Passport to inconvenience!
By an unexpected play of fate, which took me out of the country recently, I was able to apply for my Passport renewal at the Regional Passport Office in Guwahati last week as my return journey back home allowed me a lay over in the city. With my Passport having only six months to expire, which meant that I would have to start the process for renewal; I had earlier inquired with an agency over the process. I was told one piece of good news and one really bad development regarding the Passport process. The good news was that Passport related information could not only be accessed online but also processed sitting from the confines of one’s home or an internet café. The bad news was that applicants would need to go all the way to the Regional Passport Office at Guwahati for a personal interview and for fingerprinting. This bit was because Manipur, like many other NE states still do not have a Passport Seva Kendra.
Earlier, the Regional Passport Office at Guwahati functioned just like any other sarkaari office: if you knew someone high up in the office/knew someone who knew someone high-up or if you paid someone at the office for his/her chai-paani (read bribe), the Passport process could be speeded up. It also meant that travel agents could well play the shots: charging hiked up rates for getting things done through the Chai-paani people. At one time, you had to pay 3000 bucks for a normal Passport process when the standard rate was Rs1500/-. The agents knew that not many people wanted to travel to Guwahati since it meant spending more than the charge they were asking for, besides the trouble in the effort.
Right now, the sarkari route has been done away with since the whole process has been outsourced to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Earlier, travel agents had to oil peons and officers at the Regional Passport Office but the present system makes everything transparent and efficient. All it takes is to log in to passportindia.gov.in/
An Assistant Passport Officer who did not want to be named said that the earlier Regional Passport Officer, T Armstrong had toured all the states to convince State governments to open state level offices. “Unfortunately, they have not been pro-active except for Mizoram and Meghalaya. Some have told us they don’t have the office space while some have just remained silent,” he said. On an optimistic note however, he added, “The new rules of personal interview and finger-printing at Guwahati means that all sorts of VIPs and VVIPs have to come here, so you never know! Things might just improve.” Another TCS staff verifying my documents, who turned out to be from Lilong added that opening a state level passport office would not only put an end to the inconveniences of having to travel back and forth from Manipur to Guwahati but also give employment opportunities to a few 100 people in the state.
Looking back to that time before all of this, I am still to figure out whether I want to bash up the people who overcharged me or tell myself that I was a fool to depend on them. The first time I applied for my Passport was in 2002 when I was invited for an International Conference in Chiang Mai in Thailand. The organizers wanted my Passport number real soon and I did not have one. So I ran to a travel agent and I was told that I would have to apply through Tatkaal. To be fair to the travel agent, I was told that the fee for their services was double that of the normal process (‘normal’ meaning having to go to Guwahati and sending in application on my own). This was pre daily flights and cheap fares era so I, like many others went in for the travel agent way.
But with my track record of having to go through rough rides before things get done, I found that even after paying the amount that the travel agent had asked for things were not moving as fast as the conference people wanted it to. They gave me a time span of two days but the travel agent gave the excuse of a bandh in Guwahati and excused himself while I had to drag my younger brother in tow all the way to Guwahati by bus. I called my media contacts in the city asking if anyone knew the Regional Passport Officer and this incidentally led me to realize that journalists who hound local journalists in Manipur for story ideas, logistical help will NOT even have the decency to help in any way at all once their work is over and they go back to their cities (one day, I shall do a tell all!) Luckily, I remembered a member of the North East Writer’s Forum whom I had been introduced to as a DC in one of Assam’s districts. I gave him a call and all he said was to visit him at his office. While my brother watched cricket in his office, the DC called up the Regional Passport Officer and that was it! He told me to take the night bus and stop worrying. So within 8 hours of reaching Guwahati by bus, I was on another bus back home!
In 2008 when I had to renew my Passport again, I still paid an inflated rate and within 1 week of getting it, I was in a major fix: I lost my bag which contained my IFP card, my PAN card, my driving license and my new passport. This, when I was busy in the process of attending another International Conference! As if this was not enough, another stumbling block came my way: the printing machine had conked off and I had to go to Guwahati in person yet again to explain my case. This time, there were low cost airlines and the Regional Passport Officer (who turned out to be a huge IFP fan) gave me my passport in a matter of a few hours.
Cut to 2012 and I have been more fortunate this time. I did not have to pay any third party and thanks to a journalist colleague in Guwahati (more decent than others!) I got a walk in interview when the norm is that people have to arrange their travel dates to Guwahati on the basis of dates, which are given online. But not many are fortunate to have things falling in place and still have to spend for their travel to Guwahati and back and for their accommodation. It would do well for the state Government to be a bit more proactive and start a State Passport Kendra given the number of people traveling/living abroad.