Not Getting the Visa Power

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hoped to go to China next week with a new visa regime giving businessmen, workers and academics an easier time travelling back and forth. It won’t happen this trip; the cabinet reportedly didn’t have time to clear it.

It says something about the difficulties of India’s visa regime in general that this must go all the way to the cabinet for clearance. It also says something that India is so reluctant to provide Chinese visas despite the Middle Kingdom being the country’s largest trading partner and generally a big wheel around the world.

I would estimate that about a third of the correspondence I receive from people is about visa problems, much of it from Indians complaining about other countries, but a fair share about foreigners trying to get Indian visas.

The Indian system, especially the home ministry, doesn’t get visas. They are treated as the paper equivalent of minefields and watchtowers. Actually, visas do little more than provide basic statistical evidence about movements in and out of the country – that is, movements by middle-class people who function inside the law and travel by regular means of transport.

An Israeli study actually concluded that visas provide zero additional security to a country – which is why this security-conscious people began allowing visas on arrival.

India’s visa policy, as senior Indian foreign policy officials admit, is a product of knee jerk responses to crises and embarrassments: terrorist attacks like Mumbai 26/11, illegal migrant scares and so on. Barriers are raised and layers of bureaucratic requirements are made, like requiring the provision of your parents’ birth certificates or necessitating a two month interval in between visits to India (I have yet to work out why that helps prevent anything).

Then a backlash sets in and criticism builds up, and the system carves out exceptions to the rules to satisfy various groups or people. India has a remarkable multiplicity of visas, and, as this oldish blog noted, it also has ever-changing visa regulations. “The whole policy is filled with exemptions for old people, then women with children, and so on,” said an official. The result is an incoherent policy that resembles a piece of Swiss cheese: filled with holes.

Within a month, everyone works out ways to get around these barriers. Foreigners, faced with the two month idling period, often jet into Kathmandu and then travel by road into India. As the Indo-Nepalese border is little more than a string with tin cans hanging from it, they pass right through.

The economic costs to India are high. India gets a patience of foreign tourists for its size and will continue to do so as long as getting a visa is so cumbersome. It costs India, as well, in terms of goodwill in foreign countries. And it makes India’s upper and middle classes look hypocritical given how much they raise a hue and cry whenever a Western nation puts up the slightest obstacle to their getting a visa for their children. Note the continuing furor over the UK demanding a money bond for some Indian travelers. This would actually facilitate Indians travelling to the UK, but just the idea has triggered protests by most Indians.

Being an attractive place to visit, a non-complicated place in terms of getting in and out, and otherwise seeming to be friendly and efficient would massively improve India’s image and create jobs. It would also be a huge multiplier in terms of “soft power” besides being more in line with India’s democratic polity.

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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