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Dentist learns overseas citizens can't practice medicine

Last updated on: October 31, 2007 16:11 IST
Overseas Citizenship of India status does not quite amount to native Indian citizenship, Dr Rita Sikka, who relocated from Canada to New Delhi, found from experience. In her case, it did not allow her to practice medicine in India.

"My Canadian passport is the problem. Though the government (issued) OCI cards, many laws that contradict with it are in effect. While real foreigners are allowed to work, an OCI card holder is not," said Dr Sikka, who was born in India and acquired Canadian citizenship in 1996.

OCI status was touted as being tantamount to dual citizenship but for three things -- it did not give the holder the right to vote; to constitutional office and to hold government jobs.

Dr Sikka graduated with a DMD (dentistry) degree from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1999, and ran a successful esthetic dentistry practice for five years before moving to India after marrying Amit Sikka, an Indian citizen.

She had a Person of Indian Origin card, well before moving to India. It entitled her to employment in India as well as parity with non-resident Indians on most grounds -- with a few exceptions.

She went to the Dental Council of India in September 2005 seeking registration and licensure. But the officials there sought permission to from the ministry of health before issuing a license.

In December 2005, the Dental Council recommended that she be registered. But when the OCI laws were instituted in January 2006 Dr Sikka filed to replace her PIO card with it.

Meanwhile, the months drifted by without the ministry getting back to her about her registration.

"I started to quickly lose patience when repeated requests and correspondence from me was met with nothing but silence from all the concerned ministries," she said.

In May 2006, after being tossed around from one ministry to the other for over eight months, she filed a writ petition in the Delhi high court. The defendants were the ministries of health, home and overseas Indian affairs. But the ministries passed the responsibility for the matter to one another.

The health ministry told the court that the Dental Act of 1948 stated that they might consider a foreign degree for recognition only if an Indian citizen held it. "Since I am a Canadian citizen their acts do not allow them to recognise my degree, unless they consider an Overseas Citizen of India at par with an Indian citizen," Dr Sikka said.

The health ministry needed a decision from the home ministry or the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs saying that the OCI card holder could be considered at par with an Indian for employment. But the home ministry washed their hands off the matter, saying that decisions about the OCI card should come from the MOIA. But the MOIA, too, would not clarify the matter.

"In January this year, I felt my prayers were answered when, at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi, the prime minister announced that all OCI doctors would be granted the right to employment in India." However, that did not happen.

January 19, the court ordered the three ministries to sort out the matter between themselves and to take the necessary decision

within three weeks. The court further directed that if no decision was taken then the joint secretaries of the concerned ministries should be personally present in court at the next hearing in February.

"This sounded like an ultimatum to the ministries and an indication to me that the end was near. I was soon to find out how little I understood the running of the various departments here," Dr Sikka said.

Throughout a writ petition the ministries raised two issues: One, whether a degree from a foreign university can be recognized under the Dental Act 1948; and the other, whether a doctor with a foreign passport can practice in India at par with Indian nationals.

The Dental Council decided the first issue in Dr Sikka's favour. The second issue is still pending because the ministries are hesitant to act on it.

At the following court date in February, the ministries convinced the court that although they were willing to accept recognition of her degree and qualifications, they needed more time to decide the benefits that should be bestowed upon OCIs. They were given three extensions between February and July.

Finally, the judge, July 30, refused to grant any more extensions, ordered them to take a decision by the next and final date of August 31.

"August 31st has now come and gone, and I am still sitting at home without a license. On the morning of August 31, the Dental Council changed their decision stating that they are withdrawing their recommendation to recognise my university and degree."

"One of their arguments is that a doctor with a foreign passport will run away from India if something happens during the work. He/she cannot be tried in Indian courts. But this is not true as they too come under the Indian Penal Code," she noted.

"My question to our government is, how is an OCI any different from an NRI? We both work and reside outside the country. The only difference is that OCIs have a foreign passport, and NRIs have an Indian one. Is the Indian government implying that taking on a foreign nationality makes me less of an Indian at heart? Then why implement the OCI?"

Dr Sikka said she is tired of fighting. "The financial restrictions in trying to support a young child and family, the feelings of low self worth and the loss of self confidence have taken a toll on my family and me. I have gone from earning a substantial $70,000 annually to earning nothing at all for over two years now," she said.

Yet she does not regret her decision to relocate to India.

"Even today, if they grant me registration and a license to practice, I will forget the two years of hardship."

Given her circumstances, she asked what an OCI card meant.

"Is it just a lifelong visa to visit India when and as we please? Is it just another means to draw investments in foreign currencies from OCIs into India?" she asked.

"As soon as we give up our Indian citizenship and take on a foreign passport, we magically transform into individuals that are a potential threat to the country's security."

She asked those who want to relocate to India to consider these facts.

"Just the fact that OCIs are willing to leave that foreign country to move to India, and try to reestablish their careers, life and families in India should be testimony enough that they are true Indians at heart," she said.

George Joseph in New York