Which Is Slower – A Snail Or The Indian Passport Offices?

Indian Passport System Caught In Bureaucratic Maze

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The Indian government has recently fixed a deadline of 30 days for issuing passports after the applications are filed, in an attempt to speed up the process amid rising complaints about the months-long waiting period for the document.

According to the fresh instructions, a new passport should be issued within 30 days of applying, the applications for reissuing of passports should be processed in 15 days while the "Tatkal" (a premium service that expedites the passport processing) applications should be prepared within one to seven days. The government also said that all regional passport offices would have walk-in facilities for document submission.

However, the move is not expected to benefit the citizens much as the country lacks infrastructure facilities needed to cater to the heavy demand for passports that has arisen in the recent years. A passport official stated that the demand for passports has increased from 50 to 86 percent in various passport offices in the last five years.

Obtaining a passport is an ordeal for the ordinary citizens in India, the third largest economy in Asia and the second most populated country in the world. Its millions of citizens face difficulties in getting a passport, as the passport processing centers in the country struggle to process millions of applications, giving the middlemen ample opportunity to exploit the situation and take advantage of the needy citizens.

"Getting a passport is very difficult. One has to wait for weeks to get an appointment for submitting the required documents for verification. The queue in PSKs (Passport Seva Kendras) is so long that we have to wait several days and hours to get to the counter," said Gayatri S., an applicant who visited the center three days in a row to submit documents for verification.

The Ministry of External Affairs under which the Indian Passport Organization functions initiated a new project two years ago, in collaboration with a private partner Tata Consultancy Services, to streamline the process and bring in transparency.

Though the system worked fine initially, the rising demand in the last two years has derailed the system, leaving a lot of scope for the middlemen to make money.

High Demand For Passports In The Last Decade

With a population of 1.24 billon, India is the second largest country after China. The 2011 demographic estimate shows that only 5 percent of India's population has passports, in comparison with the 38 percent in the U.S.

In the same year, the number of Indian passports issued in India and abroad was just above 7.1 million. China, on the other hand, has issued over 10 million passports and it has an annual average growth of 20 percent in the number of passports issued.

The globalization in the 1990s and a tremendous growth in the economy, income and education levels have created an upwardly mobile society in India, multiplying the number of Indians traveling abroad for employment, studies and business and as tourists.

In the earlier days, it was not the norm to hold a passport if one wasn't going abroad or had no opportunity to travel out of the country. The demand for a passport was more from India's elites and those in the higher income group, who regularly went abroad for business or a holiday, and the skilled and unskilled workers from the lower- and middle-income groups who went abroad, especially to the Middle East, for employment. The trend has now changed.

"Earlier visiting a foreign country was a luxury. Now foreign visits are deemed a necessity and a norm," says Rakesh P., proprietor of Bangalore-based Jagadish Tours and Travels.

With an increase in the demand for passports, applications have accumulated in the passport offices and the passport service centers or PSKs.

Poor Passport Infrastructure Leads To Delay In Issuing

India has two modes by which passports are issued -- the regular mode and the Tatkal mode. It takes three to five months to get a passport on the regular mode while one can get it in 10 to 12 on the Tatkal mode.

In India, passports are currently issued at 37 Regional Passport Centers (RPCs) and through 77 PSKs across the country. The PSKs, which are managed by the Tata Consultancy Services on an outsourcing contract, were launched last year to reduce the burden on the RPCs and streamline the process to reduce backlogs.

In order to eliminate the middlemen and encourage people to apply for passports directly, the government has now simplified the process of applying and getting appointments online for passports. But the lack of staff and infrastructure for passport processing in the PSKs limits the number of applications processed.

"After the arrival of PSKs, the service improved a notch initially, but the deficiency in managing the system is nullifying the benefits. Poor management and unscientific processing in PSKs has resulted in huge queues in the centers and getting an appointment online is highly impossible," says Rakesh.

Using the system, the applicants can get their appointment with the passport center for document submission and verification online at a pre-fixed time. But the insufficient number of counters and staff limits the applications processed to 275 -2,000 per day.

Given that the applicants are in the millions, these numbers do not help. The online appointments run out in a few minutes after the booking counters open each day. The middle men, with access to high-speed Internet connections, book these appointments in bulk, denying the normal customers their chance at getting the appointments. A high-speed Internet connection is still a luxury in India, not enjoyed by many.

"Ideally, 85 percent of applications should be walk-in and 15 percent online. This would have been a realistic approach, taking into consideration the huge digital divide in our country," says T.K. Venugopalan, an official with the All India Passport Officers Association, reports TOI.

"I have been trying to book an appointment since past three weeks and I couldn't. Appointments are released at 4 pm in my Bangalore PSK and by 4.05 pm. I get the message that maximum number of appointments have exceeded for the day," Ganesh Bangalore, a frustrated applicant wrote in one of the consumer online forums.

The applicants allege that the delay in getting the passport and the difficulty in getting online appointments are the reasons why the middlemen run a thriving business. Further, the procedures and documents are also not standardized at each center, leading to confusion.

"Documents needed for verification varied each time I visited the counter depending on the personnel in the PSK. There is no clarity among the PSK staff regarding the documents. I had to pay three visits to clear my application," said Manu Potti, a software professional in Mumbai.

"We had to take passport for myself and my two children. To take an appointment we had to visit four times and spend hours in queue. I could get the documents verified only in my fourth visit to the PSK. For my children it was a harrowing experience," said Reena Varghese, another applicant.

Travel industry experts feel that it's the unscientific management in the PSKs that is responsible for the system's failure.

"The number of PSKs is not sufficient to meet the demand in India. Only by increasing the infrastructure and managing the existing ones better can the problem be solved. The management of people and the system in the PSKs should be given to professional agencies like VSS, which manage Visa processing in the country," said Rakesh.

'Passport Melas' Are Too Cramped

The government recently conducted passport fairs called, the "Passport Melas," in seven cities to address the growing demand for the document. These fairs saw people thronging in the thousands to avail the facility. Reports state that about 10,000 people made use of the services in the two-day fair in each city.

Though the government has announced it will hold more such fairs, this is only a temporary means of solving the issue. Experts feel it is high time that the government woke up to its responsibilities and took steps to enhance the infrastructure to meet the needs of the million Indians waiting for a passport, instead of depending on ad hoc arrangements and shortcuts to solve the crisis.

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