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Quick Indian visa hope; low-cost risk

New Delhi, June 11: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will this month unveil its first major gift to Indians settled abroad and foreign investors — a policy that promises respite from the notorious delays in issuing Indian visas.

Visa processing agencies must issue visas or a clear rejection within 48 hours of submission of applications or face a heavy penalty under the new policy, senior officials have revealed.

But the private agencies will continue to be picked based primarily on their capacity to process visas at the lowest cost among competing firms — a practice that some argue fundamentally compromises on service quality.

The policy shift follows a barrage of complaints from individual visa applicants, influential Indian groups in the US, UK and Southeast Asia, and from dismayed foreign investors — sections whose goodwill Modi rode on to overturn the decade-long western boycott he faced.

The first steps towards a policy revamp began in the final days of the UPA government, officials said, but it is Modi’s government that will get to implement the change.

“You could call it a gift or you could call it a gesture with substance, but this move could single-handedly help India rebuild trust among both ordinary Indians and visitors and major investors,” a senior official said. Over 10 million people apply to visit India each year.

Over the past two years, India has outsourced visa processing to private agencies at over 100 missions across the world with the twin aims of freeing up diplomatic staff to focus on core diplomacy and to professionalise visa services to benefit applicants. But at key missions like India’s embassy and consulates in the US, several dozens of applicants lost their passports after submitting them to the appointed private agency.

“This is drastic, but that’s how bad things have become,” another official involved with the policy change said. “We realise the credibility of our diplomatic efforts to attract tourists and investors is at stake.”

India’s foreign office will launch the new policy at its missions in the UK, US and Poland this month and will phase it in at all other missions over the next few months, officials said.

According to documents detailing the new policy, private agencies that fail to return passports to applicants within 48 hours of their submission will be penalised the entire amount of fee they charge applicants for every day of delay.

A firm that, for instance, charges a processing fee of $5 per application, would be penalised $150 if it delayed returning passports by 30 days. This correspondent has spoken to at least a dozen US applicants who have suffered even bigger delays over the past six months.

The agency will need to submit the penalty fee to the mission. Individual ambassadors and high commissioners posted in each country will be allowed to decide the share of the penalty that the aggrieved applicant will receive. The remaining penalty will go into a community welfare fund.

But not everyone who has suffered seemingly indefinite delays in getting back passports is convinced that the new policy will end what many have described as harassment by visa processing agencies.

Some like Indian-origin Canadian national Sudarshan Rangaraj are convinced the problem afflicting India’s visa issuing system runs deeper — and is rooted in the continuing policy to pick the cheapest vendor among eligible candidates to process visas.

“These steps are good, and I don’t doubt the good intent behind them,” Rangaraj, an entrepreneur who had to cancel four meetings in India last year because of repeated delays in receiving his visa said. “But picking someone incompetent and penalising them doesn’t help. You need to pick someone who’s good — even if they cost a little more.”

But government officials contended that the minimum eligibility criteria for vendors rule out most fly-by-night operators, and that the new policy will discourage any firm unsure of its ability to offer services on time.