As Australian citizens who hold life-time visas called Overseas Citizen of India cards continue to be refused boarding on flights to India, some affected passengers are looking for a legal redressal. Meanwhile, a number of offloaded travellers bound for India continue to share their experiences with SBS Punjabi and the High Commission of India in Canberra, VFS Global Services and Malaysia Airlines have also responded to some specific queries.
Canberra-based Dr Mohan Singh got a shock of his life when he was turned back from Sydney international airport recently, not allowed to board his flight to India.
Speaking to SBS Punjabi he said, “Malaysia airlines refused me boarding by saying that my OCI card needs to be renewed. They provided a computer typed paper indicating this. I argued that I have used the same travel documents earlier, but to no avail.”
The advisory that Malaysia Airlines relied upon seems to contradict the OCI rules stipulated by the Indian government, as in, it says that the OCI needs to be renewed every time a passenger over the age of 50 changes their passport, whilst there are several clarifications to say that it’s required only once after passport is renewed after 50 years of age.
Dr Singh's travel agent also received an email from Malaysia Airlines saying passengers "above the age of 50 must have their OCI and their passport matched, if its not matched then passengers need to apply for new OCI or get their visa done."
“I reported this to the High Commission of India in Canberra. The HCI provided me with a letter saying that I’m not required to renew OCI card, as it was first issued after I turned 50.”
“I was also advised to get an eVisa, which I did. But when I took a Singapore Airlines flight to go to India thereafter, they readily accepted the same OCI and passport which Malaysia Airlines had refused to accept as valid travel documents.”
“I even raised the matter with the immigration counter at the Delhi airport. They mentioned that there was no change in OCI related matters and OCI card issued after 50 years of age doesn’t need to be renewed.”
Now back in Canberra, Dr Singh says someone needs to take responsibility for this fiasco.
“I have spent $1800 on a new ticket, plus return bus fare between Canberra and Sydney, in addition to the eVisa fees. I have also suffered loss of five days of annual leave, which means I’m out of pocket by at least $6,000.”
“I want to take legal action,” he said, echoing sentiments shared by other affected passengers.
Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines has responded to matters raised by SBS Punjabi in October, saying “This email is in reference to your query regarding the OCI holders issue. Our sincere apologies for this delayed response on the above matter and appreciated your patience.
At this juncture, we wish to inform you that we are unable to disclose any details as this involving passenger personal data. Also, it is a private and confidential information of the company.”
Passengers over 50 with no passport renewal offloaded
Raminder Dhaliwal of Sydney has shared the experience of her parents, who went through the distressing experience of not being allowed to board the flight they had completed an online-check in for.
“My parents, both OCI holders and over the age of 50 were stopped from boarding a flight with Cathay Pacific to Delhi on October 29.”
“All information provided and also stated in the SBS Punjabi article stipulates that once you are over the age of 50 you are required to have your OCI re-issued only when renewing your passport.”
“Both of my parents aged 55 and 57 had their OCI issued many years ago and are not due for a passport renewal for another few years. They both recently travelled to India in December of last year with no problems. Which again adds to our confusion at the situation we are presented with. The lack of communication and conflicting advice given has led to an inconvenience that is not required at this time as my parents were traveling to look after their elderly parents, with one having just undergone major heart surgery.”
Ms Dhaliwal says that both her parents have had to obtain eVisas, after which they were able to rebook their flights through Cathay Pacific and fly to India.
“While checking in, my parents were told by Cathay Pacific that many passengers bound to India are stranded in Hong Kong because of this OCI fiasco,” she adds.
“My parents have been inconvenienced with their flights, the taxi they booked from Delhi to Punjab, extra fees and most importantly the stress of the situation. Luckily they didn’t have a huge urgency to be in India, but my father says another person who was offloaded on the same day as my parents, was meant to fly to India to attend his brother’s funeral. Imagine not being able to travel in that circumstance!”
According to the advisory put out by the Indian High Commission, in both of the cases mentioned above, the OCI card holders should not have been denied embarkation, because Dr Singh’s OCI was issued after he turned 50 and Ms Dhaliwal’s parents hadn’t renewed their passport after turning 50.
So who is responsible for the financial loss and mental turmoil?
SBS Punjabi reached out to the Indian High Commission with the following four questions:
- Considering that OCI holders are still being inconvenienced (many have reported being harassed), does IHC intend to take any steps to clear the confusion – specifically with airlines?
- People whose OCI was issued after they turned 50 have been refused check-in, people who have recently turned 21 or 50 and have not renewed their passports have not been allowed to travel. We know according to the IHC advisory that they should have been allowed to travel – but they couldn’t. Who is responsible for the financial loss incurred in rebooking new flights and acquisition of eVisa?
- How many emergency eVisas and regular eVisas were issued during the month of October for travellers headed to India. Do you know how many of them were OCI holders?
- There are calls from the community to simplify rules around OCI – since it is meant to be a ‘life-long visa’, why does it require renewal? It’s the renewal with passport change that’s causing the confusion – will the Government of India reconsider the premise of ‘OCI renewal’ to actually confer lifetime validity?
In response, the High Commission of India in Canberra has stated, “The HCI Canberra and Indian Consulates in Australia have communicated the existing guidelines regarding the OCI card to the concerned Airlines with the objective of addressing any confusion on their part, so that, valid OCI card holders traveling to India do not face any inconvenience.”
A bizarre of a ‘missing’ OCI card
Moumita Guha has also contacted SBS Punjabi saying she is in a difficult situation for the past two months and there is still no sign of resolution.
“My son who is six years old just got his Australian Passport renewed. He already had an OCI since 2014 and we’ve travelled 2-3 times to India in the last five years without any problem.
“When his new Australian Passport came along, I was aware of the rule that I needed to get the OCI stamped again with the new passport number. I went to VFS Melbourne office with all documents. To my astonishment, the officials at the Visa office couldn't find the OCI details of my child on their system.”
“Even after adding the old Australian Passport and OCI details nothing came up on the system. We continuously tried for few times. When I asked the officials what is happening, they gave me blank looks with no concrete answer and came up with some weird excuses which totally didn't make sense.”
“How can OCI details go missing from the system when we have travelled on the same details few times?”
To ensure that her family’s travel plans are not adversely impacted, Ms Guha is looking at getting an eVisa for her son.
“We are leaving for India in Dec, 2019 and now I have to spend $200 to apply for Tourist Visa - an additional expense on my part, when my child already has an OCI and I actually went to renew the OCI two months ago. I had sufficient time on my hand to get OCI renewed, if they had the details on their system.”
“I have written at least 10-15 emails to VFS and to the Consulate, but the only response I have is ‘they have referred my email to higher authorities’. This has been happening for last 2 months and I’m totally frustrated.”
“We don't want to be held in airports due to some glitch that happened somewhere for which we are not responsible.”
SBS Punjabi has contacted VFS about this and other matters. Mr Jiten Vyas, Regional Group Chief Operating Officer of VFS Global said, “We don’t retain any applicant data for longer than required for processing an application and transfer the data to the receiving client mission which is the High Commission of India in this case. Paper documents are sent to the client mission by secured transportation. No copies of applicant data are made either digitally or physically.”
“With regards to the issue of document related errors, we continue to assess them on a case to case basis as part of our internal process checks and if any error is observed, we take complete ownership of such cases and provide all required assistance to applicants for replacement of their documents”, he added.
Ongoing confusion about OCI and next steps
Sydney based Parakh Govil believes that the Indian government should do more to clear the confusion reigning over the validity of an OCI card.
“OCI is meant to be a lifelong visa and should not require renewal with a change of passport before turning 21 or after turning 50.”
“All these confusing rules are causing lot of inconvenience to Indian community living overseas and wanting to travel to India. In today’s electronic and paperless era, even the visa are eVisa which are not stuck on the passport nor do they have a photo. Thus I am not sure why these guidelines have been circulated to cause unnecessary inconvenience to the Indian community living overseas.”
He has emailed Indian authorities requesting “this matter should be dealt with a practical approach and once a person has an OCI he should not be expected to get it renewed every time a passport is renewed. Indian Govt has issued OCI for life then why it needs to be reissued.”
Dr Mohan Singh of Canberra, who had to re-book his flights after being offloaded, even though his OCI was issued after the age of 50 says, “I’m ready to take legal action. I have already spoken to Legal Aid, and prima facie, I’m advised that the airlines, the travel agent as well as the Indian authorities are liable.”
He says the advisory that ground staff showed him while denying entry on the Malaysia Airlines flight was issued at 01:40am on October 11. "As a passenger taking a flight on the same afternoon, how am I supposed to know if there has been a rule change?"
'If airlines can be fined for boarding passengers with inappropriate documents, then they should also be fined for denying boarding to a passenger with valid travel documents," he adds.
Raminder Dhaliwal of Sydney says she feels for all families who are booked to fly to India during the upcoming school holidays, because many of their plans maybe disrupted.
“It is not good enough that families are having to deal with situations created because of incompetencies. When I called the Consulate General of India, I was met with a woman who said the rule had always been there, but neither immigration nor the airlines ever enforced it. So why now? What has changed? And where is the grace period and communication to OCI holders? Also why the inconsistencies with press releases saying one thing and representatives saying another? Or is it poor wording?”
“The lack of communication and misleading information provided on many websites and official press releases are demonstrated in your article. How many people will be affected by this coming into the Christmas/New Year season”, she asks.