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No beating about the bush.
On Tuesday, Moneylife ran a story on how touts are making a fast buck through Tatkal online appointments for passports. Within 24 hours a VP of TCS, which is in PPP with the government’s Passport Division, promises to address the issue
The story on how passport agents in Pune are indulging in mass grabbing of Tatkal online appointments resulting in the passport applicant unable to get his appointment online for days on end was published in Moneylife on Tuesday.
In less than 24 hours, the story has had a great impact with Tanmoy Chakroborty, vice president & head for government industry solutions unit (ISU) at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which is in public-private-partnership (PPP) with Passport Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He assured Moneylife that he would investigate into the matter with immediate effect by investigating into the volume flow and peaks, which can be monitored through the computers of the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK).
In an email sent to this writer, Chakroborty stated, “We will certainly work with RPO Pune and the MEA to analyse all that you have mentioned and to look at the pain points of Applicants in Pune.”
“We always take feedback from any one seriously and we will once again look at the patterns of volume flow and peaks and troughs in Pune in conjunction with MEA and revert with the steps if any that will be taken to further make it a pleasing experience - the application for a passport,” he added.
Chakroborty stated that ever since TCS has begun using technology to make the passport applicant’s experience smooth-sailing, many passport agents are out of business and are pursuing other means of livelihood. He says, “Passport Agents perhaps is passé as the system deployed offers total transparency and I understand the such passport agents, who used to operate in the past-- prior to our system being deployed--- are rapidly looking for alternate employment as there is nothing left for them in the passport application process in India!”
He also mentioned in his email that ever since TCS has entered the scenario, it has successfully served over 1.2 crore applicants, all over India. Adding that he would look into the Tatkal appointment scam in Pune seriously, he wrote, “Since we have introduced the payment over the portal system the wait time in almost all the PSKs has disappeared which means that more bonafide applicants are getting appointments within a reasonable period of time .’’
Chakroborty sent the email in response to the writer’s mail after the story was published in Moneylife on Tuesday. The email stated, “Thanks to your persistent efforts, most of the problems that passport applicants used to face before our campaign in March 2013 have been eased, as they have been addressed by you very effectively. However, since the last couple of months, online appointments for Tatkal passport have become a big issue as most of the applicants do not get their online appointment for several weeks. This has nullified the value of procuring Tatkal passport which is to be issued between 1 and 7 days.
The story in Moneylife gives an insight of what the applicant goes through when he tries to get the appointment. Would be very grateful if you could check where the loophole is and how is it that a passport agent can give Tatkal appointment in 24 hours whereas a citizen going by the legal way cannot get it for weeks on end. Looking forward to hearing from you on this issue.”
(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”.)
Moneylife’s campaign in 2013 about problems at Pune passport office has relatively ironed out the process of passport applications. However, recently, the alleged interference of touts seems to have put Tatkal passport applicants in a spot
Akanksha Samyal studies in Fergusson College in Pune. Her father Col Pradeep Samyal (retd) resides in Canada and had come down in January to renew her passport through Tatkal so that she gets it between one to seven days. However, he did not get the online appointment for over two weeks. Col Samyal searched on Google for help and found my cell number. When he called me up, I asked him to take a walk-in appointment. However, since January 2014, the walk-in appointments at Pune Passport Office are restricted to senior citizens, the disabled and for children below 14 years.
When I called up the Assistant Passport Officer and asked her as to what does a citizen, other than these three categories do, she casually stated that I would have to call up the office of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in Delhi and seek their permission and if I get it, then she would give the walk-in appointment. I told her to give this piece of information in writing. Lo and behold, within an hour’s time she gave Col Samyal a walk-in appointment for the next day. The objective of the campaign is not to procure appointments through ‘influence’ but to ensure that the passport applicant gets his or her appointment immediately after paying online as has been stated in the website.
Col Samyal pointed out that, “When I approached a passport agent, he said that if I give him my login and password, then he would give me the online appointment within 24 hours. However, I have never in my life gone through illegal ways and hence was determined to keep trying.”
While the website of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) www.passport.gov.in clearly states “Members of the public are advised to desist from dealing with touts / agents who may be charging exorbitantly for their service and further, may be making false promises about arranging assured urgent appointment or faster passport service delivery…Such incidents of harassment / influence by them may be reported to concerned Passport Officer”, it seems that touts are flourishing in Pune and alleged mass capturing of online appointments by these middle men is on the rise particularly for Tatkal passports.
Col Samyal, who finally got his daughter’s passport but was harassed for about two weeks over the issue of online appointments, gives a probable explanation from his experience. He states, “At the Schedule Appointment screen after choosing the PSK LOCATION and entering the CHARACTERS DISPLAYED when I pressed the NEXT button, instead of getting the ‘Book Appointment button’ the screen immediately refreshes with a new picture”. The above process kept repeating from 12pm till 12.15om on 18th January and till 12:20pm on 19th January for more than 40-50 times. Then in the end, I got the following message flashed on top:- “No Tatkaal appointments are available for the selected Passport Seva Kendra (PSK). Please try scheduling an appointment later on 19/01/2014 /// 20/01/2014 at 12:00 PM onwards” on both days respectively.
“My internet connection was perfect and fast, the Passport Server worked perfectly fine on both days. Today in addition, I spoke to the Passport Customer care and they advised me to try it on a different browser - Internet Explorer. I changed my browser, but there was still no change. It just can’t happen that the `Book Appointment button’ should repeatedly keep refreshing over the entire 15 to 20 minutes with a new picture asking to re-enter the letters displayed. As I had explained before, the Tatkal System is dominated by majority of the applicants taking appointments through touts. These "AGENTS" ask us for our user ID and password. The Passport Officer I met said that they are using the same web portal as us. If so then I would like to ask - How is it that they can get us an assured appointment over the next two days? There is a strong possibility of collusion by some passport officials or computer operators who may be manipulating the system.”
Writing to the Passport Officer, Col Samyal requested that, “you try the Tatkal Booking through a dummy account to check the validity of the system. There could also be some System Administrator who may be manipulating the system - as the system allows one to reach the payment portal and pay fees but prevents booking of actual appointment. Checking the logs and the log-in timings of the computer operators can surely give clues to the systemic manipulation, which I strongly suspect is being carried out. The ‘AGENTS’ are very obviously manipulating the system. In the end I can only say that the present system is a failure, requires an external intervention and a major re-haul.”
“If after two to three weeks of sincere efforts one fails to get Tatkal Appointment - then the very purpose of Tatkal is defeated. I am terribly disappointed with my experience and I am not too sure if the ‘AGENTS’ who thrive only because of systemic failure can ever be eliminated. I wonder how much time it takes to streamline and improve the system?’’
“My guess is as follows:
1. Agents get applicants to share their User ID and password
2. Agents have someone on the inside who has server administrator rights
3. Agents give a list of User ID/s and password/s to the administrator
4. When they log in with the User ID/s and password/s of the applicants (who have agreed to pay a fee to the agent), the administrator intervenes and ensures that the particular ID/s + password/s gets priority for the appointment
5. This way, anyone not using an agent, will find it near impossible to get an appointment, while those going thru the agent will get an appointment
Another applicant, Shubham Agarwal had the same traumatic experience. He wrote to me, “I have been experiencing a failure in booking Tatkaal appointment from last 10 days through the online portal. The system opens up at 12:00 noon and closes in 8-10 minutes approx. During this time after entering the PSK and unique characters it says, "unable to process. Please try later". I have tried online and challan payment both, different internet servers, browsers and everything else possible.”
“Whereas I recently found agents who are specifically working to get Tatkaal Appointments at a hefty price. Looks like they have been favoured by the system over the general public. The details of such an agent are as under:
Yet another passport applicant, Agam Gupta, who had to travel to UAE due to a new job, also did not get his online appointment under Tatkal. It was after my intervention that he finally got it. He writes: “I got selected in company at UAE and I required passport urgently, so I have collected all the document required for Tatkal passport and I am trying for appointment from last 10 days but unable to get also I have tried with agents even they are not able to do anything. I am helpless now this is very serious I may lose the opportunity if I didn’t get the passport I am also ready to spend money required for this. I kindly request you to please help me.”
Under the banner of RTI Forum for Instant Information (RFII) of which I am the convener, I organized a Passport complaint at a public garden in Pune on Sunday, 15th March. Once again, the major complaint pertained to the same issue of inability to get online appointment after applying and paying for Tatkal passport. Arti Karkhanis, one of the passport applicants, stated that, after her inability to get a Tatkal appointment she was advised by the passport officer to apply under the normal passport which takes 30 to 45 days to be issued. Karkhanis is going on a holiday shortly and hence wanted the re-issuance of her passport at the earliest.
RFII takes strong objection against the passport officers misguiding applicants instead of taking action against the alleged nexus of passport agents and staffers of the passport office. This is because passport agents have told applicants that if they give their login and password, then the agents will get applicants Tatkal appointments within a day. RFII demands that the passport office take strong action against passport agents or RFII will embark upon an agitation soon.
(For more details, contact Vinita Deshmukh 98230 36663 or email her at [email protected])