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Land Links Between India, Pakistan Seen Also as Increasing Chance for Peace

Indian and Pakistani officials have finalized plans for a railroad service between the two countries. With a start date of February 1, it will be the latest in a series of cross-border transportation links opened since the two countries embarked on a peace process last year. The growing travel links are keeping the peace process alive.

The train service will connect Munabao, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, with Khokrapar, a border village in Southern Pakistan's Sindh Province.

Officials of the two countries met in New Delhi this week to finalize visa and custom arrangements.

India has already built a gleaming new station in Rajasthan, and Pakistan has made similar preparations.

The Munabao-Khokrapar service was stopped in 1965, when India and Pakistan went to war over the divided region of Kashmir, and fighter jets bombed the tracks.

It is among a series of cross-border links being restored after decades of closure. In April last year, a cross-border bus service was started between the divided parts of Kashmir. Later this month, a new bus service will link Amritsar, on the Indian side of the divided state of Punjab, with Lahore on the Pakistani side. Another service is planned between Amritsar and a popular Sikh pilgrimage site in Pakistan.

A security expert at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, C. Rajamohan, says these links are slowly changing the character of the Indo-Pakistani border.

"The Indo-Pak border had closed up and pre-existing, historic contacts which were alive till the early '60s - across Punjab, across Sindh, across Rajasthan and in Kashmir - all these got completely disconnected," said Mr. Rajamohan. "Today, the opening up of different travel routes, I think, are going to bring people together across the border, and it will facilitate the economy of the people living in the border regions."

There has been popular demand for these travel links in both countries, where families divided by the 1947 partition of what was British India have been desperate to meet each other.

But the benefits have not been confined to repairing broken family bonds. In the past year, tens of thousands of ordinary people have traveled to the other side, curious to see what was on the other side.

Among them is a Delhi University student, Saurabh Sachdeva, who visited Pakistan along with a group of students on a bus that runs between Delhi and Lahore. He says the visit removed many misperceptions, and convinced him of the need for the two countries to put an end to decades-old hostilities.

"Before going I had a couple of myths in my mind, I was not too sure how people in Pakistan will behave with me, but it was totally different," said Saurabh Sachdeva. "They were very warm, I could relate to them very easily, food, habits, culture, everything was so similar, and they had no grudge against any of the Indians coming."

Analysts say the restoration of travel links is helping to build popular support for the peace process.

Mr. Rajamohan says increased interaction among ordinary people will facilitate the task of negotiating a solution to the dispute over Kashmir, which is claimed by both countries.

"The whole purpose is that if these confidence building measures generate an atmosphere of trust, then I think it will become much easier to tackle the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir," he said.

The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan are scheduled to hold another round of peace talks, starting January 17 in New Delhi.