Indians overseas upset over government proposal to scrap PIO & OCI cards
A new Bill is being opposed by a large section of Indian overseas, who have been enjoying the benefits of OCI & PIO cards for many years.
The Bill, dubbed amendment to Citizenship Act, has already been passed by the Rajya Sabha and is likely to come up before the Lok Sabha for passage in the current parliament session.
While a PIO card applicant has to be a person of Indian origin who is a citizen of any country, other than Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, China and Nepal; or a person who has held an Indian passport at any time or is the spouse of an Indian citizen or a person of Indian origin; the OCI card is for foreign nationals who were eligible to become a citizen of India on 26.01.1950 or was a citizen of India on or after that date.
The country of the citizenship of the OCI applicant must also allow dual citizenship in some form and applications from citizens of Bangladesh and Pakistan are not allowed.
While PIO card holders do not require a separate visa and can enter India with multiple entry facility for 15 years; the OCI card is a multiple entry, multi-purpose lifelong visa for visiting India. OCI card-holders have parity with non-resident Indians in respect of economic, financial and educational matters except in acquiring agricultural land.
“The idea of merging the PIO card and the OCI card will create more confusion rather than solving any problems. Members of the Indian diaspora, many of whom are OCI and PIO card-holders cannot understand the rationale behind the Indian government’s move to suddenly change the nomenclature of the cards and introduce a new one. The OCI card scheme has drawn unprecedented emotional appeal and resulted in huge numbers signing up for it at about 250,000 a year. Applicants have to pay around $ 300 per card and it helps them to connect emotionally to their country of origin,” says Munish Gupta, co-ordinator of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) International.
The organisation has officially taken the stand that while Indians overseas had deeply appreciated the gesture of the government of India to create the much-needed emotional engagement with the diaspora through the OCI/PIO cards, by doing away with them they will now feel a deep sense of humiliation.
“It is abundantly clear that India’s constitution does not allow dual citizenship in any manner including through the OCI card, which is just a glorified lifelong visa, and has been hailed as the most unique step taken by any government for its diaspora,” Mr Gupta added.
Members of GOPIO now fear that the introduction of another card will create a great deal of confusion among the Indian immigration authorities at the ports of entry.
“There has always been a rush among members of the diaspora to apply for the PIO and OCI cards. Initially, the process of obtaining the cards was very cumbersome leaving applicants frustrated. But finally the procedures for application and resulting issuance of cards have become smooth,” Mr Gupta added. GOPIO members feel that any new card for overseas Indians will again cause confusion and chaos across the Indian embassies / missions and the ports of entry in India all over again.
And like him, Dr Navin C Shah, a Washington DC based doctor and founder member of American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), strongly feels that once an applicant has completed the application process and made the payment, the OCI card should be considered as a permanent document. “If the government wants to issue a new card for their needs, then the owner of the old card should not have to apply / fill any forms/make any payment. It should be totally a hassle free procedure,” he said.
Some of the problems that OCI card-holders currently face are the need for reissuance every time a new US passport is issued and the need to reapply when they turn 20 and 50 years of age.
Some immigration experts believe that while the proposal to merge the two schemes would eliminate the confusion between the two, the transition to the new scheme is likely to give rise to a lot of confusion. “PIOs could gain some privileges and benefits by being brought at par with OCIs. But the transitory period from the existing dual schemes to a unified one could create practical and procedural issues, which eligible candidates and existing card holders will not appreciate,” says Mumbai-based immigration lawyer Poorvi Chothani.
Sanjiv Chaudhary, partner at audit firm B S R & Company, too feels that PIOs could gain certain advantages from the merger of the two schemes. “The OCI card has lifelong validity which allows the individual to visit India without visa. However, the PIO card is valid for 15 years and therefore a person can visit India without visa for 15 years,” he pointed out.
Wahid Saleh, a Netherlands based social worker, points out that the PIO card scheme and the OCI scheme are very different. “Most members of the Indian diaspora had to learn the reality of using the OCI card the hard way. In contrast to the PIO card, the OCI card, which is now a cornerstone of the Indian government's policy towards the diaspora, in itself has no value. The immigration authorities of India were not always clear about the government policy on this. While introducing the OCI card scheme the government did not clarify that the card is meant only to be used while in India, whereas for entry into India all OCI card holders should be in possession of the passport on which the life-long visa has been pasted,” he pointed out. Saleh is hopeful that the new scheme will iron out all the issues in both the schemes.
Of course, there are many who are apprehensive about the changes. Berjeesh Surty, a Kenya-based entrepreneur and OCI card-holder, feels that having it is like being a 99.9 % citizen of India despite not having the passport. “It gives safety, comfort and a sense of belonging, which in turn enthuses you to remit money into India, buy properties and invest. The OCI card is issued for a lifetime and if tampered with, will definitely affect NRI inflows,” he said.