29 Sep 2015 19:02 IST

Passport centres are world-class models of e-governance

From application to physically getting a passport within seven days, the process has become seamless

Just 15 years ago, obtaining an Indian passport was synonymous with splitting headaches. Most people didn’t know where to go to get one; when they finally got to the passport office, they were met with touts who promised to ease their burden of filling out complicated forms, but for a hefty fee, which, they insisted, included a cut for the government babus inside. They promised a near hassle-free experience. Except that it never was.

In-process applications would languish for weeks; police inquiries into backgrounds would take additional time. And when they were invited to visit the passport office again, there was always a document missing or incorrectly filed.

With much trepidation, we set out to file for a passport. But to our surprise, our experience at the Passport Seva Kendra was nothing short of remarkable. This may sound like an exaggeration, but from start to finish, the entire process was much like shopping at Amazon. In exactly seven calendar days, we went from thinking about applying for a new passport to actually receiving it at home, delivered by Speed Post. And this was not premium (Tatkal) processing either.

The background

A family member needed to get the name field on her passport corrected. Like all passports, Indian passports have a “Surname” field, followed by a “Given Name” field. Most people understand what these fields mean (Given name is what you were named at birth, [like Sunil], while the surname is the name of the family you are born to, [like Gavaskar]).

Unfortunately, many Indian passports (especially for holders in South India) have these fields wrongly filled out. Many South Indians have complicated relationships with names. Sometimes, their given name at birth stands as their only name in life. Some add their father’s initial to the name, while others add their family’s place of origin, usually a village, but this too is abbreviated. For women who get married, the complication worsens. Some assume their husband’s given name as their surname, but keep the initial, while others replace the old initial with that of the husband’s. In short, it is all a mess.

Applying for a visa to the US or Europe with so many name inconsistencies is not easy. Since 9/11, Western governments require each visa applicant to have a surname. For Indian passport holders where the surname field is blank, these consulates suggest a ridiculous workaround: Move the given name to the surname field, and leave the given name as “FNU” — first name unknown.

Or you could apply to the Indian passport office to get this disaster officially corrected. Which is what we set out to do.

The seamless experience

Our first stop was at Google search bar, and typing the term “Indian Passports”. This resulted in a link to the Passport Seva home page.

On the well-designed site, I clicked on the “Document Advisor” tab to find out all the documents necessary for reissue of an existing passport, with the name fields corrected. A decision engine asked me a few simple questions and told me the supporting documents I needed.

People who write software for Indian government agencies are smart and understand that bandwidth is a problem in most parts of the country. The PSH site design is lean, allowing for very fast page loads. The XML-based application form is intended to be quickly downloaded for offline completion and uploaded back to the site when done. Like the Income Tax department’s tax forms, these extremely light documents contain sufficient intelligence to perform basic validation. When the completed application was uploaded, the site intelligently asked if I wanted to schedule an appointment. Answering yes, I proceeded to pay the fee by NEFT and immediately afterwards, was given a choice of appointments for the next working day. Not in a month, but the next working day.

The day of appointment

Realising that we needed a day to procure and assemble the required documents, I chose a slot for the day after. The site instructed me to simply bring a printed copy of the bar-coded confirmation page, the original passport, and the supporting documents.

On the day of the appointment, my relative was treated like royalty. She bypassed long lines and was called to three counters in sequence, almost instantly. And in 45 minutes, she was out of the office with her old passport physically returned to her as cancelled — meaning that her new passport had been approved.

We got a call from the police station for verification that same afternoon. In 24 hours, this was completed (including a visit by a local sub-inspector) and exactly three days later, the passport arrived at home by speed post. And at the successful completion of each step in the workflow, we were getting e-mail and SMS messages, updating us about the status.

The Indian government has truly excelled in creating a world-class passport issue system. The back-end process and technology integration with so many agencies — the Unique Identification Authority of India (for Aadhar validation), the IT department (for PAN card verification), the Election Commission (for voter ID validation), the local police department (for physical verification), the printing unit (for printing and laminating the passport) and India Posts (for tracking the passport’s shipment and delivery) — is so remarkably efficient, secure and flawless that getting a new passport in just seven calendar days must be a world record.

Here’s a note to skeptics of Digital India — if the country can extend its vision and implementation of the PSKs to other service departments, the relationship between government and those governed will change forever, and for the better.

To read more from the Worldview section, click here .

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