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Delhi students, teachers caught in covert India-France visa war

Monday 20 March 2006, by NARAVANE*Vaiju

Applications handled "casually"; students, teachers from Delhi put to hardship

Visa was valid only for France whereas the group required Schengen visa for transit through Germany Germans come to help

Paris: Barely three weeks after the visit to New Delhi of French President Jacques Chirac, during which the two countries declared they were reinforcing their "strategic partnership" in all fields including travel and tourism, the covert visa war appears to have re-started in earnest.

In the latest case, 21 Indian exchange students and accompanying teachers from the capital’s Sanskriti School almost failed to reach Paris, because the French embassy in New Delhi failed to give them the correct visa. What was issued was valid only for France, whereas the group required a "Schengen" visa mandatory for transit through Germany since the students were to change planes at Frankfurt and Munich.

The visa application made by the school clearly indicated their itinerary and flight schedules. It appears the visa-issuing official at the embassy has not taken that into account, with the result the students were almost turned back from Frankfurt.

"Had it not been for the understanding shown by the German authorities who were kindness itself, we would have had to return to Delhi by the next available flight. As it was, we missed our connecting flight, had a six-hour long wait at the airport and had to pay 54 euros for a transit visa and 524 euros as extra ticketing charges," one of the accompanying teachers told The Hindu .

In the confusion, 14 suitcases failed to make it to Paris and the students had to spend their first 24 hours in Europe without warm clothing. "The host families were waiting for over six hours. The whole thing was an absolute nightmare. We are very grateful to the Indian Ambassador, Mr. Rangachari, who went out of his way to help us," the teacher said.

In a written declaration shared with The Hindu , the teachers said their visa applications in New Delhi were handled "in a casual manner leading to great inconvenience and stress for the Indian group."

Last year when students from the French host school visited India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh received them. A senior Indian official here expressed surprise that such a visa had been issued at all. "The practice now is to issue Schengen visas, valid for several E.U. countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Portugal or Italy. This sort of thing has been happening too often for it to be a mistake. It is regrettable. The French foreign office was embarrassed by the hardship caused and tried to rectify the matter but found itself helpless to rectify the situation."

The French authorities did not change the visa and the Germans stepped in again, issuing a second transit visa in Paris, this time free of charge so that the students could travel through Germany on their way back.

Last year the French embassy for some obscure reason denied visas to the official delegation, which accompanied Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. The official explanation given then was that India had refused visas to French TV journalists.

Now the replacement for the Air India manager in Paris is unable to take up her duties because the French embassy has held up her work permit.

"Even the French acknowledge that we issue the highest number of visas of any embassy here, almost 550 a day. As far as visas for filming goes, we have to get permission from the External Affairs Ministry and that takes some time. This has been explained to the French authorities many times," a senior Indian embassy source in Paris told The Hindu .

According to another well-placed source, the present situation could also be due to the tremendous friction between the head of consular services and the French Ambassador in New Delhi, Mr. Dominique Girard. "Like anywhere there is a lot of infighting between the various branches of government and we encounter it here as well, where the foreign office will do nothing to oblige the Interior Ministry and vice versa. This is a reflection of domestic politics in France. Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy will not oblige the Foreign Ministry or take orders from the Prime Minister’s office. [Prime Minister] Mr. Villepin is sympathetic to India but he has little power over immigration services controlled by Mr. Sarkozy, his political rival. We know it for a fact that persons in the immigration services have been told to act tough with immigrants."

French officials say India is equally slow and lackadaisical about issuing work permits and long-term visas. Two Alsthom employees appointed to the company’s India operations have been waiting for months to have their work permits cleared.

The Indian Government also does not allow recruitment of "foreign" local employees. A French person on a tourist visa, for instance, cannot be employed by the embassy as "local staff" because the Indian Government will not issue the requisite work permit.

See online : The hindu

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