India and Pakistan today signed the much-awaited liberalised visa agreement, introducing for the first time group tourist and pilgrim visas, separate visa for businessmen and visa on arrival for those over 65 years of age.
The new pact, signed between External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik, replaces a 38-year-old restrictive visa agreement and will pave the way for time-bound visa approval and greater people-to-people contacts and boost trade.
While there was no time-frame for issuance of non-diplomatic visas, the new pact says that visa has to be issued within a period of 45 days after filing the application.
Under the new regime, one can visit five places instead of the three at present and those above 65 years of age and children below 12 years of age and "eminent" businessmen are exempted from police reporting.
Under the category of Visitor visa, earlier only single entry visa for three months used to be issued for meeting relatives, friends, business or other legitimate purposes.
Moreover, visa could be only issued for longer period not exceeding one year depending on the nature of work or business.
Under the new pact, single entry visa is to be issued for six months but stay should not exceed three months at a time and five places.
Under a new Category II, a visitor visa for a maximum five specified places may be issued for a longer period, up to two years with multiple entries to senior citizens (those above 65 years), spouses of a national of one country married to a person of another country and children below 12 years of age accompanying parents as given earlier.
The new Group Tourist visa will be issued for not less than 10 people and not more than 50 people. This visa will be valid for 30 days and will have to be applied through tour operators, registered by the two governments.
The Group Tourist visa facility will also be available to students of educational institutions of both countries.
However, this will be a tourist visa only and not for seeking admission in educational institutions of either country.
There are two categories for Business visa.
Businessmen with an income of Pakistan Rupees half million or equivalent per annum or annual turnover/gross sale of Pakistan Rupees 3 million or equivalent will be given one year business visa, with five places for up to four entries.
In Category II, businessmen with an income of at least Pakistan Rupees 5 million or equivalent per annum or turnover of Pakistan Rupees 30 million or equivalent per annum will be given one year multiple entry business visas for upto ten places, with exemption from police reporting.
The visa shall specify that the period of stay of the businessman at a time shall not exceed 30 days. The maximum time taken in processing of a business visa will not exceed more than five weeks.
In what would be a real joy for people from both sides who want to visit religious places across the border, Pilgrim visas will be issued to those intending to visit religious shrines as per the 1974 Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines, or any future revision to the Protocol.
Such visas will need to be applied at least 45 days before the commencement of the intended tour. The visas will be issued at least ten days before the commencement of travel. These visas will be issued for a single entry, restricted to 15 days validity and would be non-extendable.
Under the new pact, persons of more than 65 years of age will be given visa on arrival at Attari/Wagha checkpost for 45 days. This visa will be non-extendable and non-convertible.
Earlier, people had to enter and exit through the same route and have to use the same mode of travel for onward and return journey. Exemptions were made on case to case basis.
However, under the new scheme, people can enter and exit from different check posts and change in mode of travel will also be permitted.
But this is subject to the exception that Exit from Wagha/Attari, by road (on Foot) cannot be accepted, unless the entry was also by foot via Attari/Wagha.
The checkpoints for those travelling by air has changed. While earlier, one could fly in at Mumbai, Delhi and Amritsar, under the new pact, one can fly in at Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.
With respect to police registration, the new pact says that bona fide businessmen, not in EPR (Exemption from police reporting) category, may depute their authorised representatives for reporting.
The new visa agreement was supposed to be signed in May during the Home/Interior Secretary-levels talks held here but got postponed after Pakistan said it wanted to sign it at political level.