Thursday, November 13, 2014

The passport renewal trip (up)

Getting one’s passport renewed ought to be a smooth and quick affair. After all, the issuing authority is already supposed to have examined your credentials thoroughly and found you fit to acknowledge as a citizen. In the past, a trip to the passport office was (i) never just “a” trip, but necessitated repeat trips, with additional scraps of paper (some of them currency), and a photograph that was just so; (ii) nightmarish with long queues and no flow to speak of among different counters in the same office; (iii) rage-inducing with the throng of corrupt officials, agents, and hangers-on. Then, a few years ago, came the Passport Seva Kendras (PSKs) - a welcome, welcome change: Appointments that at least gave you a window, however large, in which your application submission would be facilitated; the complete absence of touts; a few chairs; a photocopier that didn’t charge exorbitantly for the precious copies you suddenly discovered you needed; and rather courteous staff. Or so I thought after my experience of the Begumpet PSK a couple of years ago, to get my mother’s passport renewed. Not all PSKs are the same, though.

As an applicant for a new/renewed passport, you will hit the passport application website early on – to fill the form, pay the fee, and schedule an appointment. It is a disappointment – a sorry demonstration of TCS’s skill, if TCS is indeed the organisation that created and maintains it. The website, a frustrating one, is designed in a far from intuitive manner. You will waste your time hopping about from tab to tab, and uploading documents that may not make a difference to your application, because you have to lug along photocopies and original documents to the office anyway. You also do not have the options you need to reschedule an appointment if it is not the first one you make with the PSK.

I picked the Tolichowki PSK for my own passport renewal since it is closer than the Begumpet one to my current residence: not a very good choice, as it turned out. At the PSK, everyone needs to go through 3 stages of application submission, through counters labelled (very cleverly) ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. Some people need to meet a passport officer type, in addition. The major design flaw is the way people are funnelled through the stages/counters – a sharp drop in the number of counters from A to B and another slight drop from B to C ensure that you cool your heels a good while in the building.

There are 22 ‘A’ counters, staffed by youngish contract personnel, who do their job fairly quickly and unobtrusively, although the first person I interacted with spent more of his time flirting with a simpering colleague than attending to my admittedly dull application. After this, the applicant needs to be prepared to settle down in the waiting hall. So take a book, and a phone – both are allowed. Take a snack, or money to buy some in the waiting hall, as well.

After an hour or two (no exaggeration) you will get your chance to go to the B stage. There are only 6 ‘B’ counters, and these are staffed by passport office personnel, i.e., graver government employees, who, to give them their due, are also reasonable and reasonably quick with their examination of your documents.

Back to the waiting hall for another long interval and you finally come up before the big-wigs (some of them balding) at one of the 3 or 4 functioning ‘C’ counters. The ‘C’ counters are manned by a pompous set of persons who are not even up-to-date with the policies of the passport office/ministry of external affairs, and have no idea what makes someone a “government servant” or a “private employee” or “other”. The official I came up against (I really mean that word) treated me with aloofness at first, made unnecessarily patronising enquiries about my linguistic roots and location of birth next, and finally latched onto certain theories about my employment category and level of disclosure of facts to the passport authorities. I had an annoying (to me) conversation with him, in which his colleague chimed in without invitation, and without regard to facts. Finally the man gave me an appointment for the next working day at exactly the time that I said I couldn’t make it for I had a meeting in office. He assured me that I could reschedule the appointment online, but that turned out to be a vain hope. The link from the website that invited comments/feedback/requests did not help reschedule either.

If you think that a tweak to your application, in the shape of an additional document or an “explanation letter” or a penalty, after all your documents have been checked and found fit, would not take up any more than a few minutes, you are vastly mistaken. Once you enter the building, you are in the mob waiting for your token number to show up on the monitor on the wall, no different from anyone else applying for the first time, and with completely unexamined documents – if you are “normal”, that is. Tatkal applications move faster, even in the application submission stage, and senior citizens have a separate queue too (which is very good, and uncommonly thoughtful for an outfit like the passport office). If you (if “normal”) have reason to go back to the building for any other little thing, you can set aside 4 or more hours for each visit.

The passport officer type (the head honcho of the PSK Tolichowki) is another unapproachable and rude person, whom I cannot say anything more critical about, since he refused to meet me at all!

The address verification process by the police (Cyberabad Commissionerate, in my case), in contrast, was a very faith-affirming (maybe even faith-engendering) experience. In the first place, I received a text message the day after I finally submitted my application, informing me that the request for police verification had been initiated. Then, nothing for a few days, leading to some uncertainty and hesitation to leave the house for any errand lest I miss the police officer’s visit. And then, the police officer who was to verify my address sent me a text message early in the morning on the day scheduled. This message advised me on what I needed to keep ready for his review (one set of photocopies, and the original documents, and a photograph). He arrived in the window of time that he had indicated in his text message. This text message was a very useful and courteous move, as was his sticking to the time indicated. He conducted the review very promptly, and also did not make any suggestion of a bribe (which is otherwise unfortunately quite common in the police verification process for passport issuance). 

To encapsulate my suggestions:

1.    Fill the form on the website. Don’t rack your brains over the documents to upload. Just upload 4 moderately related documents.

2.    Pick a good PSK. I recommend Begumpet, and not Tolichowki. I have no idea about the others. By the way, there is parking space in the basement of the PSK Tolichowki building – you don’t have to keep someone waiting outside in an illegal parking spot.

3.    If you have no choice but to go to a painful PSK, take a book, phone, food, money, and patience.

4.    Take some extra money, a pen and some paper too, just in case you need to pay a penalty, or write an “explanation letter” for something, and are lucky enough to be in time to catch the passport officer type before he leaves for the day (presumably for an early tea and afternoon nap) while you and your co-sufferers are cooling your heels and hotting up simultaneously in the waiting hall.

5.    Keep a photograph and photocopies of the documents you submitted, as well as the originals themselves, ready for police verification.

6.    Also, keep any other proof, such as a receipt from a service provider or a government outfit (e.g., property tax payment) in the name of anyone from the household, from about a year ago to demonstrate that you have been living in the house you claim to have lived in for about the time you’ve lived in it.





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