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More barriers than required

Visas have never inhibited terrorists from entering a country. But they are an intrinsic part of any domestic monitoring system of foreign visitors.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2010 21:57 IST

Building visa barriers is the last refuge of an incompetent security official. The Indian bureaucracy has announced confusing changes to the visa regime that questionably add to the country’s security but definitely subtract from the country’s economic future. The visa restrictions, though there is much overlap, have come in two forms. One is broadly economic and aimed at ending a common practice of issuing tourist or business visas to foreigners who were coming to India to work. The other is security-related and requires that foreigners who visit India on multiple entry visas in effect take periodic two-month breaks outside the country. This restriction has been repeatedly amended, making what was merely absurd now both confusing and absurd.

The first issue has arisen because of a mismatch between a booming Indian economy and an obsolete work permit system. Indian embassies began issuing tourist and business visas to foreigners invited to work in India because they found it impossible to get such permits issued by the dead hand of the home ministry. This reflects a pre-1991 belief that no foreigner, especially from the West, would work in India unless for some ulterior motive. This is no longer true. India is short of highly-skilled manpower in scores of niche areas. Besides Chinese, tens of thousands of Westerners work in India today. And their numbers will grow. The solution is to streamline the work permit system and — more difficult — moderate the paranoia of the home ministry.

The second issue is security-related and more complex. Visas have never inhibited terrorists from entering a country. But they are an intrinsic part of any domestic monitoring system of foreign visitors. However, no credible explanation of why forcing a visitor to twiddle his thumbs for two months outside the country will help such monitoring. An exhaustive study by Israel, the world’s most security-conscious nation, recently concluded visas are no deterrent whatsoever to a dedicated terrorist. Israel now actively promotes visa-free travel agreements. Preventive intelligence, tight local policing and overall integrity among security personnel at all levels are the bases of security in places like Israel. Reform in these areas should be the government’s priority. What is clear is that India needs to modernise its visa system for the threats and opportunities of a new century.

So far, however, the security establishment seems to be looking to the wrong century for inspiration.