Incredibly expensive campaigns are not uncommon from governments in India. But there are very few instances of a government body doing stellar work that touches citizens and getting recognised for service excellence. There are big bets on the UID programme Aadhar, and high hopes on how it can stop leakages in welfare schemes. None of these schemes will escape the inertia of existing systems, as corrupt and laden with systemic challenges as many of them are. One Ministry that is doing spectacular work, and braving the odds of established history, is the Ministry of External Affairs, with its Passport Seva service. I say this from first hand experience - and telephonics with around 20 people.
I applied online to renew my passport. The first welcome change – no ‘agents’. But wait, there are agents who ‘help’ you apply online. Necessary, surely, given that not everyone is comfortable using the net, or connected in the first place.
At the corner of the street where ‘Passport Seva Kendra’ is located (in Saligramam, Chennai) is a building with offices alerting those passing by to the presence of the passport office – ‘Notary’, ‘Attestation’, ‘All Passport Documents’ are advertised in font sizes and colours that cannot be missed.
Once inside the Kendra, there’s a streamlined process – you submit documents, a TCS executive (public-private partnership) checks them, and you head to a waiting room. The file reaches with a ‘token number’. Once your ‘token number’ appears on one of the screens, you head upstairs. You first head to an ‘A’ counter, then ‘B’ (verification officers), and finally C (issuing officers). At the A counter, documents are scanned, and finger prints and photographs are taken by a TCS executive.
At the ‘B’ counter is where some seemingly innocuous questions were asked. What I did for a living came first. I dared not use the words ‘journalist’, ‘media’ or ‘editor’. Then I was asked if I applied through an agent or directly.
Counter C. The ‘issuing officer’ scanned the documents, and asked for the ‘original’ of my marriage certificate (I had to include my wife’s name in my passport). She said that the one I had submitted was not an ‘original’. I pleaded that it was. She allowed me half a minute, before repeating her stand and asking me to meet the Assistant Passport Officer.
He looked at the certificate and told me three things, very politely (even as his colleague came in with a wad of passports asking if actor Vijay could come in the next day for his daughter’s passport renewal). One: If the issuing officer has said the certificate won’t do, it won’t. Two: I could go to a higher office in the city (it was a Friday, and it was well post noon by then), and check on the validity of the certificate (or if I could include my spouse’s name later, after renewing my passport). Three: My application would be on ‘Hold’; I would not have to re-apply’, and could walk in with the required document within a year. I took option three.
A month or so and three visits to the registrar (in Puducherry) who issued my marriage certificate later, I went to the Passport Seva Kendra again. In the interim, I also visited the Puducherry Passport Office. I was told the certificate was perfectly acceptable for processing passport applications.
Counters A, B and C again. No questions this time at B. The lady at C was still there, but I was allotted to another officer three seats away. I explained to her that the checks had been done, and my certificate, according to their counterparts in Puducherry, was acceptable. She agreed. Yes, she agreed.
I feebly asked her why, then, might it have been rejected earlier. She smilingly said she had no clue.
The passport arrived a few days later. The postman, I was told, had to be paid ‘something’. Police verification followed. The ‘standard procedure’ was to pay him too. You can’t blame Passport Seva for those, can you? They’re trying.