together in an atmosphere of friendliness and all-round cooperation, free from terror and violence."

Certainly, both countries have travelled the long-crooked path to reach this level. Just four years back, it was unimaginable that a 65-years-old gentleman from Karachi could get a visa on touching Wagah border on Indian side.

Majyd Aziz, a businessman from Karachi, told, "The trade relation between India and Pakistan is unstoppable. Just see what miracles will happen once the visa agreement is signed."

Aziz, former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industries, has many business interests in Pakistan. He is the biggest coal importer in Pakistan.

Aziz, who wants businessmen to take the centre-stage, says: "The visa problem was one of the biggest hurdles between India and Pakistan."

There are more than 20 sectors on both sides who are waiting to expand their business interests.

Partha Sanyal, head of business development of Hindustan Petroleum-Mittal Energy Limited, says: "We want to sell petroleum products in Pakistan. We already have the office opened in Pakistan. Our only problem is getting visa for our business representatives."

HPCL-Mittal Energy has a refinery in Bhatinda. The pipeline from Mundra, Kutch to Bhatinda supplies crude oil to the refinery.

Currently, Pakistan imports crude oil from Karachi and sends it to Lahore 1,200 km away adding a cost of $40 per ton.

Sanyal adds, "If the visa regime is relaxed, HPCL-Mittal is all set to lay a pipeline from Bhatinda to Lahore, which is around 320 km. If the pipeline is laid from Bhatinda to the Indian border and further up to Lahore then transporting the crude oil will cost Pakistan $10 per ton (saving $30 on every ton)."

Aziz sums up, "Please write that the visa agreement will make the India-Pakistan friendship unstoppable!"

Sheela Bhatt in Islamabad