The last I had visited the swanky Pune passport office at Mundhwa was way back in 2012-13, not to get or renew a passport, but to protest in front of it. My ire was aimed then at the shabby and irresponsible working of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) which was in a public-private-partnership (PPP) with the passport division of the ministry of external affairs (MEA).
With innumerable citizen complaints of harassment for documents and for passports, which would not be issued for over six months or a year, I had decided to take it up as a public campaign in Pune. Along with a few other activists, who joined me, we issued a press release appealing to citizens, who have issues of not getting their passport for whatever reasons, to gather at the Pune Municipal Corporation’s Indradhanushya Hall (it’s free of charge) on a Sunday.
At that time, there was no COVID and the seriousness of the issue could be gauged from over 100 attendees. We had made a form for them to fill up so that I could take each of their cases to the passport office.
Today, when I visited the same swanky passport office for renewing my passport, I was required to take photo copies of my three important documents – the passport, Aadhaar and PAN card. In the little shed, a man was eating bananas, one after the other, while his wife was busy operating the photocopying machine.
I was a little taken aback when he got up from his seat and peeked into my document. His face then suddenly lit up. "Oh, you are Vinita Deshmukh? I had attended your meeting at Indradhanushya Hall and was following your campaign."
Wow, I was pleasantly surprised and thanked him and thanked God that perhaps I still look the same!! He reiterated, "I recognised you from your face but confirmed it with your document."
In those days, the waiting period used to be chaotic outside the passport office. People used to be present in hundreds on the cemented footpaths and sitting around in the hot sun or weathering the rains for hours on end! No more.
Now, you have to show up only 15 minutes before the appointment and truly you are sent inside the gate exactly at your scheduled appointment time, 15 minutes later!
The only irritant was the security guard, who is techno-savvy enough to read your appointment message on your mobile but is alerting everyone to download the Arogya Setu App.
Mine downloaded but it got stuck when it asked whether I had visited any country 30 days before. No problem. He politely asked me to go inside and be seated and try there.
Precisely at 11.40am or so, we were asked to go inside. Again, the guard wanted to see SMS and the Arogya Setu app on my mobile (wonder why it should be compulsory! Anyway, not complaining now). When I showed my ‘stuck’ mode of the app, there was nothing to sweat about! The security guard helped me so quickly that I congratulated him for being so techno-savvy! Of course, sanitizing your hands is compulsory and everyone had their masks on.
I walked to Counter ‘A’. In the research that I had done in 2012-13, greenhorns used to be behind the counter, who knew nothing about validating documents. They would pass even a wrong document or ask for some more documents though it was not mandatory. They used to be paid a pittance of Rs6,000 to Rs7,000 per month on a contract basis.
That was the first issue we highlighted to Tanmoy Chakrabarty, then vice-president of the passport division of TCS and now the group’s government affairs officer – when Sucheta Dalal, managing editor of Moneylife, called us for a meeting in her office in Mumbai.
had furthered the campaign through a series of articles and meetings. In December 2014, Moneylife Foundation organised a seminar on passport issues. The speakers included Mr Chakrabarty, Dr Swati Kulkarni and TD Sharma, the then regional passport officers (RPOs) at Mumbai and Thane, respectively, to discuss passport-related issues. (Read: Automation in processes to make Passport applications painless
Today, I was pleasantly surprised at the quickness and correctness of the person behind counter A, who accepted my documents within three minutes.
I was then sent to counter B. The only document you require is your passport, Aadhaar and PAN card – original as well as self-attested copies. You are the only one in the half-partitioned cabin. A computer screen faces you, as the person behind the counter is scanning and uploading your documents. He did it promptly and finished it off, with my photograph and biometrics.
He asked whether I would like to have the optional service of an SMS to let me know about the dispatch of my passport and buying a leather jacket for the passport. I opted for both, the second one particularly as it was written that it was made by a cottage industry run by women!
The time taken was about 10 minutes.
It is here that people faced harassment – asking for more and more documents like birth certificates and sending them back after having waited outside in the sun for so long! An issue, which I highlighted to Mr Chakrabarty at Moneylife office, in my PPT presentation.
Now, this is streamlined as the website www.passport.gov.in
also gives clear instructions of the documents you need to get along with you.
And hey, another surprise. A photocopying machine stands ready in the counter A hall, just in case you have forgotten to take out the photocopies. So very cool na?
From counter B, I went to counter C. Here is where the person behind the counter checks all the details on your form (the printouts of which are given to you by counter B).
I was a bit irritated that he was merrily talking to a colleague, who was breathing down his neck, talking about someone close to him, who had had a fracture. And this guy was all ears for him and was looking at the form through the corner of his eye.
And hey, it was the other guy, who pointed out to him that the issue date of my present passport and the expiry date – were both filled up wrongly!
I was a bit taken aback but no problem, he said, you go back to counter B. There, he directed me to another counter, which carries out corrections and issues you a new printout. You are called out as per your `number’ and within five minutes, the correction was done and I got a new set of the printouts.
I had to go back to counter B. To my dismay, the expiry date of the passport was again printed wrongly (my stupidity, I should have checked).
But no problem, I went back to the person, who re-corrected it in three minutes flat. Then again to counter B but it all was done in a jiffy. I said to the guy - thanks to your efficiency and he said, “this is TCS madam!’’
I had no time to tell him the history!
All these mistakes cost me only 15 minutes extra. I then made a dash to counter C. The same person checked the passport and said that my police verification had not been done the last time and that he would send the instructions to the police station.
I said, fine.
Intermittently, some people were having problems with their documents. There were two cabins, which were adroitly handling their issues. People seemed so satisfied and happy.
The system is absolutely in place! Kudos to TCS and a big thank you to Tanmay Chakraborty, who believed in our campaign and took it seriously to make the Pune passport office, international class!
In fact, being an avid coffee lover, the aroma of coffee overpowered me – the café located next to counter A. But unfortunately, there was just no time to stand and sip – thanks to the super efficiency of the office.
A decade after the campaign, it is so amazing to find that a few concerned human beings took up the cause, for the larger social good and the authorities lent a keen ear to transform themselves!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)