From Indiawest Online
By ASHFAQUE SWAPAN
Special to India-West
For those seeking an Indian visa, the future is here.
Instead of standing in interminable lines for hours, a new regime since October offers same-day service for the bulk of applicants who show up in person. The visa form is not only available online, it can also be filled out online. Even the consular fees and processing charge can be paid online with a credit or debit card.
The prospective traveler then has to take a printout and faces two options: Make an online payment, mail the application with photographs and passport, and expect the duly stamped passport back (if the visa is approved) in less than five days — guaranteed — or go to an office in person by a specified hour and get the visa on the same day, in most cases.
Impressed? Wait, there's more. Whether by mail or in person, once the documents are received, an automated email goes to the applicant with a tracking number, and the applicant can track the progress of the application, FedEx style.
To be sure, there is no free lunch, as economist Milton Friedman famously said, and applicants now have to add an extra $13 processing fee which goes to Travisa Outsourcing, Inc., which has won a competitive bid to accept Indian visa applications in the U.S. and send them to the consular office for processing.
And send them it did, according to Travisa CEO Jan Dvorak. "It's going fantastic," Dvorak told India-West. "We issued over 150,000 visas since October. In the high season we are issuing over 44,000 visas a month."
At a time when the Western perception of India has undergone a substantive change for the better, the visa makeover doesn't come a moment too soon, and it is quite possible that most visa applicants will not begrudge the extra $13 charge for the added convenience.
Particularly in the U.S., the sheer volume of visa applications were a daunting challenge often leaving consulate offices overwhelmed and applicants often frustrated and sometimes irate.
That was why the Indian government had decided to bring in an outside firm to handle visa applications, Krishan Varma, the minister for consular affairs with the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., told India-West.
"This is a decision which has been taken by the minister of external affairs," said Varma, who has overseen the transition to the new system in the U.S. He added that visa outsourcing was being implemented in Indian embassies all over the world.
"Basically, you have constraints both of space and manpower," he explained. "Business is going up, services are going up. So to keep up with this, the idea was to outsource this. But only the collection and the delivery process…has been outsourced, the (approval) is still done by the embassies."
After a few hiccups, the process is working well and the feedback has been great, Varma said. "Initially, there were some teething issues, as is a bit inevitable in something of this nature and magnitude," he said. "But things are settled down. It's stabilized. We are getting a pretty good response even from the public."
And for good reason, too, he added. "It's more timely, it's more streamlined, its online, it's automated. The general satisfaction of the public has been quite good," Varma told India-West.
Dvorak, meanwhile, added that tracking the visa application is a unique service now offered only by the Indian embassy in the U.S.
"We are very happy to deal with the Indian government and we are happy to introduce this new proprietary technology that is speeding up the process and makes it easier for anybody who is traveling to India to obtain Indian visas," Dvorak said.
While most visa applications were routine, there were a handful that required personalized attention. Both Travisa and the Indian embassy were quick to reassure the public that these visa applicants had nothing to worry about.
"We deal with emergencies every single day when somebody calls us or a person comes to our office with a true emergency — life or death emergency — we will contact the consulate and we will either send the documents directly to the consulate immediately or the traveler goes directly to the consulate, and the consulate is expecting the traveler and issues the visa immediately while they wait," said Dvorak. "We function as an intermediary between the traveler and the consulate and we monitor the situation."
Varma told India-West that the Indian embassy and consular offices were always available to help in emergencies.
"For emergency visas, we had already instituted a system here in the U.S. where anybody who has a genuine emergency which is on extreme compassionate grounds, visas are granted beyond office hours and holidays. It's like a 24-7 service," Varma said. "Now we are going to continue with that and those are being handled directly by the missions themselves, we don't make them come through the outsourcing. So there is never a time when an applicant who really needs to go to India for whatever reason it is…that he will have a problem. Public contact is always there with the mission."
Readers interested in applying for an Indian visa can find more information on the Web at the following Internet address: http://indiavisa.travisaoutsourcing.com.
Visa applicants living under the jurisdiction of India's San Francisco consulate (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) can apply in person at Travisa's Indian visa office at 965 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103.