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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

In the works,a visa overhaul

The Home Ministry is working to create a massive centralised database with details of every foreigner entering and exiting the country. The new system will change the way people travel to India,writes PRANAB DHAL SAMANTA

Written by Pranab Dhal Samanta |
July 25, 2010 11:01:37 pm

A mammoth exercise,involving different arms of the government’s security establishment,is underway to transform the way India regulates the entry and exit of foreign nationals. The first major change,prompted by the case of David Coleman Headley,has already been effected for Pakistani passport-holders and those of Pakistani-origin,regardless of their nationality.

From now on,every Pakistani or Pakistani-origin applicant will be treated as PRC (Prior Referral Case),which means the decision will lie with the Home Ministry. For this,online link-ups have been established between the Indian High Commission,Islamabad,and New Delhi. A stipulated 30 days is the maximum time for this screening to be done.

This was put in place just for Pakistan because the Home Ministry was keen to take this up on priority for security reasons. What is in the works is a massive overhaul of the entire system,starting from the point of issuing visas to having the ability to track foreigners while they are in India.

The idea is to create a secure and massive centralised database as well as visa processing facility under the Home Ministry,where all details about a foreigner travelling to India are kept constantly updated in a dedicated folder.

Called the Immigration,Visas,Foreigners’ Registration and Tracking Project (IVFRT),this Rs 1,100-crore exercise has already got the clearance of the Cabinet Committee on Security and is now undergoing rapid implementation with the government planning to cover Indian missions in Dhaka and London by next year in the first phase. These two missions account for the highest volume of Indian visas issued. A new India visa sticker is also going to be out by August,which would make duplication difficult.

The way it works is that every foreign national who applies to India must be tagged.

Just like national identity numbers,a unique case file identity (UCFID) folder is created for every applicant. This identity number will be a permanent fixture,stored in a central database,and each time the person travels to India or gets another visa issued,the activity will be recorded against this UCFID. Basically,the past profile of any person wanting to travel to India would be a click of a mouse away for security agency officials.

In line with the best practices adopted by developed countries,biometric profiling will be carried out with two fingerprints in the first phase. This would be taken at the Indian missions abroad at the time of interviewing applicants. And once done,it would automatically be sent to Delhi through an online system.

At the heart of this overhaul is the creation of one centralised database under the Home Ministry,which will also act as a processing system for vetting visa applications. This nodal unit would act as a hub,which would be networked on a real-time basis with about 170 Indian missions abroad,the seven FRROs (Foreign Regional Registration Office) and 78 immigration check posts at air,land and sea ports across the country. All visa applications will have to be filled online or uploaded after filling.

The watchlist or the blacklist created in coordination with various security agencies would be available on this centralised facility to quicken the visa clearance process. At the same time,suspect cases would have to wait at least a month for a decision.

So,once an application is accepted by the Indian mission,it would have to be uploaded immediately and passed on through a secure virtual private network to the Home Ministry’s centralised system. Here,it would be run automatically against the watchlist. Also,a UCFID will be created in case of a first-time applicant,else the necessary information would just be added to the applicant’s existing UCFID folder. In routine circumstances,the aim is to complete this process—accepting the application,scrutiny at Delhi and then relayed back to the mission for issuance of visa—within three days while ensuring that necessary information is stored for purposes of security.

The other linkage planned in the project is with the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS). This system enables airlines to provide the details of passengers travelling on a particular aircraft to authorities at the destination point. So,for instance,the passenger record of a plane leaving the US for Delhi can be instantly provided to Delhi Immigration even before the plane has left its point of origin.

This system is currently in place in some key metro airports. The decision has now been taken to make this compulsory for all airlines operating to and from India and link this with the central facility so that all key agencies have access to these details and can match them with the UCFID folders of those individuals who are headed for India.

If this system had been in place,sources said,those monitoring the central facility would have got the overall picture of Headley’s numerous visits to India and even detected the pattern. Not just that,his departure record would also have been built up in a UCFID folder,which would have revealed his visits to Pakistan because,under this system,all immigration check points would be connected with this facility.

Despite having systems in place now,officials say,the problem is the inability to join the dots because information is not integrated. The new system will also have a public interface portal,be it through websites of the missions where visa applications will be filled or the FRRO’s office where foreigners have to register.

What is now planned is that all hotels,in a phased manner,will be asked to feed in information,such as passport details of foreigners staying with them,on a portal the same day they check in. Here again,had this been the case when Headley was touring India,his travel and stay profile could have been matched with his foreign trips,including those to Pakistan. The collation of such information could possibly have generated an alert well in advance for at least questioning of the man at some stage.

While the entire project is supposed to be completed in four years,the working deadline has been kept at three years. However,there are immediate targets set for August next year:

*Implementation of an integrated online visa application system with appointment scheduling to be in place at Indian missions in Islamabad,Dhaka and London.

*The centralised data centre and visa processing office would be established.

*Uniform systems without biometrics would be in place at all missions,integrated check posts and FRROs.

*Secure virtual private network connectivity with all missions.

*Experimentation with biometrics would have begun.

The government is also working to place certain visa categories into PRCs. These currently include all Pakistani nationals as well as those of Pakistani-origin,across-the-board employment visas,even business visas in the case of Chinese applicants and other such categories. A PRC would mean that the case would be sent to security agencies for complete verification with a 30-day time period for a response.

In case a particular applicant is found suspect even during a routine check,then it would be deemed a PRC. Sources said it is quite possible that many individuals could be needlessly harassed as it happens in the case of US because of the profiling system,but instructions are to have in-built systems to minimise such trouble.

The entire project is being done by the Home Ministry and the National Informatics Centre and a huge team of about 300 people is gradually

being created to get the project off the ground.

Already,the visa application forms have been standardised and secure virtual gateways have been created with missions in Islamabad and Dhaka. Call it the Headley effect but sources say pressure is mounting and the Home Ministry is keen to have this system in place soon.

Behind the change

Why the overhaul?

It’s the Headley effect. David Headley,a US citizen of Pakistani origin,travelled to India on business visas nine times between 2006 and 2009,checking in and out of hotels in Delhi and Mumbai. He also made frequent trips to Pakistan from India,all this while coordinating with his Lashkar bosses on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. And he did all this without arousing any suspicion in the minds of immigration authorities. If the planned centralised database of foreigners and other checks had been in place then,Headley wouldn’t have had it so easy.

How would the system have worked in Headley’s case?

Those monitoring the central facility would have detected a pattern in Headley’s numerous visits to India. His departure record too would have been built up in a UCFID folder,which would have revealed his visits to Pakistan. And since,under the new rule,all the hotels he stayed in would have added his details to his database,he would have been under watch.

How does it work?

A massive centralised database as well as visa processing facility will be set up under the Home Ministry. This will have dedicated folders for every foreigner travelling to India,with details of their visits constantly updated. Every foreign national who applies to India will be tagged and will have a unique case file identity,with details of his previous visits and the places he stays. There could be privacy issues here. There will also be a watchlist or a blacklist.

Will it inconvenience people visiting India?

The argument is that if you are clean,the system will complete the visa process in three days. But if somebody arouses suspicion,his case will be sent to security agencies for a complete check and he’ll be stuck for not less than a month.

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