Explained: Why does Pakistan want to charge each Sikh pilgrim to Kartarpur Rs 1,400?

Kanchan Vasdev
Labourers work at the sites of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, which will be open this year for Indian Sikh pilgrims, in Kartarpur, Pakistan. (Photo: Reuters)

India and Pakistan on Thursday signed an agreement on the Kartarpur corridor, which Indian pilgrims would be able to use to visit Darbar Sahib, the shrine of Guru Nanak Dev in Kartarpur, without a Pakistani visa.

About two weeks before the first jatha of pilgrims from India travels to Kartarpur Sahib, about 4 km across the International Border, however, there has been no progress on resolving the disagreement over a $20 fee that Pakistan intends to levy on each traveller.

India has been asking Pakistan to waive the $20 fee -- however, Mohammad Faisal, Foreign Office spokesperson and DG (South Asia and SAARC), who signed the agreement for Pakistan, insisted Thursday that the fee was "very nominal".

So, why has Pakistan decided to make Indian pilgrims pay to visit a shrine revered by millions?

Pakistan has spent about Rs 1,000 crore on the Kartarpur corridor infrastructure. It would be providing langar to the pilgrims who visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib. It would also be providing e-rickshaws to ferry the pilgrims from Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side.

"Under the agreement, Pakistan will charge a very nominal USD 20 from every Indian Sikh pilgrim for a single trip," Faisal said on Thursday. "In the face of huge expenses, this amount is very nominal," he said. "Come and see, this (gurdwara) is a miraculous thing."

How has the Pakistani insistence on the fee played out in Punjab?

Pakistan has made the levy a part of the Memorandum of Understanding that the two countries have signed. The fee has triggered a political controversy within India, and Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh has called the fee a "jazia" tax on pilgrims.

Observers have pointed out that while Pakistan, as a sovereign country, has the right to impose a levy on the pilgrims, the fact that the fee has been made part of the formal agreement between the two countries means that any future increase or decrease of the fee would require another meeting between the two countries.

Does this mean that every Indian pilgrim has to arrange for Rs 1,400 ($20) before they visit Kartarpur Sahib?

After SAD leader and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal asked the Punjab Chief Minister to pay the pilgrims' fee, Punjab Cabinet Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa made it clear that the state government could not do so. Subsequently, Congress MP Manish Tewari demanded that the central government bear the cost of the pilgrimage.

But why has the Punjab government refused?

The Punjab government faces a severe funds crunch. The corridor will remain open from dawn to dusk on all seven days of the week, and up to 5,000 pilgrims from India will travel to Pakistan and leave the same day. At the rate of about Rs 1,400 per pilgrim, the monetary burden of footing the bill for 5,000 pilgrims will come to Rs 70 lakh a day -- or more than Rs 265 crore annually.

Also, Pakistan has said that Indian pilgrims who enter Pakistan through the Kartarpur corridor will not be allowed to visit other gurdwaras in the Punjab province of that country. They would have to come via the normal route, after applying for a visa, and paying the requisite fees. Pilgrims who visit Nankana Sahib and other gurdwaras in Pakistan via the Wagah-Attari border have not complained about the visa fees.