Punjab: As India-Canada Row Escalates, Visa Delays Worry Students, Businesses Report Losses

Canada suspended consular services in Chandigarh, Mumbai, and Bengaluru after 41 of its diplomats were asked to leave by India. This has only further worsened the fears of students as well as businesses looking forward to 'NRI season' in Punjab.

Jalandhar: For the past few days, Jalandhar resident Simran (20) and her parents have been facing a dilemma: should she apply for a Canadian study visa now or defer until the diplomatic ties between New Delhi and Ottawa show signs of a recovery?

Simran’s fears are not unfounded. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have been in a downward spiral since mid-September, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons that Indian agents were linked to the killing of Canadian Sikh citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Khalistan activist who was wanted in India for terrorism charges. India rejected the allegations and later shut down visa services to Canadian citizens.

Tensions escalated further on October 19, after Canada complied with India’s demand to withdraw 41 diplomats posted in India, suspending consular services in Chandigarh, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. This is likely to cause delays in visa services and longer waits at the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi for in-person submissions.

Simran said, “As of now, my parents have asked me to first complete my IELTS coaching and get a good score. We will plan the study visa later. If the situation between India and Canada does not improve by then, I will have to pursue graduation in Jalandhar.”

Since IELTS test scores are valid for two years, Simran said many of her friends are also planning to “complete the exam first and then wait for the right time to apply for a study visa”.

Also read: Punjab: India-Canada Standoff Sparks Visa Fears Among Students, Overseas Consultants

In fact, those who visited the Canadian consulate in Chandigarh on October 19 to avail of services were turned back. Applicants also say fake news about the issue is worsening the confusion and chaos.

Another student Sunaina, who was taking IELTS coaching from an institute in Phagwara in the Kapurthala district, said, “Study visas are time-bound, as the students get admission according to the seat availability in the next semester and pay a hefty fee in dollars. We are deeply concerned.”

Sunaina’s village in Jalandhar, Ganna, has high levels of drug abuse, petty crime, and violence. Parents prefer to send their children abroad for education so that they can escape these circumstances.

“Our village is infamous as a haven for drug peddlers. Hardly a day passes when we do not witness petty crime, police raids, and arrests of drug peddlers or fights in the streets. People in our village have either moved to the cities or emigrated. The lack of quality jobs and wages is a huge concern too. Youth today want value for the money invested in education, which is assured if you move abroad,” she said.

Education consultants worried over visa delays

Despite withdrawing 41 diplomats from India, Canada’s immigration minister Marc Miller said that Canada would continue to accept and process all temporary and permanent resident applications from India.

The minister also informed that the remaining staff will continue to focus on the work that cannot be moved out of the country, such as urgent cases, visa printing, and working with visa application centres and the panel physicians who conduct the important immigration medical examination for the applicants. “Visa application centres are run by third-party contractors (VFS Global) and would not be affected,” he said.

Justin Trudeau and Narendra Modi. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office/Wikimedia Commons, GODL-India

However, education consultants say fewer diplomatic staff in India and the suspension of consular services in three major cities will inevitably mean an increase in visa processing times.

Kuljit Hayer, who owns Jalandhar-based Universal Travels, told The Wire, “With diplomatic staff reduced to just one-third, the processing time of applications will be longer. The impact would not be limited to student visa cases but to visitor visa and Permanent Residency (PR) applications too. Basically, Punjabis will suffer in both cases – whether it is because of India’s suspension of visa services to Canadian citizens or those applying for visas from India. However, given the current scenario, the Canadian government may focus more on study visas, as they are time-bound and subject to a student’s admission in a college or university.”

Hayer also pointed out that the downturn in diplomatic ties between India and Canada have resulted in a loss of business to travel agents. “Overnight 250 to 300 air tickets were cancelled in the past few days. Many families had to postpone weddings,” he said.

“While the Indian government has completely suspended visas for Canadian citizens, the Canadian government’s work will be slower now. We can just hope that this situation improves gradually.”

‘Mass rejections unlikely’

However, Pamsy Singh Sehmbey, a consultant based in Toronto, said that despite the recent escalation, the Canadian authorities were in no mood to ruin their relations with India.

“Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau has made this clear. There might be some delay in the processing time of applications, but I am sure it will not lead to mass rejection of visas. Even now, the processing time for study visas is around 22 days, and 31 days for visitor visas. The dates for biometric services, which are mandatory for Canadian visas, are easily available at VFS Global, a third-party service. Similarly, dates for medical tests for visas are also available as per schedule. I think people should keep applying,” she said.

Contrary to this, Kanwaljit Kaur, branch manager of Golden Pillars Immigration in Jalandhar, said that ever since Canada was asked to withdraw 41 diplomats, prospective applicants are thinking twice because they fear an unexplained rejection.

“See, nobody wants their visa application rejected. As of now, people have stopped applying for Canadian visas. Since the Canadian authorities have said there might be an increase in processing time, people are concerned. Earlier, the processing time for study visas was around 15 to 30 days. However, it might go up to two months. We are suggesting clients wait for now, as Canada did not stop issuing visas during the COVID-19 pandemic. We would request people to remain aware of the latest updates and beware of fake news,” she said.

Weddings cancelled and businesses affected

A Jalandhar-based couple, Sandeep Singh and Sandeep Kaur, said their Canadian cousin was supposed to get married on October 21. The groom failed to get a visa following the Indian government’s suspension of visa services to Canadian citizens and the ceremony had to be cancelled.

“Nearly half of the groom’s relatives are based in the US and others are in the UK. Almost all of them had booked air tickets for the wedding in Hoshiarpur district. They had to postpone the wedding. The groom’s family had printed the wedding cards while the bride’s family had booked the marriage palace. It led to a big financial loss,” Sandeep Singh said.

Singh said that the bride and the groom’s families were eagerly waiting for India-Canada relations to normalise. “We hope that the Indian government reconsiders its decision and allows People of Indian Origin (PIOs) to visit their homeland for reunions, weddings, and functions,” he said.

The regions of Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur, and Nawanshahr – which have a sizeable number of Punjabis settled in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Europe – are famous for hiring private jets, luxury wedding cars, Punjabi singers, bhangra groups and hotels for weddings and other occasions.

The usually busy NRI markets of Jalandhar, Phagwara, and Ludhiana have been bearing the brunt of fewer visitors. “Our business has been badly affected. The onset of winter in Punjab means NRI and PIO season for us. We look forward to a big boost in revenue, as weddings, functions, and family visits take place from October to April. However, this year, the market is slow,” said Vidya Sagar from Madaan Cloth House, Phagwara.

A showroom owner, also from Phagwara, said that an NRI wedding means flourishing business for every sector. The owner cited the example of a UK-based that landed in Jalandhar for a wedding last year. “Not only did they buy traditional dresses and jewellery worth several lakhs, but they stayed in three of the top hotels of Jalandhar, spending a whopping amount.”