Indian-Americans have welcomed India's decision to restore the Overseas Citizens of India card benefits, including the visa free travel to the country, which were suspended in view of the coronavirus pandemic. The OCI card, which allows lifelong visa free travel to India with certain limitations to people of Indian-origin, was suspended by the Indian government on April 11 amidst a nationwide lockdown and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The sudden decision had created chaos and anxiety among the hundreds and thousands of Indian-origin people. A large number of them had taken to the social media platforms like Twitter to vent out their anger. The travel restrictions on those having OCI cards were subsequently relaxed, which so far has been mainly in the emergency categories, those travelling for work or minors with OCI card holders whose parents are Indian citizens.
On Friday, the Ministry of Home Affairs notified to restore the full travel privileges for OCI card holders for having passports of the US, the UK, Germany and France. India has created an air bubble (bilateral air travel arrangements) with all these countries. "We welcome the decision of the Indian government on the OCI card holders from the US, the UK, Germany and France. This was long due. This decision and creation of an air bubble with these countries would end unnecessary harassment of thousands of Indian-origin people from these countries," social activist Prem Bhandari said.
Bhandari, who has been taking up the cause of OCI card holders for the past several years, said that abruptly banning OCI card holders, even due to a pandemic, resulted in a lot of heartburn among the Indian-origin people. "If we cannot take shelter in India during a crisis like this, who else will help us?" he asked.
Over the past few months, Bhandari, who heads Jaipur Foot USA, has been leading efforts on behalf of the Indian-American OCI card holders to lift travel restrictions. Bhandari said that he spoke with senior Indian officials, including Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla.
The decision to restore visa free travel for Indian-Americans would facilitate a greater people-to-people exchange between the two countries, said Alok Kumar, former president of the Federation of Indian Associations of the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which is one of the largest esteemed umbrella organisations of the Indian community.
"It's the Indian diaspora which plays the most important role in strengthening bilateral relationship between the world's oldest and largest democracies," he said. New Jersey-based social activist Deepender Singh said: "This is a great news for OCI card holders since the Indian government has considered the need for relaxation of visa and travel restrictions for more categories of foreign nationals who wants to travel to India and Indian nationals intending to visit other countries like the US, the UK, Germany and France".
There will be addition of many countries in the air bubble scheme, Singh said. "Wonderful air bubble initiative started by the Indian government for OCI citizens. This way they can visit their family," said Indian-American Rajendra Bafna.
In its notification, the Ministry of Home Affairs said it has further considered the need for visa relaxation and travel restrictions for more categories of foreign nationals who want to travel to India and Indian nationals intending to visit other countries in the context of the air bubble scheme.
Indian missions of these countries with whom the air bubble arrangement is in place will grant appropriate visa, provided papers of the applicants are in order and there is no adverse input about them. "We welcome the relieving news that the government of India has uplifted the travel sanction on OCI card holders. While being thankful, we urge the government of India to consider the OCI card holder community in virtually the same ballpark with nearly the same extended privileges as those extended to NRIs and Indian citizens," said Ankur Vaidya, Chairman of the Federation of Indian-Associations.