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BLS ‘Out to Lunch’, Say Travelers Frustrated With New Visa Service

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BLS International, a New Delhi-based service that processes visa applications to India, has received many user complaints since the outsourced company began its U.S. operations in July. (graphic by Prabin Badhia/India-West)
  • SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., United States

    Vast delays in receiving a visa to India, lost applications and U.S. passports, and the inability to reach someone are among the many complaints against BLS International, a New Delhi-based outsourced service that began processing India visa applications July 1 in the U.S.

    “Working with BLS’s office in Houston has been a phenomenal nightmare,” Jawahar L. M ehta, a professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told India-West. “I had made 50 calls to the office and got no answer, no response, nothing. It’s impossible to get hold of someone directly.”

    Mehta had been invited by the Indian government to serve as a consultant to the Rajeev Gandhi Biotechnology Institute in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He had initially planned to go to India Sept. 15, and sent his application to the Houston office Aug. 8.

    Thus began Mehta’s harrowing ordeal. The Indian American – who has lived in the U.S. for 45 years – said he received an e-mail noting that he hadn’t signed under his photo in the application. He resubmitted the application, with the necessary signatures, and followed up with phone calls as his departure date was nearing.

    BLS initially could not trace the professor’s application, according to Mehta. Complicating the matter was that BLS was holding his U.S. passport with the untraceable application, which he needed for travel to Europe that month. Mehta said he considered applying for a new U.S. passport, saying his old one was lost.

    Finally, after a multitude of calls that were not returned, Mehta was able to reach someone in the Houston office, who explained that he had not submitted a “renunciation certificate.”

    The controversial “renunciation certificate,” a complicated initiative launched by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in 2010, requires all Indians who have held an Indian passport in the past to renounce the document if they now hold the passport of another country.

    For Mehta, this required finding papers he hadn’t seen in 45 years. But he got the certificate and began afresh his quest for an Indian visa.

    Mehta received his visa in late September, six weeks after his initial application. He is now scheduled to leave for India in November.

    By contrast, Mehta said he recently needed a visa to travel to China; he got that visa in five days. “They kept me up to date on the status of my application, they were prompt and very polite. I had no reason to call them,” he said.

    “I love my country. But if I didn’t have to go to India, I wouldn’t go,” Mehta stated.

    Two weeks ago – three months after BLS started its U.S. operations – India-West called BLS’s three visa processing centers in the U.S., using the numbers on each Indian Consulate’s Web site. At the Houston office, this publication received a recording: “The mailbox belonging to BLS International is full. Please hang up.”

    At the main line for BLS’s New York office, India-West received this message: “I’m sorry, but the person you are trying to reach has a mailbox that has not been set up yet. Goodbye.”

    In San Francisco, this publication fared no better: “The mailbox belonging to (blank) is full and cannot accept messages at this time.” No person or organization was identified in the recorded message.

    Several calls to the cell phone of BLS country manager Rattan Whigg had been unreturned by press time.

    Mehta is not alone in his experience: Responding to an earlier story, India-West readers roundly trounced the new service, citing lengthy wait times and non-responsive staff.

    Suresh Jayaraman applied for a visa for his daughter July 19 and had not received it by Aug. 1. “I went and applied in person: the office space is horrible. Passports are lying over the floor and no one cares. The customer service is horrible,” sad Jayaraman, adding that he could not leave a message for BLS staff as the voice mailbox was full.

    Jeff Perry, a staff scientist at the Scripps Research Institute, wrote: “This is the most pathetic visa service in the world. (I’m) waiting for a tourist visa to go to India, which is harder and longer to get than a work visa to the U.S.”

    “Utterly abysmal and unprofessional, I wouldn't be surprised if a class action lawsuit starts soon,” stated Perry.

    Dozens of writers in various travel forums also denounced BLS’s services, noting that it takes about a month to get a visa to India. The former company, Travisa, usually delivered visas by the next day. Same day visas could be issued in emergency circumstances.

    Canadian visa applicants – BLS opened offices there in March of this year – were less critical of the company. Bakhtawar Pastakia, a resident of Edmonton, Alberta, told India-West that she had applied for a visa for her sons earlier this year. “They were recently appointed and did not quite have their act together then. But the visa came in promptly,” she said. 

    Pastakia noted that BLS’s visa application Web site allows an applicant to upload photos directly on to the form. She added, however, that none of the phone numbers listed on the Web site were working when she applied.

    Travisa’s contract with the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., ended Sept. 30, 2012. The Embassy sent out a bid for new vendors, specifying later that it would only receive bids from India-based companies. The Deccan Herald reports that Indo-German Consultancy Services Neumarkt was disqualified by the Indian Embassy.

    BLS is processing visa applications at $7.30 per applicant. Travisa was charging the Embassy $13 per applicant. Travisa, however, had a fixed-term contract with the Government of India, and once the contract was over the contract was re-tendered.

    San Francisco Indian Consul General N. Parthasarathi told India-West that BLS was chosen after the Government of India undertook an exhaustive vetting process, in which all tendering documents are of public record. BLS was chosen for its experience, suitability of services, and cost, said Parthasarathi, adding, however, that cost was not the over-riding factor in choosing a vendor.

    Parthasarathi said he was aware of the public’s dissatisfaction with BLS’s services, noting that the vendor has had issues with its software, manpower and call center training. “They have not yet been able to provide satisfactory services,” he said, noting, however, that the company started its U.S. services less than four months ago.

    The San Francisco Consulate has received a number of complaints about BLS and has launched a section on its Web site – cgisf.org – with the aim of resolving issues within 24 hours, stated Parthasarathi, stressing that he hopes to resolve – not simply respond to – concerns within the next day.

    “Often, it is simply a matter of the consulate intervening with the local BLS office,” the consul general said, adding that the consulate is also holding frequent “Open House” days for the public to be able to directly interact with consular officials.

    The consulate also intervenes when there are urgent issues, said Parthasarathi, adding that there is a consular official interacting with BLS on a daily oversight basis.

    “But the primary issue is that BLS should be able to provide services without intervention,” stated Parthasarathi. 

    Asked whether he felt confident as to whether BLS would be able to function properly within the next six months, Parthasarathi said it was the public who must feel this way. “The consulate wants to ensure that the public will feel confident of quick and satisfactory service,” he stated.

    Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao, along with the National Council of Asian Indian Associations, held an “Ask the Embassy” event in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, specifically to address concerns about BLS.

    At the meeting, Rao said she personally visited BLS offices and met with applicants. Rao said she has noted their concerns and the embassy is making attempts to bring more “professionalism” to BLS’s services.

    BLS’s Rattan Whigg told the forum that feedback by the community leaders would be used to improve its services.

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