Several passengers holding Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, and whose Australian passports have just been recently renewed, are not been allowed to board their flights. As Diwali approaches and with Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday celebrations just round the corner, many Australians’ travel plans to India have been left in a disarray.
Mr A Singh*, a long term listener of SBS Punjabi says his elderly parents went through a terrible ordeal when trying to fly to India last week from Tullamarine International Airport in Melbourne.
“My parents were booked to fly in business class on a Thai Airways flight from Melbourne to Delhi last week, and they’ve undertaken this journey several times using their OCI card as the travel document.”
“But to our utter shock, the staff refused to check them in, saying the new Australian passport number didn’t match with the OCI card.”
Mr Singh’s father is an octogenarian and his mother is in her late 70’s, and according to him, “they’ve had their OCI cards for well over a decade and have had new passports issued, maybe two or three times during this period. They had never encountered any problem with a renewed Australian passport before.”
He said what his elderly parents faced this time was “nothing short of harassment,” because the common understanding is that an OCI is a travel document which is valid for the holder’s lifetime.
“We began calling various people to understand what was happening and even spoke to someone in the Ministry of External Affairs in India, who told us this shouldn’t take place. But the staff at Melbourne airport won’t budge.”
Mr Singh says his parents were shown an internal email shared with all check-in staff at Melbourne Airport, which states “Passengers younger than 21 years or older than 50 years must apply for a new OCI card when they get a new passport,” directing staff to check if the passport number matches with that recorded on the OCI.
The internal memo to all airport check-in staff was issued on October 4, but so far, no one has explained what triggered this. Others have also reported a similar experience, with the same email being shown to them by way of explanation.
SBS Punjabi has seen an email sent by an Indian immigration official on 17 September 2019 to the Airline Operators Committee (AOC) in Chennai, requesting it to “take up with all airlines so that harassment to passengers can be avoided.”
The email clearly states that the refusal by some airlines “to bring passengers to India, who seek boarding pass on the strength of OCI card, old passport and new valid passport”, is an action “against the rules prescribed in the visa manual.”
SBS Punjabi understands that the rules relating to travel on OCI have been in place since 2016, and as per the Indian government’s website, the OCI needs to be “renewed” every time children under the age of 20 change their passport, and only once, when a new passport is issued after they turn 50 years old.
Melbourne Airport declined to tell SBS Punjabi how many people have been impacted by the airlines' interpretation of OCI rules. But Mr Singh’s parents were told last week that over a dozen people were off-loaded from that flight alone.
Mr Raj Kumar, the Indian Consul General based in Melbourne has told SBS Punjabi that, “Although no one has sent us any official complaint about the refusal to board due to OCI renewal issues, but I have heard anecdotally that people are facing this problem.”
“Based on that, we issued a press release last Friday, informing people of the right procedure.”
Mr Kumar mentioned that “the Indian High Commission in Canberra has taken up this issue with the respective airlines”, adding that he himself is meeting officials of various airlines in Melbourne.
“I have met Singapore Airlines officials today and they tell me that they are acting on the advice received from their headquarters in Singapore. I have asked them to show me what information this is based on, and they said they will revert back.”
Mr Kumar added that he will meet other airlines individually as well, saying “I’m doing this of my own accord, because we are here to help people and to provide them with the correct information.”
Meanwhile SBS Punjabi has contacted Thai Airways for a response to the matters raised by Mr Singh and other passengers, and was told, “We have consulted with our Airport team and they confirm that they have been in close contact with the Indian Visa Information Service regarding any passengers affected by the OCI rules. We recommend you contact them for the latest information.”
What confounds the situation further is contradictory information coming through from various sources.
The Indian government’s website clearly states that the OCI renewal is only required once, after the OCI holder turns 50 and gets a new passport.
But in Mr Singh’s case, his parents had their OCI cards issued to them well after they had turned 50 – so the requirement for renewal shouldn’t have applied to them.
On the contrary, the airline check-in official informed Mr Singh’s parents that the OCI will need to be renewed every time they had a change of passport. This contradicts the Indian government’s instructions on their website, as re-affirmed by the press release issued by CGI Melbourne.
Adding to the confusion is Mr Jaswinder Singh’s personal experience, when he had the Australian passports of his children renewed just before travelling to India.
He tells SBS Punjabi,”I asked around if I needed to have their OCI renewed since they are aged under 20, but no one gave me a firm answer. To be on the safe side, I got eVisa issued for both of them before travelling to India – this way I could be sure that we would not have any problems.”
Mr Jaswinder Singh recalls, “Both while leaving Australia as well as while entering India, the immigration officials used the OCI card as the valid travel document, and in fact the Indian immigration official said to me, ‘you must have a lot of money to waste on getting an eVisa when you already have an OCI. Why did you bother?’
Meanwhile, in light of recent cases of refusal to board, the Indian Consul General Mr Raj Kumar has given this advice to OCI holders with new passports travelling to India:
“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 over 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.”
* Not his real name
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