Mummy loves you

Homecoming cheer: The OCI is a step towards achieving our nation’s oft-quoted aim of being a welcoming amma to all her children, wherever they may be and whichever passport they may hold. Photo: K Murali Kumar

Homecoming cheer: The OCI is a step towards achieving our nation’s oft-quoted aim of being a welcoming amma to all her children, wherever they may be and whichever passport they may hold. Photo: K Murali Kumar   -  The Hindu

Avtar Singh

Avtar Singh   -  BusinessLine

The Overseas Citizen of India status is a fantastic idea. It’s wildly popular among its target audience. Then why is it so hard to get in the first place?

It may have been around for a while, but since this is the first time I noticed it, let me say that the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) counter at immigration in Delhi airport is wonderful. While others sweated and waited and considered being abusive, my son and I wafted on a wave of official goodwill towards the duty-free booze that is helpfully just beyond, humming “Indians to the left of me, foreigners to the right, here I am, floating through the mess with you”.

Pravasi devo bhava, it seems, and the OCI counter — smiling officials! — is a great step towards achieving our nation’s oft-quoted aim of being a welcoming amma to all her children, wherever they may be and whichever passport they may hold (unless those passports are Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Or if one or both your parents have or had either of those unhelpful documents. That’s still an issue. Back you go in the foreigners’ queue).

This seeming welcoming-ness to the diaspora has persisted through changes of regime in India and ripples in the political climate abroad. Though short of actually being a dual citizenship, it still covers a lot of bases. Not just you — if you were born in India — but even your spouse, children and even grandchildren are eligible to be OCIs, which grants them the privilege of employment, inheritance, and even simply the freedom to come and go as they please. Most importantly, OCIs don’t have to pay the firang rate to see the Taj Mahal.

It is a fantastic document. It’s wildly popular among its target audience, those distant desis whose ghee-soaked memories of the motherland keep Air India in business. That demographic is famously beloved of our political masters. Win-win, right?

Then why is it so hard to get an OCI in the first place?

My wife and son both have Person of Indian Origin (PIO) documents, which preceded the OCI. When news circulated some time ago that PIO holders had to upgrade to the new standard, I rushed off to the dear old Foreigners Registration Office in Delhi. The old PIO cards, once I’d actually gotten them for the family, had enabled me to drive past that benighted place with merely a sinking feeling this past decade or so. Curiosity vied with terror as I walked in. How had it changed? The short answer is, it hasn’t.

I asked for directions to the OCI office, since I’d been assured there was such a thing. One policeman, perhaps the largest khaki-coloured object in the universe, waved a knuckle down a corridor. At the end, under a staircase, cooled by one single fan and sheltered by a century-worth of mouldering files, sat two gents. They were genial enough, were glad to hear that we were moving to China, and assured us that it would be much easier to do the change from abroad.

For whom, I asked, perhaps a bit indelicately. They merely smiled. And this place? Surely a step down from what the government is telling its foreign friends?

We can only hope, they indicated. Though we’ve been promised a new office. On cue, the electricity went out.

Outside lay lines of refugees. Which sight should be required viewing for anyone needing perspective about how terrible India currently is. There are tons of people fleeing places and situations that make our home, dysfunctional as it is, seem a sanctuary.

Indignation thus rendered irrelevant, I brought my semi-first world problem to China.

A few days ago was the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas. I missed the China event, but I’m told our ambassador gave a rousing speech to the assembled Indians, telling them the benefits of the OCI and how his staff is ready and willing to process their applications.

Which is great to hear, and equally hard to credit, because I started the process months ago, and only just managed to get the application itself in. It’s taken three visits to the embassy, numerous phone calls and emails, and only now has it reached the stage that the application is considered complete (based on which I used the OCI counter in Delhi) and the verification back in India can begin.

Partly, this really isn’t the embassy in Beijing’s fault. Its staff works for the Ministry of External Affairs, while OCI cards are dispensed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which also does the verifying back home. That overseas Indians shouldn’t have to deal with that fine point of “competent authority” elicits a shrug of the shoulders.

Partly it’s to do with workload. One consular official has actively helped as much as he can, showing me ways around the online application’s manifold shortcomings that should be enshrined in the museum of jugaad, when said institute is built with almost-cement on lal dora land. But there seem to be simply too many indigent Indians around for the embassy’s other staff to cope. They persist in dying, or having other emergencies. And another department’s paperwork, well...

But mostly, I suspect, it’s our national tendency to make the grand gesture, and then screw up all the details that would make it work. We’ll build expressways but forget exit ramps. We’ll build low-cost housing without public transport links. We’ll post an online application that wants two pages of your old PIO card, but only allows you to upload one.

We’ll demonetise!

Perhaps jugaad isn’t a testament to our genius at dealing with a flawed system. Maybe the flaw lies with us.

We can’t get anything right the first time. And we’re okay with that.

Avtar Singh was formerly managing editor of The Indian Quarterly and editor of Time Out Delhi, and is the author of Necropolis

Published on January 13, 2017
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