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India’s Visa Maze Ensnares Foreign Entrepreneurs

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Carrying all the right documentation for his five-year business visa, Alex (not his real name) embarked on what he thought would be his fourth and final visit to the Indian immigration authority. He believed his wild goose chase was almost at an end. However, his awkwardly smiling assassin, the elusive office supervisor, had other ideas.

“Sorry, you can’t get your visa now, please come back in some time,” the supervisor said, fatally.

Alex’s plight shows the difficulties entrepreneurs face in trying to access the booming market of India today. This is his story.

The economics graduate moved to India about a year ago to co-found a social business with his peers. The government made them wait the best part of a year before approving their application to be incorporated as a local not-for-profit — a vital credential to navigate the country’s Catch-22 regulatory system. With incorporation certificate in hand, Alex was confident the last piece of his visa puzzle, namely attaining a five-year authorisation to work to improve the quality of life for Indians, was about to fall into place.

How wrong he was.

Stepping into the office was like entering Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day, endlessly waiting for a weasley little oracle to emerge from his hovel in order to deliver bad news. Alex was forced to return to the office three times because he “didn’t have the right documentation.”

On the fourth visit, the bureaucrat, ensconced in his glass bubble, again said he didn’t have the right documents and would have to come back again. At the end of his wits, Alex didn’t buy it. After failing to plead his case with the front-line worker, he asked to speak with the manager lurking in the background. The bureaucrat turned meekly, skulked over, and relayed the request to his superior who took one look at the fiery redhead on the wrong side of the counter and scurried away to his glass-walled office, deep in the bubble. The clerk returned and, as if the whole spectacle had not been witnessed, told Alex the manager was unavailable.

“The manager is right there,” he said, pointing to the anonymous office. “I just need to speak with him for two minutes. I’ve already met him before. He knows my case.”

“Sorry sir, he is not available,” the bureaucrat said, reciting a well-used line. “You’ll have to send him an email to organise an appointment.”

Email? Alex was all too familiar with India’s digital black hole, where bits may have even travelled backwards and forwards in time, even to alternate universes, because they never seemed to reach their intended destination.

He whipped out his laptop and emailed the appointment request to the teller who was sitting down before him, but also included a stern warning: “I’m not leaving until I can speak with him.”

The bureaucrat retreated to discuss the latest turn of events.

Alex briefly took a minute to survey his surroundings. The same situation was playing out at three or four adjacent counters.

“This is the fourth time you’ve asked me to come back for a five-year business visa. I have all the right documentation, I have had it all along. Why won’t you accept my application?” railed another aggrieved applicant.

Alex snapped back to attention when the manager emerged from his den. He was face-to-face with his tormentor.

“What’s the problem, sir?” the manager asked.

“You know what my problem is! We’ve already spoken about it, you told me to come back with more information and I did. I’ve come back four times with the correct documentation and you’re still telling me I won’t be approved?!” he said.

“I’m sorry sir but we can’t process this visa application now, please come back in some time,” he said, wearing a weak smile.

“Why not?”

“I’m sorry sir but we can’t do this now, please apply in some time,” he repeated, like a broken record.

No matter how he always received the same answer and result but despite the frustrating experience he plans to come back and try again. He’s chasing that sweet feeling of victory that can only be earned by simultaneously exerting extreme amounts of effort and patience to achieve ordinarily routine tasks.

The Red Tape At The Finish Line

For an entrepreneur, there’s a lot to like about India. The subcontinent’s diversity, population, and economic disparity offers near endless problems to solve, as well as the scale to make a meaningful impact and return. But if you get too far ahead of yourself, the red-tape woven noose dangling around your neck will rein you back in. The rope becomes dangerously short as you enter the government maze, where searching for the right approvals demands long wait times, repeated visits, and constant apprehension as to whether the application will even be received. It’s an exercise in humility.

Saju James, partner at Fragomen Global Immigration Services, said the visa process was straight forward — if you know the procedures. This means that you must give the consulates the right information, right down to using the correct vernacular in the application.

“If you don’t stick to the template, exactly what the consulate is looking for, the chances of getting denials are much higher,” said James, whose firm has processed close to 1,000 work permits, less than two percent of which have been rejected.

This is a legacy of the way that visa offices were run before 2009, James said, when the Indian government didn’t have direct oversight of the approval process. Previously, each visa office and consulate operated as its own fiefdom; and a single supervisor served as judge, jury, and executioner.

“It was very arbitrary and the consulate officers had the power to decide, simply based on the interview,” he said. “They would say, ‘no, I’m not convinced this candidate should go on a work permit, he needs to apply for a business visa,’ and the reverse would happen as well.”

That changed as the government took direct control of the process and released specific guidelines and processes to be followed. Most importantly, it started measuring workers on how many visa applications they actually processed, as opposed to simply documenting the number of hours they worked.

It was a vast improvement.

“The only difference is that they have not published the formats for when you apply for a visa application, so some offices still give a difficult time to applicants.”

James said it was difficult to track the efficiency because the agencies themselves did not record the rejection rates. However, he estimated that the number of unsuccessful applications previously ranged into the double-digit percentages.

This is all little comfort to Alex, who still goes to bed every night in fear of being woken up by that same Sonny and Cher song and seeing his visa application, as complete as it always was, lying unapproved on his cheap desk.

[Image via Flickr]