Lately Israeli hippies returning to their homes in Goa and luxury goods CEOs on the prowl for new markets have all been pulling their hair and jumping up and down at India’s airports. In the past, these outbursts might have been explained simply by slow, muddled but ultimately cheery Indian bureaucracy (or a bad come-down). But now its something very different that’s making the blood boil. Indian officials are increasingly as strict as their Homeland Security colleagues in the US, only less efficient. And they are very happy to deny you entry to the country.
While India may be open more than ever before to the world for trade and tourism, it’s also grown increasingly anxious that terrorists are exploiting the nation’s visa system. This has led to the government issuing and re-issuing visa regulations that to many seem arbitrary, cosmetic and confusing. And while the airport officials may be determined, the truth is that they are often ill informed (if informed at all) about the latest decrees from Delhi.
Most of the pique has been directed at a recent rule stipulating that tourists may only spend six months at a time in India, after which they must vacate the country for 60 days. The rule was put in place in response to the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 when it was revealed one of the planners did his reconnaissance on a tourist visa. Previously tourists were issued long-term multiple entry visas; all they had to do was briefly step out of the country every six months – bliss for those Goan hippies.
Chaos ensued this year as many foreigners scrambled to either get out or get legal. But many travellers only learnt of this new rule when they were turned away at the airport, their dreams of seeing the Taj Mahal dashed. “The new visa regulations have been done in an ad-hoc fashion. It’s a band-aid treatment,” says Mumbai-based immigration lawyer Poorvi Chothani. “They’re plugging holes with memos and amendments. It’s not efficient.”
While weighing the influence of America’s locked doors against Britain’s increasingly more lenient entry restrictions, India should not engage in vindictive or retaliatory immigration policy. In practical terms though, says Chothani, “explicit rules should be written in simple language, since visa offices [around the world] are grappling with a changing environment.”
The loss of the dreadlocked contingent wouldn’t break too many hearts here, but India should not make itself too prohibitive or too much of a nuisance to foreign investors. They’d be just as happy in China.