What are the Indian Consulates in New York, San Francisco doing?
By Gertrude Smodden
NEW YORK: At the height of the travel season on a steamy afternoon in early July, a throng had gathered on a sidewalk on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. Elderly couples, young tourists, families with children, businessmen in suits, were all sweating together under the midday sun. They had come from all over the country, often at great personal cost, on planes and trains, missing work and abandoning commitments. They were trying to get to the same place: India.
And they were intensely dissatisfied with Cox & Kings Global Services (CKGS), the travel firm that was ideally supposed to help them on their way, but now posed the greatest obstacle between them and their destinations.
As of May, CKGS became the new contractor for the Embassy of India and its consulates in the US, in charge of processing visas and other official documentation for travelers to the country. According to public statements from consulate officials, in taking over the job from a firm called BLS International, CKGS inherited a massive backlog of unprocessed applications for visas, Overseas Citizen of India designations, Person of Indian Origin cards, and renunciations. CKGS’ poor management of this transition in the first months of their contract has led to numerous lost passports, payments unaccounted for and cancelled trips.
People wondering where their pertinent documents are or about their application statuses have a few options: email a general inquiries address and describe their situation, try to get straight answers from a customer service representative at a call center in India, or visit one of CKGS’ regional offices in the hopes of speaking to a representative.
On that July afternoon, having exhausted the first two options, hundreds of people had come to CKGS’ New York office, spilling on to the sidewalk outside the building. The crowd was swelling in number but diminishing in patience. Some had managed to obtain appointments for specific issues, but most did not. The next available appointments on CKGS’ online calendar weren’t until August, and these people had impending travel plans, had booked tickets and hotels, had families and friends expecting their arrival.
On the sidewalk
Periodically, the masses on the sidewalk would get rowdy. At one point, they tried to rush the front door and push past the security guard. The guard threatened to call the police. Once every hour or so, a CKGS official would make an appearance on the street, but with a different set of instructions from previous officials. No one without a printout of their application tracking number would be seen, one said. All those without an appointment should go home, a guard instructed. People should get tokens — handwritten notes scribbled on yellow sticky notes — for appointments the next day, was another recommendation. Only those with travel dates in the next three days would be seen, one CKGS officer pronounced.
Eventually, officers began collecting the application tracking numbers from customers. Then they’d disappear for a half hour or more. They would return with two or three passports and hand them out to the lucky owners. The less fortunate members of the crowd would clap for them.
As people stood around on the sidewalk for hours, waiting, hoping to see someone upstairs, the sunny afternoon disappeared behind clouds, and it started to rain. Still people waited, swapping stories of their terrible experiences with CKGS, or with the previous contractor BLS International. Everyone had a story to tell. They said, their voices straining with exhaustion and disgust, how this was “just like India,” how they were getting the “runaround.” This is a “scam,” others were convinced. “They should be in jail,” one woman said.
In CKGS’ San Francisco office, distressed customers, when they learned that the firm had lost their passports, had dialed “911,” according to one report. An angry New York man, who had tried unsuccessfully to get passed the guards to go upstairs to the CKGS offices, boomed, “You all should complain. This is not right.” But complain to whom?
Bureaucracy, particularly the Indian variety, is famous for its misdirection and corruption, and the bureaucrats are rarely held accountable. A 2012 report by Hong Kong’s Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked India’s bureaucracy as the worst among Asian countries; Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China all scored better. The report further decried that because Indian bureaucrats rarely faced any negative repercussions for their wrong decisions, “this gives them terrific powers and could be one of the main reasons why average Indians as well as existing and would-be foreign investors perceive India’s bureaucrats as negatively as they do.”
Ashutosh Chowdary, a photographer from Texas waiting outside CKGS’ offices, described the security officers as treating customers “like slaves.” In stature and attitude, they remind one of burly bouncers who guard the doors to the exclusive nightclubs of New York City and who look down on the lowly patrons waiting outside with little regard. Chowdary recalled two elderly people in line who couldn’t stand out in the sun any longer and who asked the guards if they could sit inside. Their behavior toward the couple was “indecent,” he said, and “I felt like hitting them to the ground.”
Chowdary had flown into New Jersey and then taken a train to the city, just hoping to get a straight answer from CKGS about the visa status of his niece and nephew. Chowdary’s sister, living with her children in Ohio, couldn’t make the long trip herself. Before sending her brother as her emissary, she called CKGS’ customer service about the visas, with no success. “I was just there to ask a simple question about the status of the process,” Chowdary said.
Alexandra Shchipkova, 28, drove down from upstate New York just to stand on the sidewalk with the rest of the applicants. She had received contradictory emails from CKGS — several emails said they would mail her passport and documents, and another said that the documents were ready for her to pick up. So, what should she do — wait for the passport to arrive in the mail or go pick it up herself?
Before making the trip down, she tried to find out more by calling CKGS’ customer service. Most of the time, the representatives gave a scripted response that her papers would be ready in the coming days. Things appeared to be looking up, when during one of these calls, a customer service rep gave her the numbers of two CKGS officials in New York. “Both numbers he gave me were personal cell phone numbers of people in no way associated with CKGS. He had made them up!” Shchipkova said. “I called back and asked to speak to a supervisor. I was promised one would call me back. I am still waiting for that call.”
Another young American woman, Jennifer Perry, received an email from CKGS stating that her Person of Indian Origin application was withdrawn and that she would receive a refund. The only problem was that Perry had applied for a visa and she wasn’t Indian. She was able to clear up the issue by calling customer service. A few days later she received a call and an email with the good news that CKGS would mail her passport for free, a concession for their mistakes. But when Perry didn’t receive the passport in the mail, she visited the CKGS office and they still had her passport.
Between 2010 and 2012, travelers from the US topped India’s foreign visitors list. According to the most recent figures from India’s Ministry of Tourism, between 1981 and 2012, the number of travelers from the US jumped from 82,000 to more than 1 million. Providing travel services to 1 million US visitors to India each year cannot be an easy task. Moreover, providing competent and efficient service is impossible without knowledgeable personnel, IT infrastructure and clear administrative procedures. Based on the accounts of CKGS customers, however, the travel firm appears unprepared to handle the influx of applicants in the first months of its contract. Things are likely exacerbated by the transition from BLS, and there may very well be a plan in place to improve the process. Despite efforts to contact CKGS and the Indian Consulate in New York and San Francisco for comment, and ask them how they intend to address travelers’ complaints, no one responded.
In the last three years, the Indian government has worked with three different contractors to furnish travel services in the US — Travisa, BLS, and CKGS. BLS is infamous among India travelers. The Telegraph newspaper from Calcutta, reported in January about an external affairs ministry review, which revealed BLS had lost 45 passports of Indian and foreign nationals since mid-2013. Besides this, published articles claim that the Indian Consulate and the embassy in Washington, DC, have received hundreds of complaints from BLS customers alleging lost or stolen passports. A note on the Indian Consulate’s website at least acknowledges there is a problem and instructs people to contact the consulate via e-mail if they’ve paid BLS and not received any services.
The Indian government’s strategy of simply switching contractors, however, hasn’t fixed inefficiencies that seem etched into procedural DNA — the absence of customer service; disappearing documents; payments made, processed, but then, suddenly unaccounted for. Only with each new contractor, the bureaucratic morass seems to get deeper, the paperwork jungle denser, and the risk ever graver that a hopeful traveler, after losing much time, money, and self-respect, will not reach his desired destination.
Having applied for a visa to India for three consecutive years, Shchipkova has dealt with all three contractors. She had difficulties with BLS, but described her experience with CKGS as “horrific.” After waiting outside since 3 pm, at around 7:30 pm, Shchipkova finally made it up to CKGS’s offices and witnessed their process for locating customers’ passports.
A CKGS agent combed through the “S” applications. “The 200-some applications in the [“S”] drawer were in no order whatsoever,” she recalled. Then, other officials joined in looking under “A” and even “Y,” in case the passport was filed under her first or middle name. Finally, the manager went to a back room to search further. Nearing 9:30 pm, with no word on her passport, Shchipkova made a last bid to another agent for help. He looked again in the “S” drawer, simply plucked out her application and gave her the passport. “I have never before experienced such incompetence, such lack of accountability and apathy,” she said. “I have never been lied to at every turn like this and never been treated with such flagrant disregard.”
Similarly, Chowdary described CKGS’ process for locating passports as a mess. “When I say ‘mess,’ it really means mess,” he said. He was told by a CKGS official that they had his niece and nephew’s passports but not any of the supporting documents or the fees. “But … everything was already paid for,” Chowdary pleaded. “They [wouldn’t] listen to me when I said that,” he said. He returned to New Jersey at around 11 pm, and called his sister with the bad news that CKGS had lost all the pertinent documents she sent. “Now she has to come all the way from Ohio to get this done,” he said.
Shchipkova, Chowdary, and many others, have little recourse for the mistreatment they’ve endured. Travelers to India are being forced to grin and bear the bureaucratic runaround, in “typical Indian fashion,” here in the US.
At one point, when the crowd on the sidewalk was getting particularly riled up, a security guard came out and explained that CKGS only saw 25 people a day without appointments, and those still waiting were out of luck since they had distributed appointment tokens (or sticky notes) earlier that morning. “Tokens?!” the people cried out. “But we weren’t told we needed tokens! We called your helpline and they said we could come during 1 and 2 pm without appointments!” The guard, nonplussed, dismissed these objections. “Oh, those customer service people are in Mumbai!” he said. “They don’t know anything.”
(Gertrude Smodden is a pseudonym used by the writer, as the writer fears that a visa application submitted will not be processed by concerned authorities if true identity is revealed.)