These days the cocktail circuit discussion on obtaining a passport has undergone a sea change. Stories of woes in getting a passport have turned into experiences of disbelief and surprise when most of us do get a passport with much less hassle than in the past. There are still crowds at Passport Offices, but the number of passport seekers has also shot up dramatically.
The growth in the work of the Central Passport Organization (CPO) has been phenomenal as more and more people travel abroad for education, work, tourism and to visit friends and relatives. From a few thousand passports in the 1950s, the passport offices delivered more than 1.17 crore passports and passport related services in 2017!
Last year was historic for passport services as the Passport Act, 1967, completed five decades of its adoption. Issue of passports is a public service rendered by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) which touches the lives of millions of citizens every year. To meet the increasing requirements of the ever-growing number of foreign travelers, the CPO has an all India network of 37 Regional Passport Offices.
The use of passports for its Indian ‘subjects’ was introduced by the British after the First World War. There was no system of passports or visas for our forefathers before 1914 ! After Independence, the issue of passports became a Central subject under the Constitution and was allotted to the MEA. In 1954, the first five Regional Passport Offices (RPO) were opened at Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Nagpur. The number of passports issued by India is exceeded only by China and the United States.
Grossly inadequate workforce
The CPO is under the ministry of External Affairs and operates with a sanctioned strength of about 2,700 which is grossly inadequate to meet the volume of work. The CPO has been able to cope with the exponentially increasing workload by entering into an innovative public-private partnership with the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and post offices to widen the network of service centres. Ninety Three Passport Seva Kendras (PSK) have been established in partnership with the TCS and more than 200 PSKs in post offices are being opened across the country. Kerala now has four RPOs at Idukki, Thiruvanathapuram, Kozhikode and Malappuram, and 15 District Passport Centers.
The CPO mandarin had realised at the turn of the century that with its limited man power, the government employees alone would not be able to service the increasing number of passport applicants. In the existing system, it is a Herculean task to create more posts, open new offices and rapidly transform the passport processing using the latest software and hardware. While 26 lakh passports were issued in the year 2000 now the monthly submission of passport applications has crossed one million mark. It was then decided to outsource the process of checking and receiving passport applications while keeping all the sovereign functions of approving an application, checking against confidential Black Lists and actual signing of the passport with the CPO officials.
After many hiccups and overcoming ill-advised resistance from the CPO employees, TCS was awarded the contract to open and run Seva Kendras in locations separate from the passport offices. To secure full cooperation of the passport organization employees, they were offered wholesale promotions and other incentives. Many a time the government had to face threats of strikes instigated by die-hard union leaders. The MEA officials had to use all their skills of tact and negotiations to have the consent of the government employees for this new procedure which was in obvious public interest.
In another bold move to take passport service closer to the people, PSKs are being opened in post offices in partnership with the Department of Posts. It would be possible to submit passport applications in 289 post offices in three phases. In record time more than 200 such Kendras have already become operational. More than 12,000 passport applicants are availing of this new window near their homes to file passport applications. The ambitious citizen friendly plan is to have at least one PSK or Post Office PSK in each Lok Sabha constituency of the country.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is very responsive to find solutions to the difficulties faced by the applicants in situations which arise due to special circumstances. Procedures are constantly monitored, feedback examined and improvements undertaken by tweaking the system. For instance passports can be issued without mentioning father’s name in the application or on the passport. This has been very helpful to single mothers and divorced ladies with minor children. The process of getting a passport under the ‘Tatkal Scheme’ has been made easier by removing the requirement of a Verification Certificate from a gazetted official.
The procedure for police verification is being simplified, but there are still reports of harassment and expectation of tip by the police. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in most districts of the country the inquiry officer expects some ‘gratification’ for smooth completion of the verification process. In this task the cooperation of state police officials is critical. At the annual Passport Diwas function in June, awards were given to the police departments of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Haryana in recognition of their innovative efforts for speedy and painless police clearances. In states like Andhra and Telangana, the police verification is done digitally. The police officer visits the applicant with a Tablet and all information is fed online on real time basis. This allows instant and paperless flow of information and approvals. In Telangana, the applicant receives an SMS on the same day which allows him/her to give feedback on the experience of dealing with the police official.
Keeping pace with the digital age, an mPassport Seva mobile App has been launched with facilities to apply, pay and schedule appointments for passport related services. To answer queries a 24x7 National Call Center is also functioning which provides real-time status and information in 17 languages. The call center receives more than 20,000 calls every day. The online portal passportindia.gov.in is quite user friendly and packed with information on passport services, procedures and requirements. The portal is bilingual and gets more than 2 crore daily hits!
For verification of identity, the passport office computer system has been linked across the country with AADHAAR database. All of India’s 184 Embassies and Consulates abroad can access the CPO database to verify any information regarding lost passports. Gone are the days when we had to wait for days to get a new travel document in the unfortunate event of losing a passport while travelling abroad.
The government revenue on account of passport fees has also registered significant growth. The estimate fee generated in one year is almost Rs 2,000 crore.
In 1967, the Supreme Court, in the celebrated case of Satwant Singh Sawhney, had ruled that the right to travel abroad was a fundamental right under the Constitution and held that possession of a passport was linked to this fundamental right. While a transformation has taken place in the passport issue process, the system is still struggling to cope with the ever increasing numbers. The good news is that that the CPO officials are striving to meet the legitimate expectations of the people of getting a passport within four weeks with a minimum of effort.
(The author is a former Chief Passport Officer)