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India-Pakistan lift ban on each other’s airlines

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Pakistan has opened its airspace for all Indian airlines on Tuesday morning. Pakistan had imposed the ban on Indian flights that were not allowed to use its airspace since the Balakot air strikes in February 2019. After progress in talks on Kartarpur corridor recently, the tension between two countries has lessened a little bit. But India has not softened its stand on terrorism and Pakistan. India made it clear that talks on Kartarpur corridor do not mean beginning of formal dialogue between both countries.

According to reports, after 140 days Pakistan lifted ban on its airspace imposed in the aftermath of Balakot airstrike on February 26, India has also lifted the ban on Pakistani airlines using India’s airspace. As soon as the two orders came into effect, normal air traffic has been resumed over South Asia.

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) at around 12.41 am Indian Standard Time, stating that with immediate effect Pakistan airspace is open for all type of civil traffic on published ATS (air traffic service) routes. Consequent to Pakistan issuing NOTAM India has also issued revised NOTAM immediately thereafter. The move is expected to give a major relief to Air India. The biggest pain was suffered by Air India that conducts various international flights from Delhi to Europe and the US. The national carrier had lost Rs 491 crore till July 2 due to the closure of the Pakistan airspace. Private airlines SpiceJet, IndiGo and GoAir lost Rs 30.73 crore, Rs 25.1 crore and Rs 2.1 crore, respectively, according to the data presented by Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in the Rajya Sabha on July 3.

After the air strike, Air India had to re-route, merge or suspend many of its international flights that connect India with European and US cities. IndiGo, India’s largest airline by domestic market share, was unable to start direct flights from Delhi to Istanbul due to the closure of the Pakistan airspace. The low-cost carrier started the Delhi-Istanbul flight in March. Till date, this IndiGo flight had to take the longer route over the Arabian Sea and make a stop at Doha in Qatar for refuelling.

It is remarkable that Pakistan had fully closed its airspace on February 26 after the Indian Air Force (IAF) struck a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist training camp in Balakot in retaliation to the Pulwama attack on February 14. Since then, the neighbouring country had only opened two routes, both of them passing through the southern region, of the total 11. IAF had announced on May 31 that all temporary restrictions imposed on the Indian airspace post the Balakot strike had been removed. However, it did not benefit most of the commercial airliners and they were waiting for Pakistan to fully open its airspace.

As per reports, Pakistan has permitted all airlines to fly through its airspace from around 12.41 am today. Indian airline operators will start using normal routes through Pakistan airspace soon.

Kartarpur corridor a positive step

According to a senior Pakistani official, Pakistan and India agreed 80 per cent and beyond on the draft agreement and operationalisation of the landmark Kartarpur corridor. The two countries held a marathon meeting at Wagah border recently.

The corridor will connect Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartarpur with Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district. It will facilitate visa-free movement of Indian Sikh pilgrims, who will have to just obtain a permit to visit Kartarpur Sahib, which was established in 1522 by Sikh faith founder Guru Nanak Dev. Kartarpur Sahib is located in Pakistan’s Narowal district across the river Ravi, about 4 km from the Dera Baba Nanak shrine.

Briefing the media at Wagah after about four hours long second round of talks on Sunday, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Mohammad Faisal said there has been positive progress in the corridor talks. There are positive developments… Both countries have agreed 80 per cent and beyond regarding the Kartarpur corridor agreement. He said that the two sides would resolve the remaining 20 per cent issues in the next meeting. When asked about the joint statement, Faisal said, “Until we agree on the final draft, we cannot share. On unresolved issues, we think we will have to have another sitting.” Replying to a question about how many Sikhs will be issued permit at the opening of the corridor in November, he said: “It may be 5,000 or 8,000…I cannot give the exact number. This has to be decided yet.” Faisal, who is also the Director General of South Asia and SAARC, further said that Pakistan has planted a sapling of peace. He said, “This is a corridor of peace and we have planted a sapling of peace.”

It is notable that the first round of talks was held in Attari on March 14, 2019 in the shadow of escalating bilateral tensions following the Pulwama terror attack by a suicide bomber of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed on February 14. The second round of talks, which were originally scheduled on April 2, was cancelled by India after Pakistan nominated Khalistani separatist like Gopal Singh Chawla in a 10-member Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhik Committee (PSGPC). India objected to the presence of the Khalistani separatists in the committee which would facilitate Sikh pilgrims after opening of the corridor. After this, Pakistan dropped Chawla from its team which paved the way for second round talks with India.

“Chawla has been removed from the Secretary-General post and he is no longer a member of the PSGPC. Chawla is also not part of the Pakistani delegation which is taking part in the second round of talks in Wagah,” a senior official of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) told agencies. The ETPB is a statutory board that manages religious properties and shrines of Hindus and Sikhs who had migrated to India following the partition. The official said the PSGPC Pardhan (president) Tara Singh has also been removed and the new election will be held soon to elect the new president and the secretary-general.

Pakistan is building the corridor from the Indian border to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib while the other part from Dera Baba Nanak up to the border will be constructed by India. Pakistan government has allotted Rs 100 crore in the federal budget 2019-20 for the development of the corridor. The funds will be used for land acquisition and development of infrastructure of Kartarpur under Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) for the next financial year 2019-20.

Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had on November 26 last year laid the foundation stone of the Kartarpur Corridor in Gurdaspur district. Two days later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone of the corridor in Narowal, 125-km from Lahore.

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