Commerce Ministry’s visa plan hits MHA wall

Exemption for 18 countries proposed as key to services trade.

May 06, 2016 12:55 am | Updated 02:44 am IST - NEW DELHI:

The Union Commerce Ministry has proposed an ambitious scheme to waive the visa requirement for business visitors and tourists from 18 countries, which are considered critical to economic and trade strategy, but the Home Ministry has raised objections to an omnibus exemption.

The 18 countries belong to BRICS, in which India joins Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, and the Asia Pacific group that is part of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), senior officials in the two Ministries told The Hindu . China is a member of both groups.

Strategic reform In the services trade, India’s strength lies in its large pool of skilled workers and independent professionals. The Commerce Ministry is, therefore, keen that as part of the strategy, internal reforms are undertaken unilaterally to enable easier temporary movement of such persons from its trade partner countries. This will make it possible to later demand the same facility from them.

Security concerns The Home Ministry’s major objection is giving a visa waiver to Chinese citizens as part of the package, an official in the Ministry said. Security concerns have been cited in the case of visitors from China and Pakistan.

The RCEP is a proposed mega regional Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between 16 Asia Pacific countries, and its members include the 10 Association of South East Asian (ASEAN) nations, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

The Commerce Secretary, Rita Teaotia, wrote to Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi in April in the context of services negotiations under the RCEP that, “visa waiver for business visitors and tourists is very important, given our stakeholders’ feedback regarding the time-consuming onerous visa application processes which deter business travellers and tourists”.

India already has separate FTAs with ASEAN members, and Japan, South Korea and South Asian nations in SAARC.

MFN status

However, Pakistan, a SAARC member, is yet to give India the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status or practise non-discriminatory treatment. It is thus not a full-fledged FTA partner. India also does not have an FTA with China.

Besides the FTA issue, the Indian security establishment has strong objections to granting such benefits to citizens of China and Pakistan due to security concerns.

The Commerce Ministry will soon hold further discussions on the proposed visa waiver with the Home and External Affairs Ministries, sources said, adding that it was open to accommodating political and security concerns. Despite adverse reports from intelligence agencies, New Delhi recently extended electronic tourist visa facility to China, though Beijing is yet to reciprocate.

Currently, India has a visa-free entry regime for Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. The e-Tourist Visa Scheme (for tourism, healthcare, business and family visits) is available to citizens of around 113 countries, including some 40 countries for whom India has already granted visa on arrival facility.

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