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No beating about the bush.
Atul Gotsurve, the new Regional Passport Officer of Pune Division, who has been following our campaign since March 2013, speaks on the vibrant changes that match the recommendations Moneylife had made to improve the passport office
Moneylife has been consistently campaigning for an efficient Passport office in Pune through its news columns and with activists on the ground since March 2013. We are happy to report a major success, just over one year down the line. Moneylife, thanks the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)’s Passport Seva Kendra and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)’s Passport Division, which is in a public-private-partnership (PPP) for accepting and implementing most of our recommendations to make the procurement of passport smooth sailing for the applicants.
Gotsurve is indeed a pleasant face for passport applicants, he is approachable and has had international exposure as an officer in various Indian embassies around the world. His commitment to citizens' needs come across clearly. He takes fast decisions and implements them, thus making things easier and quickly so. This in itself is an impact of the Moneylife campaign as the Delhi office decided to send an officer who would be citizen-sensitive.
Just to recall, the main problems at the Pune Passport Office were: difficulty in getting online appointments for Tatkal as well as normal passports; continuously turning away passport applicants on the pretext of lacking or wrong documents; asking applicants to get attested copies from lawyers despite submitting photocopy of the original document; ill informed TCS staffers at Counter “A” who had hardly any knowledge of how to check validity of documents; rude behaviour by the passport staffers and security; menace of passport agents; citizens complaints’ attended to only on two days a week and in many cases turned back; inordinate delays in procurement of passports; sometimes delay of over a year; confusion amongst student applicants and migrant applicants regarding address proof; no shelter or provision of toilets and water for the applicants, many of whom also come from other districts which fall in the Pune Passport Division. Moneylife's suggestions were aimed at dealing with these hurdles.
Excerpts from the interview with Pune's new and dynamic Regional Passport Officer, Atul Gotsurve.
Moneylife: While there are minimal complaints regarding appointments for the normal passport, has there been any improvement made for the Tatkal online appointments which is a major problem?
Atul Gotsurve (AG): You will be surprised to know that presently the daily Tatkal quota of 110 reserved for it, is not being 100% utilised – it stops many a times at 105. This is because, I held about three passport melas to reduce the backlog in the last two months and processed more than 500 Tatkal applications each day during the melas. Besides, passport applicants used to opt for Tatkal because they used to fear inordinate delays if they applied for a normal passport. Earlier, 70-80 applicants used to be rejected at the Passport Seva Kendra due to lack of documents and were asked to once again go through the appointment process. I have rectified this – now, not a single applicant is sent back home or asked to take a fresh appointment. His biometrics, checking of documents and every other process is completed. He is then asked as to when he or she would like to come and submit the required documents. We immediately give the applicant, the next date, as per his/her convenience. I am proud to say that Pune processes the largest number of passport applications in the country – 1,150 applications per day.
Moneylife: What about the long lines at your office everyday, of citizens visiting to solve their problems regarding their application and many of them being turned away due to the short visiting period – just two hours, for only three days in a week?
AG: Now, applicants can visit on every working day between 10:30am and 12:30pm, except on Wednesdays. Besides me, there are three more officers who entertain visitors and solve their problems. Even on Wednesdays, we do not turn away people. Someone or the other attends to them. You can see for yourself that the crowd outside the office has considerably reduced.
Moneylife: The problem of outstation passport applicants has been a major complaint as they are asked to keep coming several times. This is a real harassment for them.
AG: We have taken care of that too. There are clear instructions that after the first visit of the outstation passport applicant, subsequently, the communication would strictly be through mail and SMS.
Moneylife: While you have improved submission of application and payment online, what about those who are not e-literate?
AG: Firstly, I would like to say that even the most educated and Internet-friendly are sometimes digitally illiterate, especially about reading instructions and requirements of documents. Each applicant must thoroughly read the requirements, particularly the fact that we need address proof of one year when applying for passport, which means the person should have resided in that address for a minimum of one year. On 26th May, I have issued a press release to this effect stating: “Passport office, Pune appeals to all passport applicants in Pune, Satara, Ahmednagar, Solapur, Sangli and Kolhapur districts to kindly mention al the addresses they were/ are staying at since the last one year from the date of application. This will avoid delays in the application processing and also avoid imposition of a penalty up to Rs5,000 as it will be considered as suppression of facts.”
For those who are not e-savvy, we would be providing them professional services for Rs100 per application. Soon, we are launching such a citizen cell.
Moneylife: What about migrants who work as professionals in Pune or are married and live here?
AG: For those who are migrants, I agree that address proof is a problem. I have proposed that their proof of address should not be made mandatory – they should get four of the 10 documents required for proof. I expect positive response for this from MEA shortly.
Moneylife: What about passport agents who continue to flourish?
AG: We have made an appeal through our website not to encourage passport agents as they are illegal entities. I would like to reiterate that we will provide all help to applicants to ensure that they get their passports trouble-free. They should change their conditioning that agents will quickly give them passport appointments and passports – it may be the reverse, besides duping them of their hard earned money.
Moneylife: What about students? What is the procedure of address proof for them to get their passports?
AG: Students studying in Pune and staying away from their parents’ house should clearly mention their current address while applying. For proof of residence at their hostel/ place of stay, either they should provide a letter from the Principal/ Warden or proof of residence of the guardian with whom they are staying with the guardianship affidavit. Proof of their parents’ address also needs to be submitted (i.e. permanent address). Failure to mention the previous/ current addresses will lead to imposition of penalty of up to Rs5,000 for suppression of facts.
Moneylife: We still see hundreds of passport applicants standing in the hot sun for hours on the footpath at the Mundhwa office? What about some convenience for them, which Moneylife had recommended?
AG: You will be glad to know, that within two to three weeks, we are putting up a shelter inside the premises of the Passport Seva Kendra and toilets too. We are also working towards a room where outstation applicants can freshen up when they reach the place. We have already installed a TV and newspapers, and would be opening a mini library. You will be happy to know that we are also lobbying with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) for a bus shuttle service on three routes – Shivajinagar-Corporation-Station-Mundhwa, Katraj-Swargate-Mundhwa, and Kothrud-Deccan-Mundhwa. We will do everything to ensure that passport application is a pleasant experience for the applicant.
(for more details contact Mr Atul Gotsurve at 020-25679962 or 25675422. Email: [email protected] Readers are welcome to write to me at [email protected] in case of any inconveniences you face as a passport applicant))
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(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”.)
Activists and citizen have urged the Mumbai Municipal Commissioner to withdraw BMC's move asking people to submit education, occupation and residential proof while filing complaints
Angry citizens and activists have called for the Commissioner of the Municipal Corp of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) or BrihanMumbai Municipal Corp (BMC) to immediately withdraw its move asking complainants to submit education, occupation and residential proof while filing a complaint.
Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner and Right to Information (RTI) activist, said “The practise, which is being followed by D ward and now being advertised appears to effectively stop telephone complaints on 1916 and makes citizens go to BMC offices and give proof of their education, occupation and residence. I am unable to understand the relevance of these (proofs) for filing a complaint”.
The BMC, in an advertisement published on 19th June, proposed that while accepting the complaints, the citizen is required to submit education, occupation and residential proof. Along with that, these details will be displayed on the notice board, the advertisement says. The demand by the MCGM has been made under the Section 36 (H) of Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, 1888.
Mr Gandhi said, people file complaints with the Municipal Corporation as they are not satisfied with activities like illegal construction, encroachments or corruption.
Considering this as a matter of complainant’s security, he said, “It appears to be designed to harass and intimidate those who wish to file a complaint and also expose them to threats, assaults and murder if they are making complaints of illegal activities. If any citizen comes to harm because of this practise we will hold the Corporation responsible for this”.
Mr Gandhi, drawing his concern over democracy in India, said, “While India moves towards a better democracy, this move appears to be aimed at targeting and intimidating citizens who take the trouble to highlight the shortcomings and illegal activities. While the nation makes moves to protect whistle blowers, D ward appears to want to muzzle them.”
The advertisement mentions that to discuss the proposal further, MCGM has called for an urgent meeting on 24th June.
The Swiss government has started preparing a list of Indians with suspected black money. This shows that the Indian government is really serious about seeking information on black money
In a major boost to India’s fight against black money, Switzerland has prepared a list of Indians suspected to have stashed untaxed wealth in Swiss banks and the details are being shared with the Indian government.
According to an official from the Swiss government, the authorities were very keen to work with the new government in India and they would also provide all necessary support to the newly set up Special Investigation Team (SIT) on black money. In May this year, the first Cabinet meeting of the Narendra Modi government resolved to form the SIT to unearth black money stashed abroad. The SIT is headed by former Supreme Court judge MB Shah and includes the Revenue Secretary, CBI and IB directors, an Enforcement Directorate official, CBDT Chairman and RBI deputy governor as members. Former Supreme Court judge Arijit Pasayat will be the vice-chairman of the panel.
While declining to be named, as he is not authorised to speak to media, the senior official from Switzerland further said the details are being shared with India on a ‘spontaneous’ basis and are different from the information sought earlier by the Indian authorities on the basis of ‘leaked’ or ‘stolen’ lists of certain banks, including the so-called ‘HSBC list’. But more about this later.
The names of these Indian individuals and entities have come under the scanner of the Swiss authorities during an ongoing exercise to identify real beneficiary owners of funds held in various banks operating in Switzerland.
“These individuals and entities are suspected to have held untaxed money in Swiss banks through structures like trusts, domiciliary companies and other legal entities based out of countries other than India,” the official said.
He refused to divulge the identity of these persons and entities, as also the quantum of funds held by them in Swiss banks, citing confidentiality clauses of the bilateral information exchange treaty between two countries.
He however dismissed claims that black money stashed in Swiss banks by Indians could be trillions of dollars, as the latest Swiss National Bank data pegs the total foreign client money across 283 banks in Switzerland at $1.6 trillion.
Asked about rise in Indian exposure to Swiss banks at 2.03 billion Swiss francs (Rs14,000 crore), he said these are the funds held by clients who have declared themselves as Indian and therefore were unlikely to be ill-gotten wealth.
It must be noted that under pressure from the OECD and the G20, the Swiss government in March 2009 decided to abolish the distinction between tax evasion and tax fraud in dealings with foreign clients. In 2013, the Swiss Parliament approved a law that allows Swiss banks to cooperate with tax authorities from the US as specified in the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).
In October 2013, the Swiss government stated that it intended to sign an international agreement sponsored by the OECD, which if ratified by Parliament, will align Swiss banking practices with those of other countries, and in effect end the special secrecy that clients of Swiss banks had enjoyed in the past.
Earlier, Swiss banking secrecy was dealt a severe setback by the revelations made by ex-UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld, who blew the whistle on UBS providing Americans with vehicles to hide up to $20 billion in assets to avoid taxes. In November 2008, a US federal grand jury indicted Birkenfeld's former boss, Raoul Weil, as the result of the investigation of UBS' US cross-border business. As a result of the information Birkenfeld gave US authorities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said it had reached a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with UBS that resulted in a $780 million fine and the release of previously privileged information on American tax evaders.
On 11 September 2012, Birkenfeld was awarded $104 million for acting as a corporate whistleblower by the US IRS Whistleblower Office. At that time, Swiss newspaper Blick wrote, “Birkenfeld was a blessing for the Swiss financial industry, in that his revelations helped accelerate the industry's transition away from its reliance on 'dirty' money by dooming the bank secrecy laws that enabled tax evasion."
This shows that if the particular government is serious, then the Swiss authorities are prepared for cooperation and sharing list of bank account holders, who may have stashed unaccounted money in that country.
In 2012, the Income-Tax (I-T) department in India, probing the secret list of account holders in the Geneva branch of HSBC Bank, had approached Swiss revenue authorities for banking data of certain individuals after investigations showed some of them reportedly had other accounts under fictitious names. India had obtained data of over 700 HSBC accounts from French government channels during that year.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had said, based on observations reported in its Annual Financial Inspection of HSBC for 2012, it would take further action against the lender, which is under the scanner for alleged violations of money-laundering and KYC norms. But there has not been much action on this front.