A bridge not too far

The recent announcement of the opening up of Kartarpur corridor is giving hope to many. The devout would be able to pay obeisance at the place where Guru Nanak lived with his family during the last years of his life and concretised his vision

Ravi Dhaliwal in Gurdaspur

For nearly 70 years, the 4-km Dera Baba Nanak-Kartarpur corridor seemed to be a bridge too far. This is no longer the case now with both Indian and Pakistani governments moving in a fast-forward mode to build the passage. It all started with a seemingly innocuous embrace of Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa by Punjab Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu during the latter’s visit to Lahore to attend his friend Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony as prime minister.

Old friendships die hard. Sidhu and Imran have known each other since their cricketing days. The bond was strengthened when the former scored 97 runs in the Sialkot Test match of 1989. Imran lauded his efforts publicly and marked beginning of their friendship, which  led to Khan initiating the process of opening the corridor. The Indian Government responded. Days after the Union Cabinet cleared the proposal, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu arrived in Dera Baba Nanak to lay the foundation stone.

Sidhu’s hug had re-ignited a debate on the opening of the passage. The debate was long dead because neither the Indian Army was interested in the construction of thoroughfare nor had Pakistan shown an inclination to facilitate the pilgrimage of Sikhs to the hallowed shrine where Guru Nanak died on September 22, 1539, after spending the last 18 years of his life there. The Kartarpur shrine is widely considered to be the first-ever gurdwara ever built.

The Rubicon has now been crossed and ceremonies held on both sides of the border. However, neither of the two governments has a design of the corridor, yet. People in the know say that things will come to a halt if a joint committee of India and Pakistan is not formed. Experts say that only a high-level committee can iron out the technicalities involved. Nobody knows whether the corridor will extensively be for pedestrians or for vehicles. During the foundation-laying event, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh had claimed that no visa will be required. A minister said Amarinder had made this announcement  after consultation with the Ministry of External Affairs.

Now, back to the design

The United Sikh Mission (USM), a non-profit US-based NGO, had prepared a drawing of the corridor in 2011 after sending top architects and engineers to the site. The maps have been lying with Amritsar MP Gurjit Singh Aujla, who is also a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. He proposes to raise the issue in the winter session of Parliament starting December 11.

“Many NGOs have been working behind the scenes to ensure that thoroughfare is established. It will not be a bad idea if both the governments follow this blueprint,” said Aujla.

“As the corridor has to pass through two waterways — the Ravi and a nullah — the blueprint proposes two 40-foot-wide multi-span structures, having similar designs and using the same material. This would ensure two lanes of traffic and a sidewalk on one side. A decorative metal railing would be provided on both sides of the bridges with light poles installed after every 100 feet. Two-wheelers will be allowed in the corridor,” he added.

However, peace is a pre-requisite to any corridor to be successful. “The corridor will be the first casualty if Pakistan does not stop sending state-sponsored actors into India. See what happened at Dinanagar in 2015 and at the Pathankot airbase in 2016. If such dastardly acts don’t come to a stop, the corridor will never be constructed. It will turn out to be a false dawn,” averred a top police officer. 

Dera Baba Nanak, having a population of just 6,500, is all set to have a makeover. Sitting MLA Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa has got sanctioned Rs 159 crore from the state government for development works. “The town has seen a lot of migration in the past seven decades. It is probably the only town in Punjab whose population has decreased. The proposed corridor will ensure that the town develops into a major religo-tourist hub. The street running through the main market will be declared a heritage street on the lines of the one that has come up near the Golden Temple,” he said.

The stakes are indeed high and everyone wants to have a finger in the pie. Delhi and Mumbai-based hoteliers are already eyeing the town. Prices of agricultural land have increased ever since the announcement to establish the passage has been made. “The rate for an acre was between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 20 lakh; it has now increased by 30 to 40 per cent. Real estate dealers too are keeping a watch in view of the expected massive footfall. Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Batala-based hoteliers are in the process of opening offices in Dera Baba Nanak. They will provide free transport facilities to the pilgrims,” said Davinder Pal Singh Bedi, a local resident. 

Nakodar MLA Gurpartap Singh Wadala wants the corridor to be named after his late father and former legislator Kuldeep Singh Wadala. “From 2001 to 2018, my father held ardaas in Dera Baba Nanak every month to ensure that the road to Kartarpur was opened. He had also started Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib (Ravi) Darshan Abhilashi Sanstha, a voluntary organisation, which formed public opinion for the corridor.”

Notwithstanding the fact that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, there are many doubting Thomases too. “If the thoroughfare comes up, Pakistani infrastructure will come up right upto the Indian border. This can then be used by Pakistan to push its separatist agenda. Gurdwaras in Pakistan are known to fan pro-Khalistani flames. We cannot take risk,” said an Army officer.

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