People seeking US visas can now apply for a visa interview at any of the consulates in Chennai and Mumbai and the American embassy and not necessarily in the mission under which the applicant's area comes.
Announcing this at a press conference in New Delhi on Friday, US consul general Peter G Kaestner said that though the Kolkata consulate has not yet been included in this new scheme, applicants from the Kolkata region too can apply in any of the other three missions in the country.
He said this new facility has been introduced to clear the huge backlog of visa applicants in the US fiscal year 2006 that ended on September 30. To avail of this new facility one has to check the US embassy website for the visa interview appointment availability.
"By the end of September, we had a backlog of 90,000 applicants and the ambassador (David Mulford) said this was simply not acceptable," Kaestner said.
He said the US government is taking a number of steps to clear this backlog as well as to reduce the time gap between applying for a visa interview appointment and granting of the interview.
As of now, there are several instances in which this time gap is as long as six months.
"We intend to reduce this time gap to only two weeks," he said, adding that he hoped to clear the backlog latest by April next year.
Asked whether the US administration has relaxed its norms for granting visas to clear this backlog, he replied in the negative but added that the number of resources has been increased.
In the last three years 12 new consular officers were appointed across India and in 2006 alone seven new positions were added.
"We intend to add another six positions in 2007," Kaestner said.
This apart, 18 officers from US missions in various countries will be coming to India in January to help in the process of clearing this backlog.
Besides, plans are afoot to open a new pre-screening facility at the consulate in Chennai, where the maximum temporary visa applications are received. Six additional visa-interviewing windows are planned in that consulate.
While in New Delhi, a $20-million renovation project would double the size of the current section, adding 10 new visa-interviewing windows, in Mumbai, a new $100-million consulate general building would be ready by 2008, Kaestner said.
"The Indian government has approved a building for a new consulate in Hyderabad. We hope to have a 15-window consular operation open in 2008," he said.
Kaestner added that the $50 visa issuance fee that applicants needed to pay in addition to the $100 visa fee has been done away with.
"This is an example of the importance the US administration attaches to people-to-people contact between the US and India," he said.