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A Chorus of Complaints Against the Consulate

February 2011
A Chorus of Complaints Against the Consulate

Can you hear the clamor? It is the sound of frustration, fury even, coming from the constituents of the Consulate General of India, Houston (CGI-Houston). These are people of the Indian diaspora living in Alabama , Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas—that, God forbid, are in need of consular services for travel or other official engagement with India.

From media outfits to community leaders to immigration attorneys, all have heard from scores of folks who have had the distinct displeasure of dealing with a consulate office that, in spite of a hard-working staff, has been rendered severely impotent in the face of a surge of applications and new requirements, most notably for Surrender Certificates.

Worse, except for the very few—the “jackpot winners”—the vast majority of applicants can’t seem to get any audience with anyone at the consulate to find out, for example, if their four-month-old application was even received by the consulate office, or did it end up in the Bermuda Triangle? For many of these applicants, the consulate may as well be a fortress surrounded by a moat in the form of a communication void that no amount of e-mails or phone calls can penetrate. What does it matter to these harangued applicants that inside the “fortress” the overwhelmed consulate staff may be working furiously and diligently to process applications?

Yet, in his recent media interviews, Consul General Sanjiv Arora expends quite a bit of energy extolling: (1) the virtues of his staff (they have worked long hours and weekends all through the holiday season in December); (2) the high volume of applications processed by his consulate (in 2010, 24,000 passports; 60,000 visas; 21,000 renunciation certificates; 21,000 PIO/OCI cards; and 12,000 miscellaneous consular services—making it amongst the top 10 consular offices in the world); and (3) the changes and improvements he has introduced since taking over the office (upgraded the phone system, introduced an emergency phone number, increased staff, etc.).

OK, so hats off to these citations. Now what? Does it change anything for the vast number of applicants who are falling through the cracks despite these feats? And what to make of the fact that by the consul general’s own admission the emergency number has been rendered useless due to a flurry of non-emergency calls on it? And why tout staff additions from two years back, when your office, today, continues to remain hopelessly understaffed?

It is from this standpoint that the consul general’s emphasis on defensiveness rather than empathy is off-putting. To actually go on public media and say things like, “The situation is running very smooth and satisfactorily,” and “We are very accessible,” is a sign of utter cluelessness about the scale and gravity of the problem.

Tragic postponements and even cancellations of major life events such as weddings and real-estate transactions, as well as being unable to attend family crises or funerals, are just some of the pressing situations that hang in the balance while the consul general exults about his office.

Worse, there appears a tendency in his interviews to deflect blame for the sorry state of affairs at the consulate on his constituents. More than once, he has highlighted the challenges his office routinely faces: (1) Incomplete applications, (2) excessive inquiries on the status of the application even within the estimated duration, (3) a high number of inquiries on routine matters that the consul general says is readily available on their website, (4) applicants not applying well in advance, and then hounding them for status and resolution, (5) applicants misinformed by unscrupulous travel agents, (6) callers locking up the emergency phone number with routine inquiries, (7) a “large number” of visitors who come to their physical location for routine inquiries, and (8) applicants who are disrespectful to the consulate staff and are even unruly and threatening.

No one would doubt the validity of these complaints, and maybe there is a lesson here for many of us to resolve to be more considerate and competent consumers when applying for exacting official documents.

But consumers in general, of any organization, come in all sorts. No organization, whether Microsoft or Wal-Mart, is immune to this. They all deal with the lowest common denominator—customers who, due to attitude or inability, are a drain to those organizations. But these organizations don’t highlight that on their annual reports as a reason for their depressed stocks.

It is up to an organization to manage itself well to overcome less-than-ideal consumer behavior and yet remain effective and functional. And for lessons on this, CGI-Houston doesn’t have to go far. Travisa, CGI’s outsourcing partner that processes its visa applications, has, by many accounts, done an outstanding job with the very same pool of constituents that the consul general has a litany of complaints against. The feedback for Travisa is extremely flattering on all counts: applications are turned around very fast, phones are answered, e-mails are responded to, status reports are readily available, and instructions are detailed and clear on their very user-friendly website. Sure, there is an isolated complaint here or there, as is to be expected. But by and large, Travisa’s takeover of the visa processing on behalf of the Consulate of India has been the sole redeeming stroke of genius to the credit of the consulate.

And herein also lies the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel of CGI-Houston’s woes with its constituents. To their credit, they have recognized Travisa as their saving grace, and have recently announced that they will also hand over the processing of other consular services to them. By March 2011, applications for PIO/OCI cards and Renunciation Certificates—the ones that were particularly causing the most contention and confusion amongst applicants—will also be processed by Travisa.

Is that a collective sigh of relief I hear?

www.cgihouston.org—an archaic website

When asked in a recent radio interview if e-mail would be the preferred way to contact the Consulate General of India-Houston, Consul General Sanjiv Arora replied incredulously, “Certainly. I am glad to state the obvious.”

With so much emphasis on e-mail as the primary means to contact the consulate, one would expect that e-mail IDs would be prominently displayed on its website (www.cgihouston.org). No such luck. Not only are there no e-mail IDs on the home page, but they are also not even in the most logical place for it—in the “Contact” button (which, by the way, is somewhat puzzlingly labeled, “Contact coordinates & working hours.”). A few more clicks and you might stumble upon the e-mail IDs if you click on a button titled, “Location and driving directions!”

All this is perfectly in order with a website that, sadly, is more representative of some obscure hobbyist organization than of the government of India, the largest democracy of the world and a rapidly rising key player in the global community of nations.

To begin with, in design and functionality, the site is quite amateurish and far from user-friendly. This becomes particularly relevant considering the consul general is exasperated that so many people call and jam up their phone system to make routine inquiries when “all” this information is “easily” available on their website.

Here are some glaring shortcomings of the site, which the consulate projects as the cure-all for various consular inquiries:

  1. Site navigation is tedious as the main menu of buttons is only available from the home page.
  2. Several buttons launch a Microsoft Word document—not the most ideal solution from several standpoints, one of them being that it renders the content unsearchable in search engines.
  3. There is no site map or a search button.
  4. Older advisories that are superseded by newer ones continue to be displayed on the home page—a surefire way to confuse users.
  5. The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) and other sections are not timely updated to reflect changes. One can’t be expected to comb every section of the website, and if you miss the recent advisories, and go by information on the other areas of the website, you may find yourself driving or flying to the consulate with a painstakingly completed PIO application that would, as of this writing on January 21, 2011, be denied—as decreed in the advisory about the outsourcing of PIO Service.
  6. Visa and consular services advisories are bunched up together with other sundry press releases, making it time-consuming for users to access what they are looking for.

Makes you wonder what the consulate people are thinking (or are they?) when they admonish people not to call their office and jam up their phone lines for information that is supposedly readily available on their website.

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