Vol. 5 Num 574 Fri. January 06, 2006  

India, Pakistan begin talks on 2nd rail link
Pak consulate plan scuppered in Mumbai

India and Pakistan began talks yesterday to finalise a second rail link connecting the two countries as part of confidence building measures for an ongoing peace process, an Indian foreign ministry official said.

Railway officials from the two countries were to discuss visas, fares and passenger security for the train link between Munnabao in India's western state of Rajasthan and Khokhrapar in Pakistan's Sindh province, the official said.

Ahead of the talks, Pakistani officials said they were hopeful for a final agreement to begin the rail services.

"We hope to finalise the agreement. We have come with an open mind. This is another confidence building measure and we will be discussing the draft proposal for the movement of passengers," Saleem-ur-Rehman Akhoond, general manager of operations at Pakistan Railways, was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.

A year ago, the Samjhota (Concord) Express train began operating between Attari in India and Lahore in Pakistan.

The expansion of transport links is part of a slow-moving peace process between the fractious South Asian neighbours to ease long-standing tensions after they almost came to blows for the fourth time in 2002.

In Mumbai tenants of a high-rise office building in India's financial capital have stopped Pakistan from reopening a long-delayed consulate there, saying crowds of visa seekers would present a security threat.

Pakistan's foreign ministry rented a sprawling office in Mumbai's crowded main business district after India turned down Islamabad's long-standing demand to allow the use of a Mumbai house in which Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the Pakistani nation, lived before Pakistan was created in 1947.

The consulate was to reopen this month, but occupants of Mittal Chambers that houses several top private companies objected, say the building's security was not good enough to handle huge crowds.

"There is bound to be security problems. It will disturb the peace of the present occupants. So, we don't want the consulate here," said E.S.R. Khan, secretary of the building's tenants' association.

Pakistani officials said they were disappointed and expected New Delhi to find a solution.

"India didn't give us our property and now they wouldn't let us rent a space. What can we say? But something has to be done," said Rai Riyaz Ahmed, spokesman at the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi.

The move to reopen a consulate in Mumbai, and an Indian consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, is part of a slow peace process between the arch rivals that also aims to boost links between people of the two countries.

The missions are expected to make it easier for thousands of Indians and Pakistanis to get visas, who now have to travel to their respective capital cities for the purpose.

But the refusal of the Mumbai building is likely to delay the opening of the Indian consulate too as the two countries had agreed that they would start functioning simultaneously.

In 1994, Pakistan closed its consulate in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, after a city hotel refused to host Pakistan day celebrations.

Islamabad called it the last straw, saying there was already a history of non-cooperation by Indian officials. India reciprocated by shutting down its consulate in Karachi.