Nearly all travel to India from the West Coast is on hold thanks to a bureaucratic nightmare at the downtown San Francisco office that's been contracted by the Indian Consulate to process visas.
For over a week, travelers trying to get vital travel documents at Cox & Kings Global Services -- which started handling paperwork May 21 -- say they've been lost in a run-around.
"I drove here from L.A. I was here for 10 hours yesterday and five hours today," said Rachana Bhagal as she stood outside Cox & Kings' locked doors with a stack of documents in hand Thursday, but no visa.
Flights have been canceled and rescheduled, travel plans have been reshuffled, and in some cases, individuals' passports have gone missing.
"They kept saying, 'The systems are down,'" said Ameet Toor, whose flight to Mumbai to visit his wife's ailing family took off without him Tuesday after he failed to get his visa after multiple visits last week.
Now, he says, the company can't seem to locate his and his sister's passports, which he dropped off for processing last week.
"What do we do," he asked, "report them lost or stolen?"
Travelers to India cannot get a tourist visa on arrival at the airport. All paperwork must be processed in advance, or a traveler will be denied entry into the country.
The trouble began before Cox & Kings' contract with the Indian Consulate began, according to an employee who identified himself as Kamal Singh.
The previous company that handled visas, BLS, left behind a backlog of 5,000 unprocessed visas, Singh said. That, coupled with a "coding issue" with Cox & Kings' computer software, has led to only "500 to 600" visas being processed since last Wednesday.
Singh said things should begin to flow by Monday. In the meantime, outrage and anger over the delay has boiled over on several occasions.
Police have been called out to the Bush Street location to break up two fights, one May 23 and another Tuesday, public safety officials said. Two people also called 911 on May 23 to report stolen passports.
Trouble for travelers to India has struck San Francisco before. Last year, 70 passports were stolen in a burglary at BLS' offices, according to police. BLS International has also challenged the Indian Embassy's awarding of the contract to Cox & Kings in court in India.
At the Indian Consulate in the Richmond district, about 160 people with family emergencies were able to get their visas processed Thursday, said Anand Jha, the consul for community affairs.
"All the people who came here today had their applications processed," he said. "There is no crisis."
Not everyone would agree.
Vatsala Shrivastava, who has been living in Berkeley on a student visa, said she's been coming to the Bush Street office to have paperwork processed for her U.S.-born son "for days."
On Thursday, after an all-day wait, only 20 people got through, she said.
A visa expediter who declined to be identified by name said he'd been trying to get "hundreds" of travel documents processed since last week.
He entered Cox & Kings' office Thursday with the promise that today would be the day, but noted that plenty of damage has already been done.
"There are a lot of empty planes going to India right now," he said.