After resisting the idea for years, Indian intelligence agencies have given their consent to visa-on-arrival facility for all countries except a handful like Pakistan which pose a genuine security risk.
This sets the stage for a revamp of the entire visa system for tourists, and may cover up to 180 countries. The model being looked at is not the classic visa-on-arrival process but a variant, somewhat similar to Australia, which will require tourists to make an application before their departure. However, there will be no need to visit any Indian mission.
The Planning Commission has called a meeting on Wednesday to take a final call. The meeting is expected to be attended by the security top brass, including National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. All that a tourist has to do is submit an application online and, within two to three days, a travel authorisation will be mailed back. That slip of paper would be enough to enter India. This improvisation, sources said, was important to avoid clutter at the airport as well as facilitate easier back-end verification.
The home ministry wants additional infrastructure and space at airports to handle the change, including at least 10 extra counters at major international airports and smaller numbers at smaller airports. As of now, some eight to 10 countries may not be covered by this. Here too, barring Pakistan, specific visa categories for certain countries, like conference visas for China, could be excluded.
What has made the change possible is technology. At one time, it was unthinkable for intelligence agencies to even consider the visa-on-arrival option. It was with great difficulty that they were persuaded to allow this for 11 non-risk countries, such as New Zealand, Japan and Vietnam. But this did not take off in a big way, with only 17,594 tourists using this facility in 2013.
The tourism ministry was keen to include 40 more countries, which again met initial resistance, but it soon emerged that the basic problem was how to organise the facility at airports and the pressure of cumbersome queues. The security aspect, it appears, is no longer an unmanageable problem, giving a push to discussions on the new approach. Of particular importance is the new Immigration, Visas, Foreigners’ Registration and Tracking (IVFRT) system, a project that was launched after the David Coleman Headley case. He had managed to hoodwink Indian authorities by travelling on a US passport, used his stay to scope the targets for the 26/11 attack, and even travelled to Pakistan from here without a red flag going up in the system.
Under the new IVFRT system, more than 80 per cent of Indian missions, hotels in most Indian cities and travel agents have been networked. This, in turn, is linked to the Advance Passenger Information System used by airlines. All of them are connected to all immigration posts and key Foreigners’ Registration Offices that attract maximum foreign population.
As a result, a huge database, with information on every foreigner entering India, has been created under what is called a Unique Case File. One entry of the passport and all data on past travel, stay, pattern of visits and any observations made by law-enforcing authorities anywhere in the country shows up. The data is stored at three places, in Delhi and Bangalore. This, sources said, has made taking decisions on visas quite efficient. In case of visa-on-arrival, agencies which essentially run the immigration offices and the Foreigners’ Division in Home Ministry are confident of processing any application within three days.