Several families travelling to India were stranded at airports across Australia and New Zealand, as airlines continue the rigid implementation of little-known rules relating to the Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) card. Families have been shocked and distressed to be told at check-in that minors and older passengers especially would not be allowed to travel.
This development is also causing distress to travellers who already paid for year-end trips to India. Officials at the Indian Consulate insist that these rules have been in force since 2006. They advised travellers to obtain eVisas if their OCIs are found invalid.
Those who seem most affected are children below 21 and those above 50 who have an OCI card but have had their normal Australian passport renewed recently. Australian passports are renewed every 5 years for those under 18 and then every 10 years. It also seems that it is a bit of a lucky dip at the airline counters with some travellers not experiencing any troubles while others have been turned back.
Indian Link has received multiple frantic calls from community members travelling to India in the near future, after reading social media reports from affected families.
“My family received a rude shock at the airport when they said that our children are ineligible to travel,” Janaki Ranjan* told Indian Link. “Left with no option, my husband travelled alone and I brought the kids back home. I’ve applied for emergency visa – the only option available to me if I have to be part of a much-awaited family reunion – with an extra spend of $400 per person. I’m also waiting for Malaysia Airlines to call me back with new bookings.”
As hassled travellers like this started speaking out, others with travel plans started worrying about their OCI validity. Frantic calls are being received at Indian consulates, VFS Global and the Indian Link offices for a solution. Worried travellers are also seen venting out on social media and seeking guidance.
Elmira Abreo queried on the CGI Sydney’s Facebook page, “We would not have opted for an OCI if we were advised that every time a passport was renewed we would have to renew the OCI. We would have opted for an e-visa. We have traveled several times with all the kids’ passports and OCI and have never had an issue. Can the consulate please respond?”
On 5th November, Radhika Kumar posted the following to the Indians in Melbourne Facebook page: “We were supposed to travel to India last night but we were not allowed because of my 7-year-old daughter’s OCI card.”
Speaking to Indian Link Ms Kumar stated that the whole OCI experience was “frustrating but both airlines and consulate/VFS people were helpful.” After spending a few stressful hours and $520 for obtaining an emergency visa for their 7-year-old daughter, the family is scheduled to fly out to India on their rescheduled tickets on Thursday. Their airlines charged no extra cost since the OCI issue ‘wasn’t their fault’. However, not everyone was as lucky as Ms. Kumar.
Sundar Arunachalam posted this on the 20th October: “I am denied boarding tonight because of a rule that was apparently enforced only since last week. I did travel just 3 months ago with my 2 overseas passports and OCI! This is absolutely frustrating.”
Indian Link spoke to Mr. Chandru Appar, Consul at CGI Sydney, who reiterated that these OCI rules have been in place since 2006, although they were not implemented strictly. The CGI is not aware what triggered the rigid implementation of the rules by the Airlines.
Mr. Appar stated that all OCI cards have the passenger’s passport number listed in the back. If the number doesn’t match with the current passport number, the following rules apply:
- If the passenger is aged below 21 years, OCI card needs to be renewed every time the passport is renewed
- If the passenger is aged above 50 years, the OCI card needs to be renewed only once. All subsequent travels could be made even if passport number changes. The passenger needs to carry along their old passport though
- Passengers aged 21-50 years need not renew OCI card even if passport number changes
These rules were introduced ‘in view of the biological changes in the face of the applicant’ as per a Sept 19 dated clarification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, India. (Were OCI card holders notified of this requirement, though?) Until recently, many OCI card holders were able to travel even if the rules were not met. However, there appears to be a sudden change in implementation that has caught everyone by surprise.
To add to the confusion, an internal airlines memo published by SBS Punjabi insists that all OCI cards must contain current passport number irrespective of the age of the passenger. Mr. Appar assured that the Indian Consulates will clarify the rules to Airlines in this regard, if contacted.
With little time left to navigate these rules, Indian Australian families are being forced to either postpone their travel or scramble to obtain eVisas at additional cost. There appears to be no possibility of relaxing the rules in the short term.
On the issue of inordinate delays in receiving OCI cards and the long wait times at VFS, Mr. Appar stated that this is a temporary delay which is expected to be resolved shortly. Passengers are also able to obtain VFS appointments 30 days in advance instead of the earlier 15 days, which can help in better planning, Mr. Appar stated.
After speaking to several affected families, Indian Link feels that the arcane rules could have been better publicised and a grace period given before this strict implementation. The lack of reciprocity is also quite stark. With their old Indian passports before OCI, people were able to enter and exit Australia easily on paperless visas. After change in citizenship, and obtaining OCI cards, they are now struggling to navigate the complicated rules, and board the aircraft together. It would augur well for the OCI card system to be quickly digitised for the convenience of the ever-growing and powerful Indian diaspora.
For the cynical, there are even those who are commenting that this seems to be a cash grab by the Indian government.
As the buck passes between the CGI and the airlines, it is time we had some clarification.
Issues concerning OCI norms can be addressed to VFS via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Name changed upon request