More than four score questions, ranging from issuance of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card to charges for calls made to Visa Facilitation Services Global, the outsourcing and technology firm hired by the government of India to handle visa services, were raised at an online camp hosted by India’s consulate in San Francisco and several Indian American community organizations based in Southern California.
Kewal Kanda, a community leader who represents the Los Angeles chapter of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), told indica that the camp, held on Dec 15, drew a good response.
The organizers were expecting only about 70 people to show up; the consulate had said it would help if even 50 came. Eventually, more than 100 joined the Zoom call with many others waiting to join.
Visa-related issues were the most common problem raised at the camp. During the first wave of the pandemic, visas to visit India were canceled. Some were reinstated later, but not all. Many had questions relating to medical, tourist and business visas and whether they would need to reapply.
Kanda told indica that until mid-December (VFS took charge of visa issuance on Dec 13) it was easier and less expensive and cumbersome to fill out the form to get a visa directly from the consulate. But after outsourcing, the process has become more time-consuming and costlier.
“We used to fill and mail and get the visa within two weeks,” Kanda said. “The fee was $143 per visa. Now that they have transferred the processing to VFS, it takes almost an hour and a half to fill out the application and it costs over $195. That is kind of going backward. And VFS is picky. If there is even a minor mistake, they send the application back.”
Asked why the time is taken to fill out an application had gone up, he said some steps had been added from the VFS side. You need to first register with an email, get the activation through your phone, and only then can you fill the needed information. And you must pay by credit card. If there is even a tiny mistake and your application is not accepted, you must start all over again.
Now only emergency visas are processed at the consulate.
“They should cut the fee,” Kanda, who also serves as GOPIO treasurer, said. “VFS charges $15, which is not much, but the visa fee should be cut. Currently, it is $143 for a one-year visa, which is a lot of money.”
Ashok Patnaik, secretary of the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), agreed. “The government of India should make it $125,” the Cerritos-based Patnaik said. “For a family of four it would be a good amount. If you add the current fees, it goes to $200 per head.”
Another question raised was regarding the phone fee charged by VFS. According to the VFS website, calls made to their phone lines are free only for the first five minutes, once per calendar week. Once you have used your five free minutes, you must wait seven days to claim another free five-minute call or opt for paid support. However, if VFS puts a caller on hold, she is not charged.
“They are charging $2.48 after five minutes,” Kanda said. “We had brought this up with the consulate. They said it is not in their arena and they cannot do anything. We have not yet approached the external affairs ministry or home ministry to ask why they are charging on calling them.”
People have talked about it but not filed a formal complaint, Kanda said. They say we have paid $20 or $30. But the consulate says it is part of the contract with the Indian government.
NFIA’s Patnaik, however, welcomed the fee on the phone call, saying it would deter people from calling needlessly. “There are many who keep calling and in Covid time not many people come to work,” he said. “Once the fee is levied people will be cognizant and won’t be asking the same question again and again.”
Dr. TV Nagendra Prasad, India’s consul general in San Francisco, agreed that there are some issues. “We are conducting not only in-person camps but also virtual camps so that outreach can be more,” he told indica. “Southern California was very profound. Yes, everyone wanted to know what the new regulations in visa and OCI are, so they can calibrate. We could address some personal issues and some queries which are useful for the public. We were also able to tell them what the consulate is trying to do.”
Consul general Prasad said that during the Covid-19 pandemic people have several queries and so it was useful to connect with Southern California. The “entire Covid period we were accepting and processing and handing over visas,” he said. “Now VFS are accepting and doing the initial processing and we give visas and they dispatch; however, we are addressing very urgent cases at the consulate itself.”
He also said that demand for the OCI card has grown a great deal because it allows the holder to travel to India and back anytime. “The demand has been over 50,000 and we have by Nov 30, 2021, issued 46,000, the highest ever,” he said.
About the challenges people face in getting visas, he said, “OCI, people say filling up the form is difficult, but I must tell you, I receive almost 200 applications (a day), that itself is an indication that people can apply.
“On the smoothing of the application, I agree with them, but it’s an evolution. Whenever we get a suggestion, we give it to the ministry for consideration.”
Compared to earlier rules, he said, if one seeks a new passport the process is completely online now. “Things are evolving; you don’t need to pay any fee,” he said. “That is a big change.”
About the VFS call charge, the diplomat said the agency has a contract (with the government) but the first five minutes are free and the caller is notified she would be charged per minute.
Consul general Prasad took charge a year and a half ago. Sharing his thoughts on serving in the US and the states in his charge – Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the Territory of Guam – he said, “It’s a vibrant community, particularly this place (the San Francisco Bay Area) because IT has been booming despite Covid. It’s significant in bridging the India-US digital partnership.”
Sunil Agarwal, president, India Association of Los Angeles, welcomed the consulate’s move to hold the Zoom conference. He said they had held such online meetings in the past, too, but owing to the pandemic participation was more this time.