Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the merging of Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards, in his address at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sunday. The PM’s communication skills have again enabled him to walk away with the credit, though the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government mooted the policy first. The Modi government did suitable tweaking so that it catches the imagination of the targeted sections.
The UPA had introduced a Bill in the Rajya Sabha, the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2013, with the objective of merging PIO and OCI cards. The Bill was first tabled in 2011 and referred to a parliamentary standing committee. The House after a detailed discussion passed the Bill on August 13 last year. Former Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde had tabled the Bill in the Lok Sabha in December last year but it couldn’t be debated.
Merging of the two cards would extend the relaxed visa norms and rules governing acquiring of property in India that OCI card holders enjoy to those who also hold PIO cards. The PIO card holders can now hope to get lifelong multiple entry visas and exemption from appearance at the local police station. Currently, PIO card holders are eligible for 15-year visas.
This move to merge the two cards, however, had been opposed by various diaspora outfits, including the Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party or OFBJP. These organisations were apprehensive the merging of the two cards could cause much confusion at the immigration counters and increase difficulties for those who hold OCI cards. Currently, PIO card applicants are subjected to verification before the issuance of the card. This process for OCI card applicants is after the card issue.
There were 13.72 lakh OCI cardholders as of July 31, 2013, according to the ministry of overseas Indian affairs data. Of these, 5.2 lakh were in the US, 3 lakh in Britain, 1.33 lakh in Australia and 1.14 lakh in Canada. In a concession to current OCI cardholders, these cards will not be changed but deemed to be the new merged cards.The Bill, apart from extending similar facilities to PIO cardholders as enjoyed by those who hold OCI cards, will also rectify an anomaly. The card will be renames as ‘Overseas Indian Cardholder’, as the current OCI card gives an impression that the person is a citizen of India, which isn’t the case since India doesn’t recognise dual citizenship.
The OCI scheme, introduced in 2005, offers the card to all who were either citizens of India or eligible to become citizens of India by January 26, 1950. But citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh are not eligible. The card offers lifelong visa to cardholders and parity with NRIs in financial, economic and educational fields.
The PIO card scheme, launched in 2002, is open to all who can establish that their ancestors until three generations back were born in India. However, apart from Bangladesh and Pakistan, citizens of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Sri Lanka are not eligible for this card. Iranian nationals of Indian origin are covered only after the home ministry’s approval. The new Bill seeks to keep out only those who are citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh from the purview of the merged card but will extend all other facilities enjoyed by OCIs to PIO cardholders as well.
For the present, the PM has promised lifelong visas to existing PIO cardholders. Those who stay in India for extended periods will also be exempt from regular visits to police stations.