Dear Consul General of India, San Francisco –
I would like to preface this letter by thanking you sincerely for providing essential services for Indian citizens abroad. The staff at the consulate in San Francisco were, throughout my experience with them, both helpful and attentive. I also wish tell you how much I appreciate that you are constantly trying to improve your services, outsourcing routine document processing and letting the staff focus on managing and exceeding visitors’ exceptions. The purpose of this letter is to outline some idiosyncrasies that appear to exist in the current system. I hope the details of my visit to the consulate will help you improve this system, and implement changes that will prevent this from happening again.
Six months ago, I was required to visit Germany for an important business presentation. Three weeks before the trip, when I went to the German consulate to apply for my visa, they told me that I needed a new Indian passport, as the Schengen countries no longer accept 20 year old Indian passports, even if they are still valid. Instead, they needed me to hold a passport from the last ten years, with embedded technology that can be read by machines at the airport. I immediately proceeded to the Indian embassy to explain my case and enlist their help. After a three hour wait in line, I was told by – albeit very friendly – staff there that I didn’t qualify for an immediate passport issue. Without an appointment, scheduled well in advance, the only way to process the application was by sending it in mail and it would take a further five weeks for my new passport to arrive. Despite feeling that I could have been given this information before I stood in line for three hours, I agreed that I would do whatever was required and without any further option or recourse, cancelled my business trip. It was genuinely painful to have to turn down such a fantastic business opportunity, but I felt that the German and Indian embassies couldn’t be held responsible for document processing times.
In the week of June 11 2012, I once again returned to the German embassy with all my appropriate paperwork to ask for a tourist visa to travel to visit my friends. The embassy looked through my documents, and realized that my new Indian passport had the month and date of birth written in an American format. According to my new passport, the 10/12 date stamp implied I was born on Dec 10, while the old one clearly indicated I was born on Oct 12. So I was forced to race – once again – to the Indian embassy. This time I at least didn’t have to wait for hours but was able to speak with a clerk there within minutes of stepping through the door. The first thing they told me was that they they couldn’t simply write an observation on the passport, but that they would have to re-issue the passport to correct the error. This would have been acceptable – though regrettable – in and of itself. However, they then informed me that it must be my fault, that I wrote the date incorrectly on my application. I calmly pointed that, even if I did the mistake was mine, surely it was the embassy’s place to check for errors. If I had so written, would they have simply accepted that my name was John Smith? The clerk Aban was, to her credit, very helpful and she said that she would speak to the officer in charge and see what could be done. They decided that in light of my circumstances, they would make a special exception and process my passport in 24 hours. All I had to do was go to the VFS (the company which handles processing of passports for the embassy), and submit my application, along with a letter explaining what had happened. I was thrilled with quality of service and level of empathy shown by the consulate, especially when compared events from six months previously.
Unfortunately, this joy was short lived.
When I arrived at the VFS office, I printed the necessary application, added my photographs and proceeded to the window. I was told that, as I didn’t have an appointment, I would have to wait – but they assured me that I would be called soon. It was an interesting scenario, and reminded me very much of government offices in India and how the babus handle things. Numerous people waited in this office with no idea when their name would be called, despite the fact that a time had already been allocated to them. It was incredibly difficult to know the expectations of the clerks working there. Several people were rushed through and had their work completed, while others waited patiently for hours. When someone approached the windows to point something out, or needed the VFS to make some adjustments to the process or even provide an appropriate processing time, the employees their simply smiled and asserted their babu-dom!
I waited in this office for four hours and as it was almost the end of the day, I walked to a window and asked the clerk to process my application. I was never called or given attention to and simply had to assert myself. I explained my situtation to the clerk their and told them that the staff at the consulate had told me to submit the application with a special note, so they could process it in 24 hours. The accepted my application and assured me that it would come tomorrow afternoon. As I don’t live in this state, I now needed to expend my stay, just so I could get the passport and process my German Visa.
The following day, June 13th, I arrived at the VFS office at 4pm. The clerk I spoke to informed me that my passport had not yet arrived, but again assured me it would be there the following morning. I had already driven from San Jose for this, and missed a client meeting in order to pick up my passport. I explained this to a senior staff member there, but his reply was the same. Tomorrow at 10am I could pick up the passport. At this point I did tell him that my flight was at 2:30pm tomorrow and I still needed to the submit this application to the German consulate. He assured me that I had nothing to worry about.
At 10am on June 14th, I arrived at the VFS office. As he had the previous day, Mr. Babu told me the passport had still not arrived, but would be here shortly. I suddenly couldn’t shake the feeling that this man had no idea what the status of my passport was, that he was offering false consolation to stop me asking more questions. So I went back to the Indian consulate and spoke to Aban. She was immediately able to tell me that my hadn’t yet worked on. In fact, it had been added to the wrong pile thanks to an error at VFS. I quietly explained my situation and told them how I was already missing client meetings and had travelled all the way from Seattle, only for this to happen! After considerable effort on the part of staff there, I was promised they would process my passport immediately, and was told to pick it up from VFS office at 4PM. At this point I had already missed 3 days of work and had made three trips from San Jose to San Francisco. Once again, I had to cancel my 2:30pm flight and reschedule it for Friday.
At 4pm I went to VFS and asked for my passport. Thankfully, they finally had it. The senior manager I had spoken to already – previously referred to as Mr. Babu – was pleased to relate how he had gotten the passport for me and started joking with me about my date of birth on the passport. I was infuriated because at this point he was not just being unprofessional but incredibly insincere. An Indian Babu in all attributes. I asked him politely to stop joking and explained – once again -how I had already lost three days, missed work and rescheduled numerous flights – all because they had not put my visa application in the correct pile. His response was to complain that it wasn’t their fault, but the embassy’s fault. He never once apologized for the inconvenience their error had caused me.
My point is, the system failed me. Six months ago I lost a competitive contract at work because of my Indian passport. Today I lost three days of meetings and earned lots of heartache, because of silly mishap either by VFS or the embassy. These two systems did not work effectively for me. I’m at the point in my life that I have a US green card and may soon have the opportunity to get a US passport. At this point, I’m sincerely tempted to get one. I don’t want to give up my Indian citizenship, just to make my life a little easier. Can we together make this system work? Can we help to make the Indian worker more competitive? I’m sure we can, and I’m hoping that this little incident will prompt you to reexamine the processes currently in place for people in my position.