Many children and elderly passengers with Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cards are being adversely impacted at Australian airports due to a strict protocol enforced by airline check-in staff for India-bound travellers. SBS Punjabi has learnt that OCI cardholders who haven’t even recently renewed their Australian passport, and have previously visited India with the same travel documents, are now being denied boarding.
SBS Punjabi reported on Monday that OCI holders travelling to India on a renewed Australian passport were being turned back from international airports due to a ‘mismatch’ of the passport number printed on their OCI card. Several other cases have surfaced of families whose travel plans to India have simply fallen apart.
Nageswara Rao Nagapuri is among those affected and says he had a “devastating experience” which has left his 9-year-old son “traumatised”.
“My wife, daughter, son and I were booked to travel from Melbourne to Hyderabad by Malaysia Airlines on October 19, since my Uncle is really unwell and is in the last stages of his life.”
“We have travelled with the same passports and OCI cards for each of us every year since 2015, and have never encountered any issue before.”
“But on 19th, the staff bluntly denied check-in for my son, saying his passport number didn’t match the number on the OCI. I was even carrying the old passport which matched the number written on the OCI, but we were told this won’t do,” Mr Nagapuri said.
He was told that his son either needed an eVisa or a renewal of the OCI card, without which he wouldn’t be allowed to board any flight to India.
“They showed me an advisory on which they were basing their decision but I think even the advisory doesn’t justify their action,” he said.
What makes the situation even harder to comprehend for Mr Nagapuri is a prior experience he had with the “new passport rule” for OCI holders.
“Back in 2015 -16, when I had recently renewed my son’s passport, I knew about the rule and actually had an eVisa issued for my son before travelling to India. When I reached Hyderabad, the immigration staff literally mocked me, that either I can’t read English or have too much money to throw away, otherwise why would anyone with an OCI need an eVisa,” Mr Nagapuri recalls.
He said Indian immigration officials had assured him at the time that if he kept the old passport with him while travelling, officials will be able to match it with the OCI.
“Given that assurance in the past and having travelled to India every year since then – in 2016, 2017 and 2018, I was sure that we will be fine this time too, especially because my son’s passport has not been renewed since 2015. But although the lady at the check-in counter was polite and helpful, the supervisor and other people I escalated the matter to, made me feel like a criminal – as if I was doing something terribly wrong,” says Mr Nagapuri.
“My son was crying, and asking me ‘why can’t I go to India? Why can’t I meet my grandparents?’ It was terribly traumatic for him when he found out that his mother and sister could go but he couldn’t.”
Eventually, when Mr Nagapuri realised that his 9-year-old will not be allowed to board the flight and that re-booking alternative flights would cost nearly $1200 per person, he asked his wife and daughter to commence their journey to India, while he stayed back with his son to sort things out.
“I’m now re-booked to travel with my son today. Apart from the cost of the eVisa, I have had to pay up more than $2,300 to reschedule our tickets. This amounts to a full month’s salary, of putting in hard work in a full-time job,” he says.
According to Mr Nagapuri, the additional costs include an airline charge of $140 per ticket for rescheduling and $150 per ticket in airline fees, apart from the fare difference.
Another traveller to India has contacted SBS Punjabi with a similar experience with their son not being allowed to board the Singapore Airlines flight they were booked on this morning.
Says Kiran, “I had a similar issue this morning as my wife and my 9-year-old son were travelling on Singapore Airlines. They refused to check-in as my son has changed his passport. This is very frustrating as there is no such rule from the Indian government. Now it is costing me $400 for an emergency visa application plus three lost days.”
Ruefully, Kiran added, “My son has lost the opportunity to experience Diwali in India. Flights are rebooked for Friday but if I don’t get visa by then, flights will be cancelled and we will lose the tickets.”
Mr Nagapuri says two other families were off-loaded from the Malaysia Airlines on 19th night. “One family had young children and the other one had elderly parents.”
Many people booked to travel over the next few days are contacting their respective airline, but to no avail.
Prakash told SBS Punjabi, “I called Singapore Airlines since I have to travel in two weeks. They didn’t give me any response, and told me to call the Indian High Commission.”
Singapore Airlines has responded to a query from SBS Punjabi with this statement:
"Singapore Airlines understands that no changes have been made to the requirements of customers travelling to India on OCI cards. All customers scheduled to travel to India on an OCI card are encouraged to ensure their travel documentation adheres to the appropriate requirements as stipulated on the Ministry of External Affairs website at https://www.mea.gov.in/oci-related-matters.htm
Where travel documents do not match, and do not meet the requirements of Indian Authorities, Singapore Airlines will be unable to uplift the customer until their documentation is corrected."
The response from Thai Airways has already been published in this article, and a Malaysia Airlines' comment is awaited.
These complaints come as more and more Australian travellers head to India to celebrate Diwali and the upcoming 550th birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak.
Many travellers have raised concerns about the validity of the claim that an OCI card is a lifelong travel document.
As reported earlier, the OCI rules established by the Indian government in 2016 continue to apply are:
- Those aged between 21 and 50 don’t need to get their OCI renewed with a change of passport;
- Those aged below 20 must get their OCI renewed each time they renew their passport; and
- After turning 50, OCI card is required to be renewed only once, upon the issue of a new passport.
Another traveller, Anand Shinde says, “As far as I remember, this rule that requires the OCI card to be renewed for minors and people over 50 did not exist when I initially applied for an OCI in 2012. OCI was meant for lifetime unless you attained citizenship of certain countries such as Pakistan. You were required to carry your OCI card and old passport in case of a change in the passport. So this is unnecessary harassment for people.”
He says “unnecessary confusion has been created” by stricter application of rules on OCI cardholders, with no clarity for the reason why this is happening.
“How can airline check-in staff find out if the OCI has been renewed at least once for people more than 50 years old? All they can see is that the OCI number and the passport number don’t match,” Mr Shinde asks.
“If it is allowed for the people between 20 and 50 years of age to travel with a passport that does not match the one in the OCI card, why is it different for kids and people older than 50?” he asks – a sentiment echoed by many more people.
SBS Punjabi has contacted the Indian High Commission, and will publish their response when received.
Meanwhile, the Consul General of India in Melbourne, Mr Raj Kumar gave this advice to OCI cardholders with travel plans for India in the near future:
“At the moment, we are taking 3-4 weeks to renew OCI cards because we are sending them to India for renewal. So if your date of travel is a few weeks away, make sure you apply for renewal now, in case you have a new passport and are aged below 20 or more than 50.”
“But if you are travelling within the next few days, please apply for an eVisa – that way you will be assured that you can travel as planned.”
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