Pankaj Sharma/ Zee Research Group
India, which is emerging as a prime medical tourism destination, faces the threat of some foreign patients staying here forever. In a first, 27 such patients from Pakistan came here on medical visa but are yet to return to their country. An anxious government is as of now treating them as ‘missing’ visitors.
The government acknowledged in Lok Sabha during the ongoing Monsoon Session that Pakistani medical tourists were ‘missing’. Mullappally Ramachandran, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, said in reply to a question, “As per information available, 27 Pakistani nationals who have visited India on medical visa have not returned to Pakistan. Steps have been taken to verify whether they (Pakistani visitors on medical visa) are still undergoing treatment or taken departure from other immigration check posts.”
India has emerged as an attractive medical tourism destination since it offers affordable quality medical care. While there has been a general upswing in numbers, those from Pakistan have shown a steady rise. The number of Pakistani patients who visited India stood at 702 in 2008, 908 in 2009, and 1204 in 2010. However, during the first six months of the current year, the number has already crossed 869.
The government said the Home Ministry was seized of the issue and had already built in enough checks and balances to ensure misuse. The MHA had mandated only three entries per year for any visitor under medical visa category. Foreigners coming to India on medical visa are also required to register themselves within a period of 14 days from the date of arrival.
Experts, however, were not convinced and demanded more stringent measures to check possible misuse. Dr Kamal A Mitra Chenoy, Professor, International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said, “There are lots of loopholes in our system. Only hospitals can certify how long a patient will take to cure. They should help government in maintaining the status about foreign patients. If government feels that it can lead to any crisis they should direct hospitals to be more accountable.”
Surprised at the development of ‘missing’ Pakistani patients, senior neurologist at Apollo Hospital, Dr Vinit Suri said, “Hospitals have hardly to do anything with the overstaying of any foreigner as this is being manned directly by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).” Apollo is one of the popular hospitals for medical tourists in the country.
As per a recent report of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), the number of foreign patients in India is expected to cross 32 lakh annually by 2015 from the current level of 8.5 lakh a year. The medical tourism industry here is estimated to be around Rs 4,500 crore and is likely to be worth Rs 10,800 crore by 2015.
Beyond medical tourism, the issue of illegal overstay of foreigners on general visa, too is rampant with citizens from the neighboring countries leading the list. As per government’s own figures submitted in Lok Sabha recently, until 31st December 2009 a total of 73,441 foreigners overstayed in India. While people from Bangladesh topped at 32,664, Afghanistan and Pakistan followed with 13569 and 7691 nationals respectively.
A total of 2490 people from Sri Lanka and 1535 from United States of America (USA) also featured in the list compiled by the government of foreigners who had overstayed in India.