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Lack of paper stalls showcase PIO scheme

- Babus too jittery to import advance supplies before falling rupee raised costs

New Delhi, July 14: Bureaucratic myopia has stalled India’s most popular initiative targeting its diaspora, leaving nearly 50,000 members of this increasingly influential community waiting indefinitely for promised benefits and undermining Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to deepen New Delhi’s engagement with them.

India’s sole printing press authorised to print the identity cards that award overseas Indian community members a lifetime visa and several other rights has been ratcheting up its backlog every day since April, virtually crippling the programme for the past three months.

The struggles at the Nashik press are a direct result of a shortage of the paper that goes into making the cards and new passports, a problem that an audit by the foreign office and the ministry of overseas Indian affairs suggests could have been avoided through better foresight.

Instead, India has had to tell its embassies and consulates across the world to warn those applying for the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards to hold back, multiple government officials have told The Telegraph.

Those who insist on applying are being told to stay prepared for an indefinite wait, the officials said.

“It’s a crisis of our own making, and it’s hurting the single biggest success we have had in our outreach to the Indian diaspora in decades,” said a senior diplomat. “If we don’t resolve such problems more efficiently, we risk losing some of the goodwill we’ve earned.”

The OCI scheme was launched in 2005 by the Manmohan Singh government amid growing demands that India allow dual citizenship. Although OCI cardholders do not enjoy Indian citizenship, they gain a series of benefits not available to other foreign nationals.

Cardholders don’t need to apply for Indian visas ever again: they enjoy an automatic multiple-entry, multiple-purpose visa. OCI holders, who need to demonstrate that at least one parent or grandparent was or is of Indian origin, are also exempt from several taxes applicable to foreigners.

They don’t need to register with the Foreign Regional Registration Officer, as is otherwise mandatory for foreign nationals in India. They can practise medicine, law, architecture and chartered accountancy in India, which foreigners are otherwise not allowed to do.

For India, the scheme represents a key tool to tug at the heartstrings of its diaspora by offering them attractive opportunities to invest time or money or both in the country of their origin.

Over the past decade, India has also increasingly relied on key Indian-origin lobbyists in countries ranging from the US and the UK to the Caribbean islands and Southeast Asia to strengthen ties with the countries they live in. Modi, both during his election campaign and after taking office, has spoken of a desire to further strengthen those bonds.

The OCI scheme, Indian officials argue, is a proven success. Over 14 lakh Indian-origin foreign nationals have already secured OCI cards.

But the delays over the past three months have left many, like Chicago-based financial analyst Rajesh Nallapati, frustrated and bugged by the question whether applying for an OCI was worth the effort.

Nallapati, who secured an OCI card for his wife and himself two years ago, had applied for a card for his two-year-old son late in March. The card would help the family travel back and forth between Chicago and Hyderabad, where Nallapati’s parents live.

He has spent the past four months booking and cancelling tickets as the OCI card application for his son has got delayed again and again.

“I’ve been told four times that I’ll get the card within a week. Each time I’ve only had to wait longer,” Nallapati said from Chicago.

“I thought the idea of the OCI card was to make connecting with India easier for people like us. Instead, the delays have just made it more confounding.”

The number of pending OCI applications that are already at least three months late is nudging 50,000, a senior official at the overseas Indian affairs ministry said, calling the delays “unforgivable”.

What the internal audit of the foreign ministry and the overseas Indians ministry concludes as even more unforgivable, though, is that the delays could very simply have been avoided.

In late 2013, officials involved with India’s passport-issuing mechanism had warned the government that the then slipping value of the rupee against the dollar would render the import of supplies needed at the high-security Nashik press more expensive.

“All that was needed was to purchase the supplies before the costs spiralled beyond our budget,” an official involved in the evaluation of the crisis said.

But with Lok Sabha elections coming up, purchasing advance supplies for the printing press — a decision that could potentially be questioned by a new government if the imports were deemed not necessary — was not a risk key government officials were ready to take.

Instead, the official involved in the audit said, the government hoped that costs would come down. They didn’t, the budget was exceeded, and officials had no choice but to wait for last week’s budget to arm themselves with the resources needed for the supplies.

“The red flags were there,” the official said. “But no one took them seriously enough.”