Visa woes lead Indian Americans to 24-hour fast
The difficulties to get a visa to India has forced several Indian Americans to go for a 24-hour fast at Houston, Texas ion the United States. It was covered on the front pages of mainstream newspapers, including The Houston Chronicle.
"Dignity for Meera Shankar; Dignity for Indo-Americans," a billboard displayed by five satyagrahis summed up the frustration faced by the community to get a visa to their motherland, reports George Joseph.
"The sufferings of people have come to a point that we cannot keep quiet anymore," Ramesh Shah, a leader of Ekal Vidyalaya, who organised the fast, said.
"Every week they change rules. People stand in lines for days and return frustrated. There should be a solution for this," Shah said. He said the protest was not due to any personal problem for him, but it is after seeing the plight of many people. He said he gets many calls for help and occasionally go to the consulate and stand up in queue for them. "But how much one can do?" he asked.
Vijay Pallod, noted community activist, went to the consulate on December 6 to apply for a visa. "The official informed me very politely that it will take a minimum of four weeks to get a visa. For me it was very hard to believe. The complaints I have been hearing are true. When I tried to fill out the form I got the alert message not to purchase tickets unless I have visa."
The consulate now advises people that getting an Overseas Citizenship of India card may take a few months and if they want to visit India, they have to apply for another visa.
The indifferent attitude of the officials to the plight of the people too have angered the community. A recent meeting of the community activists demanded a meeting with Consul General Sanjiv Aroa, but he declined it saying that he would meet only leaders of five organisations, including Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, Indo-American Political Action Committee, India Cultural Centre and Mahatma Gandhi Library.
This response was not acceptable to Shah and others. They went on a fast which began 8 am on Sunday last, which ended next day at 8 am at the Shri Vallabh Priti Seva Samaj's hall. They could not get another location they wanted and rented this one, Shah said. Several people came to salute them.
Click NEXT to read further..
Image: Indian American activists organise the 24-hour fast in Houston to protest Visa woes
'The officials are showing the old British mentality'
"This fast isn't against anyone in particular. We pray and fast for God to help us solve this problem and give us a community leader meeting," Lalit Chinoy, vice president of the Indian Senior Citizen Association and one of the fasters, told the Chronicle.
PV Patel, former president of the Gujarati Samaj and two others, who did not want their names to be published too joined the fast, Shah said.
"The officials are showing the old British mentality. They are not even creating any database for the surrender certificate. There is no separate section for this too. When we go to the consulate they will promise one thing, but will never actually do it," he said.
He agreed that the consulate staff is stressed with over work. The protest is for a change in the mismanagement of things, and it was not against individuals, he said.
Shah and others have sent complaints to Ambassador Meera Shankar and officials in India including Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.
"While standing in the line I met few friends who were struggling to get their visa. This is the time I decided to help Ramesh Bhai's efforts to bring awareness that this problem need to be resolved," Pallod said.
"I got my visa on December 10 because my wife took help from travel agent. Yes it is not problem for people who are influential. But for ordinary people it is very frustrating. This problem started ever since surrender certificate requirement has been enforced," he noted.
'We refuse to sit by and watch our community suffer'
In a letter sent to the ambassador, Shah and others complained about the problems faced by the people.
"In the past few months, our people have cried, begged, paid hundreds of dollars in fees to agents, and cancelled important trips at the last minute (at great personal cost) because of Indian embassy/consulate inability to issue visas in the promised time. Your perceived callousness is very sad and disheartening. We have helped as much as possible in individual cases and appreciate whatever assistance we have received. However, we recognise a larger issue in your unilateral imposition of rules and refuse to sit by and watch our community suffer without due process," the letter noted.
"There is tremendous irony in the Indian embassy in the United States approach to the Indian diaspora. On one hand, you encourage Persons of Indian origin to travel to India. There are events such as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Vibrant Gujarat, and tourism campaigns to encourage US citizens of Indian origin to visit India, engage with their homeland, and of course, spend money there to propel the economy. The Indian diaspora send the maximum remittances to India," the letter satted.
"On the other hand, the recent processes of the surrender certificate, the delays in processing OCI applications, and the complete non-responsiveness of your embassy and consulate services to questions and visa status inquiries is appalling," it added.
Image: Community activists revise a protest letter sent to Indian ambassador to US
'We demand immediate action to resolve the current crisis'
"In Houston, hundreds of people have complained that obtaining a surrender certificate required multiple trips to the consulates office (several hours in line each time), and unpleasant interactions with overworked consular service staff.
Also, we have several dozen cases where passports have been lost.
Several of us have offered to help. The Senior Citizens Group of Houston arranged two separate meetings with the consulate in offering their volunteer services.
Both times, they were politely declined. We have even offered to provide free chai service to soothe irate patrons and received no response. No one answers the phones at the consulate. If we treat our own people without respect, how can we expect to cultivate respect for our motherland and society in general?Our people are suffering and we will not stand by. We continue to be willing to volunteer to assist in the processes. However, we demand immediate action to resolve the current crisis created by the poor implementation of the surrender certificate rule and overall inability to cope with the situation at the Houston consulate," it stated.
Image: Community veterans participate in the 'satyagraha'
'The consulate should be responsive to community needs'
The letter also asked to withdraw or suspend for now the surrender certificate requirement for issuing passports and visas.
It also demanded to draft a circular that allows volunteers to assist in non-sensitive functions (intake, phone bank, and/or community relations) for this peak travel season.
Another request is to provide ongoing training of the consulate staff in community relations and customer service.
Several community organisations sent a joint letter, which noted, "Our friends, family, elders, and children have been adversely impacted by the unilateral imposition and enforcement of this rule. We have suffered confusion, long lines, insensitivity, lost passports, and hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively.
Furthermore, we request community understanding and respect. The consulate should be responsive to community needs and to facilitate required administrative processes with due respect. Timetables should be honored so that people can plan travel accordingly. We should be able to get a response to inquiries or somehow be able to track status/progress."