The Passport Seva Project introduced by the Ministry of External Affairs may have aimed to make the process of obtaining passports “reliable, transparent and streamlined” by allowing submission of applications and booking of appointment slots online, but the large number of passport applicants with limited computer skills has meant that middlemen continue to thrive.
Many applicants who are not comfortable with the computer are forced to approach agents. These agents advise them on the documents required, fill the application forms for them online and get appointments at the Passport Seva Kendras (PSKs).
Forced to pay double
The agents charge their steady, if not growing, clientele between Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 1,500 for their services. This is in addition to the Rs. 1,500 fee that applicants have to pay at PSKs.
Substantial numbers of passport applicants belong to weaker sections of society, where computer literacy levels leave much to be desired. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide, they are forced to pay almost double the amount that a computer literate applicant would pay to apply for a passport.
Noorulla, an agent, claims that about 90 per cent of passport applicants do not know how to fill up the form online, even though all the details are provided on the website (www.passportindia.gov.in).
“We even advise them and arrange for the necessary documents,” he says, adding that applicants are turned away from the PSKs if their documents are not in order.
Gone in a minute
Securing an appointment online is not easy, he admits. “One has to go online at 6 p.m. sharp to book a slot. Even if I try every day, I may get one or two appointments a week.”
Moreover, cyber cafes have entered the “passport market” to help applicants secure that elusive online appointment. Many agents appear to outsource the difficult job of getting an appointment to cyber cafes.
“Passport applicants don’t come to us directly,” says Nayman, who runs a cyber cafe in Mysore. “The agents, who are unable to get online appointments, come to us. Until a few days ago, appointments would be available for at least 10 minutes after 6 p.m. Now, all appointments are lapped up in no more than a minute. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. We get Rs. 300 for every appointment booked,” he adds.
Poor access to Internet
According to the Census 2011 on Housing, Household Amenities and Assets — Karnataka, only 4.8 per cent of households have a computer/laptop with Internet while 8 per cent have a computer/laptop without Internet.
Bangalore Urban district tops the list of districts in the State on this front, with 18 per cent of households having a computer/laptop with an Internet connection.
Hard copies accepted
K.J. Srinivasa, Regional Passport Officer, Bangalore, said there were passport cells in all districts, except Bangalore, Dharwad and Dakshina Kannada (where PSKs had been established). Passport applicants could submit hard copies of their applications at these cells, he said.
The MEA, which set up the project in public-private partnership with Tata Consultancy Services, in a statement, said: “It is entirely up to the applicants whether they apply for passport services online on their own or through any Internet café or through any other person capable of applying online or through any travel agent. The appointments are allotted according to handling capacity of the PSKs.”