Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Joys of the Passport Office

This is an old story. As you know, the matter is resolved now... But it gives an idea about how hard it can be for the common people of India to deal with the government.

And this one story is about the 'simple' matter of getting a passport.

I've had the displeasure of going to the Regional Passport Office in Secunderabad a few times in order to help with my wife's passport. I would say that the entire things seems to be encouraging the thriving passport agent business to reach new heights.

First, don't bother going to the official website, print the forms and fill them in. They will turn you down and ask you to go buy their own forms. But then, maybe they won't even let you get their forms, but will force you to pay 400 rupees for some guys to fill them in for you. You find that 400 for filling one sheet is a lot, and guess that some of that will go to the aggressive guy who didn't accept your forms in the first place.

Now, you may ask for your application to be considered under Tatkal (=Express), but it seems that only agents can get that without you providing some serious proof that things are urgent.

So your application will be slowly gathering dust inside that big building. They have an internet inquiry, which may give you blank results, especially if your file is stuck somewhere. For better results, use the SMS enquiry feature (3 rupees each time).

If you make the "mistake" of marrying a non-Indian, then your file will go to the Legal Cell. But, actually, your file will NOT go there and gather dust.

So when your situation becomes urgent, you can show up with a document that states so, whether some company request letter, GRE exam booking, flight tickets, etc.

So you will wait in a very long queue at the Enquiry Counter. That queue is not lit for the most part and fans may or may not be working. You will have to watch your step, as there is a partially open ditch that clearly hasn't been clean for a few months waiting for an inattentive foot.
As you get closer to the counter, you will finally be in the light and you'll get a chance to sit. Of course, agents have a separate queue that is nearly empty.
That being said, you can try to jump the queue by offering some small amount to the ladies near the door of the Enquiry counter.

Once you reach the fellow at the Enquiry counter, he may see the great urgency of your need, and thus will take your document, put a stamp on your request letter (you wrote a request letter, right?), and tell you to come two days later.

Once you repeat the ordeal two days later, you will be allowed to meet the Public Relations Officier (PRO). Obviously, there is another big queue there. The PRO will himself have no clue about the details of your case, and will write on your request letter something about checking with the appropriate section (=department).

While waiting, you can make friends with your fellow queue-waiters and discover their personal tragedies. Some Muslims want to go to Haj and may not be able to do it this year. Another wants to study in the USA, and will write GRE exam the next day, and all her studying will be wasted because you need a passport to do that. And so on and so forth.

But all this has taken time, and by the time you're ready to ask questions to the person who can really answer them, you're smack in the middle of their late lunch break. While waiting for that person to be back from lunch, you see some of the security folks kick out non-employees, so you try to look busy and hope they won't care about you. You will also notice piles and paper all over the place, and guess that those are others' files who are finally getting processed.

You may also feel like using the toilet, and discover urinals that have an open ditch, which may remind you of roadside dhabas' toilets when you traveled by bus.

And, finally, the fellow who has to act on your file shows up. And then you will learn that the file never reached his/her desk, so you will be sent out to another department who will dutifully sift through piles of similarly dusty files to find yours, and then send it over. You will see the bureaucrat sign reception in an old-school register and wonder why that files are ostensibly managed by a computer interface, but that the whole internal process still works with pieces of paper moving from one place to another.

Your file will be cleared in less than 5 minutes and then you will escort the messenger who will bring your file to the next step. You may get scolded by the lady there because of some mess that the agents you were forced to hire did on the form, as if it was really your fault in the first place. After taking the lashing, your file will make its way to the local police station. And then you'll hope that the constable who will do your address verification is a good and hardworking guy, knowing full well that the odds are against that.

And then you end up thanking God Almighty that it only took you two days and that you weren't forced to pay a 'tip' along the way. And then you feel like you'll always apply Tatkal and/or use a passport agent in the future because you just don't want to deal with this ever again.

A few days later, after NOT seeing the local Police come to your house for verification, you may get a bit anxious again. Then you will go to many police stations, something that will undoubtedly bring great shame to you as good people like you NEVER go to the police station.

After a bit of poking around, you will be informed that, contrary to official policy, the file isn't sent to your neighbourhood's police station but to some centralized facility, the Saifabad Police Station. After going there, you learn that the file wasn't received by them yet. They will tell you that there is a way to get a duplicate of your file stamped at the RPO and you can bring that to them.

So precisely one week after the RPO staff told you that they were sending the file "right away" and that the police verification would happen "in 2 or 3 days," you repeat the ordeal and get told by the clerk at the Enquiry counter that your file will be sent "today itself". Asking what the Police folks told you you can avail, you get a flat no and you're back to square one.

After a few more visits to the Police, these guys tell you that it takes roughly one week for the file to reach them. The journey takes 15-20 minutes in a car.

While this is going on, you will make phone calls to all of your friends, relatives and contacts with the faint hope that one of them will be able to help you. You know that there are very few ways things move in India: 1) bribes 2) pressure from higher ups/politicians 3) exchange of favours 4) media outrage 5) making your own file move yourself 6) divine intervention. Since you did as much of 5) as you could, and that you refuse to engage in 1) because of your faith in God, and that you know that no media will bother about your case, so you forget about 4).

After 2) and 3) fail, you are left only with 6). You have been praying about this from the start, but now you are officially having no other option.

17 days after you were told the passport would be sent, the file is reaching the police station, and then re-dispatched to the police station that will do the verification. It happens that fast because the constables there know you well by now, since you're showing up all the time at their office to ask them the status.

You call the constable and gently ask him to please come over for the verification. After waiting for the whole day, you'll finally see him show up. After a big drama, he will leave your house. The next day, he will call you and you'll call over your in-laws so that we can give a good show that we are good people etc. etc. And finally the forms get filled and the thumbprint is taken, etc.

Now, your file is submitted to the police station, but it needs to be signed all the way up in the hierarchy. It doesn't matter that most of the people signing don't know any of the particulars of the case. It also doesn't matter that they won't read the file either. It just needs to be done, and there is a backlog there.

After winning the heart of the guys at the police station, you will be able to learn that your file was dispatched. But you may be disappointed to learn that it wasn't dispatched to the passport office, but to the 'main' police station, who will then re-dispatch it.

After learning this you might want to check your status on the website, but the answer will remain useless.

But, thankfully, God has heard your prayer, and something is happening that will help you.

The Regional Passport Officer (RPO - not the same as the PRO above) has put a message in the newspaper telling people that there is a lot of backlog and that he's trying to fix that. One just needs to show a proof of urgency and the passport will be done within 2 days. Word on the street is that there is 50000 files pending, and that the police verification bundles aren't even opened when received.

You may want to take advantage of this promise made my the new RPO. So you will stand in queue for many hours, only to get an appointment for the next Wednesday.

You will stand in a separate queue on that day, and a kind lady will eventually gather your documents and listen to your case. Nevermind the fact that you submitted all those already - nobody bothers to read those. After all this, she tells you that it should be done in a week or so. This is not quite the 2 days promised, but that's an improvement.

Of course, while waiting you will make more friends and hear more sad stories... someone had to re-submit after the RPO staff lost his file - and he doesn't get an express treatment as a 'please forgive us' measure. Other people had the police verification come negative for no good reason (read - they didn't give a bribe to the police officer doing the verification) and are trying to fix that situation.

After a week, you may learn that your file is under observation. What that means is unclear, but it doesn't matter. You can be happy to know that something happened and that your file moved.

At some point in time later, you will get a phone call from your landlord, telling you that the postman came with your passport and it needs to be delivered in person only. After rushing slightly, you will feel tempted to call all your friends and throw a party, because you finally have this magical document in your hands.

It took four months, countless phone calls, a whole congregation praying and a whole lot of begging. It could have been worst, and so you thank God profusely.

And that tells you why people try to avoid dealing with the government as much as possible. And it tells you why a culture of corruption has crept in government offices all over the country.

P.S. As a sidenote, I want to really really show appreciation to the new RPO, Dr. Srikar Reddy, for turning things around, as well as for implementing the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK - Passport Service Centre) in Hyderabad, which promises the whole process to be done within a few days, and with no soul-crushing overcrowding.

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