Passport: getting it without sweating it

An ambitious project to give a complete makeover to the way passports are issued is eliciting mixed responses in the pilot stage, throwing up valuable lessons for the government and TCS, the private partner

samirsachdeva

Samir Sachdeva | February 6, 2011


Passport Seva Kendra, Chandigarh
Passport Seva Kendra, Chandigarh

Trilok Singh is a harried man. All he wants is a passport for his son but the way matters are proceeding, it looks like a full-fledged crisis. He first went to the sector 34 office of the Chandigarh regional passport office (RPO). Now he has come to the new passport seva kendra (PSK), which he terms as passport pareshani kendra.

Trilok Singh’s confusion is something all of us can easily imagine. His son has submitted the application at the PSK, hoping for better services. Now PSK says the passport has been sent to the RPO where it will be processed further. But RPO has no clue about it. Meanwhile, the computer in the district police headquarters at Mohali is not working, so police verification is pending. There is no help at hand to clear the confusion. Trilok Singh says there is no grievance or information officer at the PSK, and the new website (www.passportindia.gov.in) and the helpline (1800-258-1800) are of no help. The passport is needed urgently, but his son cannot apply under the tatkal scheme now as he has already applied through the normal route once.
Satinder Singh, who works in a factory and has come from Samana, can understand Trilok Singh’s travails. He first reached the RPO for his 9 am appointment. After spending more than an hour in the line he was told he had to go to the PSK. Now the PSK has asked him to come again as his documents are not in order.
But Pramod and Monica Sharma of Kharar are among the few who are satisfied with the Chandigarh PSK. They had heard stories of the hassles one has to go through to get a passport, but the couple got their passports without much trouble.
Gurjant Singh too is happy. He did pay an agent Rs 400 for help in filing the application online and getting an appointment. But, on the whole, he is satisfied as he feels things are better at the PSK than at the RPO. Narender Kaur is also relieved that she has been able to complete the procedure within a day and her kids will not have to miss school for another day again.
Another PSK, at Ambala, has also elicited mixed responses. It has saved time for Harinder Singh of Ambala Cantt, who doesn’t need to go to Chandigarh. Raj Kumar Chauhan of Karnal, who arrived at the PSK with his wife and children, breathes a sigh of relief when he says they have finished the whole process without wasting hours in queues – as he had to in Chandigarh RPO.

Making passport delivery faster
Getting a passport was never easy, and in recent years there was a spurt in demand, burdening the system further. The number of passport applicants grew from 33,216 in 1958 to 44,41,768 passports in 2006 – a 133-fold rise. The number of applicants in 2010 is estimated to be 84,39,584 (see box below).
To deliver services with speed and efficiency against such a rising demand, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) engaged the Hyderabad-based national institute for smart government (NISG) to re-engineer the whole passport issuance system. The aim was to use information technology to achieve process efficiency, citizen focus, employee productivity and transparency. NISG on its part engaged the services of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as consultants and selected Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as system integrator (SI) to implement the project in public-private partnership (PPP). As part of the vision for the project, MEA has set benchmarks to issue the passports within three days of application and, in cases which require police verification, within three days of the completion of the verification process. Tatkal passports are expected to be issued the same day.
The project envisages setting up 77 PSKs in collaboration with the private partner for delivering all front-end citizen services. The existing RPOs will function as passport back offices (PBOs) for back-end processing and passport printing. A passport portal for offering passport services online has been established and direct links with every district superintendent of police office have been established for online transfer of personal particular forms (PPFs). As part of the passport seva project (PSP), a central passport printing facility (CPPF) data centre, a data recovery centre and call centres have also been established.
But the project which was to plug delays in passport issuance was itself marred by delays. After bagging the project in October 2008, TCS missed several deadlines (March 2009, June 2009, October 2009 and November 13, 2009) for the launch of the pilot project at Bangalore, Hubli, Mangalore, Ambala, Chandigarh and Ludhiana. Even the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs expressed its concerns on the delay.
The reason: independent third-party testing agency, STQC, identified more than 600 bugs in the software which took a lot of time to be fixed. TCS was reportedly fined Rs 48 lakh as its contract with MEA mentions a Rs 2 lakh penalty for a week’s delay.
The pilot PSKs were finally inaugurated by external
affairs minister S M Krishna on May 28 in Karnataka
followed by one each in Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh on August 17.

Will it be user-friendly?
With a private firm implementing the Rs 1,000 crore project, a citizen would have expected the passport centres to finally turn user-friendly, but little changed on the ground immediately.
In Bangalore, where the passport applications were accepted through the Bangalore One centres, the standards actually went down. Reports said the centres could take only about 175-200 applications in a day. There was confusion in queue management for both online applicants and walk-in applicants.
Currently only online applicants with application reference number (ARN) are allowed to be part of the issuance process and entry into a PSK. A notice to this effect is available at the passport seva project website (www.pasportindia.gov.in). It also says that in Bangalore even the tatkal applicants have to take an online appointment and in Chandigarh the tatkal applicants have to go to the RPO.
When we accessed the website on December 22 to find the earliest appointment for the Bangalore PSK, the system showed up the date of January 18 (see webshot). So, in case someone wants to get the tatkal passport in Bangalore, he will have to wait for at least 25 days. Contrast this to the MEA’s claim of issuing a tatkal passport in a day or a fresh passport in three days.
Then there are groundlevel problems to deal with. The server can be slow or may crash down at times. The applicant has to be present at the PSK since the biometrics have to be captured and this may prove difficult for the differently-abled and senior citizens.
A verification officer at the PSK in Ambala says the new system has increased the employees’ workload, forcing them to work extra hours. They also have to now travel from Chandigarh to places like Ambala and Ludhiana. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the system was often running slow though the IT officials tried to help as much as they could.
Thus, while there are a plethora of problems with the project, the experience of the many applicants like Pramod and Monica Sharma or Gurjant Singh indicates that the system is proceeding in the right direction. The teething troubles of the new system, expected for a project of this magnitude, are also getting resolved with time.

samir@governancenow.com

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