Parting after passport pain

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  • Published 15.01.14
The Indian consulate in New York

New Delhi, Jan. 14: Management consultant Jim Gardner has travelled more than 700km back and forth between his suburban Boston home and New York, desperate to pick up Indian visas he hasn’t received for a Christmas family trip that never materialised but has already cost him over $5,000 (Rs 3.07 lakh).

Gardner now just wants the New Delhi-headquartered agency to return the three passports the firm’s New York office had accepted from him on November 20.

He’ll count himself lucky if he gets the passports back.

BLS International, the agency recruited by India to process applications for visas in the US and 18 other countries, has lost at least 45 passports of Indian and foreign nationals since July 1, 2013, a review by the external affairs ministry has revealed. Since mid-2013, the agency has been handling visa applications for the Indian embassy and five other consulates across the US.

The ministry, India’s Washington embassy and consulates in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta have also received hundreds of other complaints of lost and delayed passports — in some cases by over six months — according to information collected independently by The Telegraph. The scale of the loss of passports is unprecedented, Indian officials said.

Quizzed by Indian officials over the complaints, BLS International has decided to end servicing Indian missions in the US just six months into a three-year contract. The original contract would have run till mid-2016.

BLS International will now serve a contractual six-month notice period till July 2014, when the Indian embassy in Washington will seek fresh applications for a new vendor, consular officers at India’s US missions confirmed.

India’s missions in the US receive over 100,000 visa applications each year, the biggest volume of potential visitors to India from any country. “We don’t know how many tourists, businessmen and potential investors have been turned away by their experiences with this company,” said a consular officer at one of India’s US missions, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The firm was also handling a slew of services India offers to overseas citizens and Persons of Indian Origin under the contract which officials said would have brought BLS at least Rs 20 crore over three years and could have opened up doors to similar deals with other countries. The exact worth of visa-processing contracts depends on the actual number of applicants.

Diwakar Aggarwal, a director at BLS International, refused to respond to questions on the complaints. “This is all a conspiracy by our rival companies,” Aggarwal said on Friday afternoon.

Raj Badrinath didn’t get any clear answers from BLS International either, when he made six road trips of over 120km each from his home in San Ramon, California, to the visa agency’s office in San Francisco to pick up visas for his family last July.

Badrinath, an Indian-American e-commerce executive, and his wife had applied for visas on July 2 for a visit to Bangalore scheduled for July 17.

The Indian embassy website states that visas can be picked up four days after the passports and applications are submitted — unless the applicant receives an email informing him of a delay.

But the BLS website, that has an option to check the status of applications, didn’t show any progress on their visas for a week.

Panicking, Badrinath gave up on driving back and forth between his home and the BLS office, and checked into a hotel in San Francisco. He shuttled between the agency and the Indian consulate in San Francisco that told him that BLS servers were down for the past six days.

“India is the back office of the world — but the agency didn’t have the backup needed to handle such a situation,” Badrinath said. “We didn’t know if our passports were lost. For a while, we were stateless, like Edward Snowden.”

Badrinath’s wife got back her passport with a tourist visa on July 16, the day before they had to depart for India. But Badrinath had to drop his wife and daughter — who had an Indian visa — to the airport the next day, and then drive back to BLS to continue his pursuit for his passport.

He had to book and cancel flights twice more — based, he claims, on unkept promises from BLS — before he eventually got the business visa he had applied for, Badrinath said.

“It was a horror,” he said.

Raman Sood, based in Buffalo, New York, is worried he may never get back his son’s passport, submitted with BLS International in November for a visa for a planned trip on February 6. “I haven’t got it back, and it’s a real fear that we never may,” Sood said.

Gardner, the management consultant, who has travelled to 60 countries and now works with the local administration in the Boston suburb of Rockport, has even more to lose than Sood.

He had turned in five passports — belonging to him, his wife and their three children — more than seven weeks back. Two were returned by BLS International, with suggestions that the applications were not filled properly. Gardner resubmitted those two applications, which were accepted this time.

“We had tickets to depart on December 18 for a Christmas in New Delhi,” Gardner said, adding that he lost money while cancelling bookings. “Now we’re just hoping to get the passports back at some point.”

Only the two passports he resubmitted have returned — and those too came after December 18.