Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tale of two passports.

Getting a passport should not be such a big deal! In fact, it was not always so.  Not many applied for passports before the Gulf rush and then the IT industry and tourism created a flood.

I had blogged about my experience three years ago as very positive! But I remember being put off, especially by the verification certificate (Annexure 'F') to be signed by one of the ten categories of 'noble persons'  ( govt.  officials etc.,) 'certifying my good moral character and reputation!  But luckily the executive who checked my papers advised me to meet a 'passport' officer and if okayed my application would be treated as 'tatkal' without this exalted verification certificate..

 It was a lady officer I met and speaking  in Kannada requested to use her discretionary powers and approve. She asked 'Don't you know anyone to sign?'  I replied that I knew a few who could sign but were retired like me and added 'I have just returned to Bengaluru and how will I meet young officers like you?' (She appeared fifty plus! No flattery here, she was young compared to an oldie like me!)

More than that, I think it was my lucky day! She consulted another officer across the table and said  'Alright I will take a risk!' and approved my application for tatkal and post issue police verification! In short, I had my new passport if not in three days as promised but within the week!

It was time for Tara to apply for her passport. While her passport was valid till 2016 and there were 4 more full visa pages. I felt it was better to get a new one as we had enough time for the process. I took a normal appointment, four weeks later,  with the idea I would request for tatkal once we got in. We were there just a little before the appointed time as there was no need to go too early. (Difficult for us older Indians!)

Again we met an officer with a request to approve our tatkal application. But our request did not work. The officer said that the system would not accept unless we had a police verification done. The reason was that the passport was issued in Thailand and the police here would have no record about us in Kumara Park. No matter that there was no change of address and her passport was valid for the next two years and could be used for proof of address in the meantime!

Apparently he was unwilling to use his discretion, but suggested that we apply for normal and upgrade after the police verification. This sounded okay and things moved smoothly excepting Tara had to wait for 45 minutes in the normal queue.

Once home, Tara true to her style, went after the police to speed up the verification process and after two visits and many phone calls, the police came home and the police verification was done! They also kept their promise and uploaded the verification data onto our file created by the seva kendra.

Amazingly in just 3 days, her file said that the Passport was ready to print. It was tempting to wait and not pay the tatkal fee which is termed as a penalty!

But by then my research warned me about the huge backlog due to shortage of books. Reason being there was a delay in the import of the special paper. I do not know if there is any connection between this and a similar story in Pakistan about a scam in the import of this special paper. I guess I was bit consoled as there were such delays in UK and in Australia in the past. It seems to be a  Commonwealth phenomenon!

This and the many stories about the long wait for months after police verification prompted us to act. We went to the RPO in Koramangala. Our impression that as senior citizens we could walk in without an appointment was right, but in all other respects we had to wait. It took Tara 45 minutes to get a token number. Not that it had any meaning later on for people waiting for tatkal. She waited for another 2 hours after submitting her file to an overworked girl. I believe the person not only handled the tatkal applications but also was thrust with other issues.

 Not surprisingly Tatkal is not a right. It is given at the discretion of the RPO  and he could refuse. We need to prove urgency and show tickets and so on. While I had written a letter to the RPO explaining why we needed a tatkal passport, I had not printed the tickets. Tara called me on my cell phone and said as per fellow sufferer seated next, tickets were a must!  I went across to print the tickets and as it happens most of the time, she came out smiling as I climbed up the stairs to give her the prints!

Anyway the passports were dispatched on the day it was promised and we received it the next day. However Tara had to collect it from the Post Office in the evening as the envelope says it is to be given only to the addressee. While on the website it says that the postman could use his discretion and give it to a family member. Such bureaucratic caveats  are unique to us. Either inherited from the Brits or it is our own genius!

There is indeed a lot of information, in fact an overload, on the website which guides you through the system. But it does work! Especially if you give it sufficient time. Barring eventualities, three months lead time is a good estimate. By the way, do not wait till you use up all the visa pages. Sacrifice a few pages for your peace of mind! In case you want it earlier or lazy to act on time, pay a penalty and get a tatkal passport.

While things are manageable, it may be a bit too much for an  aam admi. It is for this reason we see advertisements stuck on  trees which offer passport services for a fee!

 I see that some countries are able to give us a clearer picture for lead times. If you like to bench mark USA, you will be happy to see that they also have an official tatkal system. Also a US govt approved service which could be called super tatkal . You could log on to Fastport  and get your passport  in a day. Check it out!

In case you are desperate, I hear there are similar, unofficial  super tatkal systems available. I am sure the premiums are high depending on your anxiety levels.

I wonder, if Police Verification is mandatory  in other countries. Hope it really works and stops issue of passports to undeserving people. There are many valid reasons why a passport  is not issued. Passport Act  is very clear on this, but this was confusing:
 '(e) that the applicant has, at any time during the period of five years immediately preceding the date of his application, been convicted by a court in India  for any offence involving moral turpitude and sentenced in respect thereof to  imprisonment for not less than two years; 

Yet to see if such lists are made public. They may quote security reasons. But one thing is sure, it helps a few policemen earn a little tea money! Normally they do not ask but they do not mind!

 I suspect many of our systems have this inbuilt facility. While there is a lot of improvement, it is still a work in progess! Hope the seva kendra keeps improving to the extent possible!

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