Chennai Regional Passport office loves touts, hates taxpayers

We keep reading in highly regarded newspapers that the whole operation of issuing passports is to be taken over by software giant TCS, on behalf of the Government of India. A recent report in The Hindu quotes a TCS executive on this, but the roadmap he gives is vague at best. There is no assessment of what has happened so far.

In the present, the RPO staff project an image of total efficiency, excellent governance and utmost diligence, which is far from the truth.

They are able to get away with their lies because lazy reporters no longer want to visit the RPO. The office was supposed to shift to more spacious premises on Anna Road by October, but a news report today indicates that it is continuing in its dank, lint-filled halls of Shastri Bhawan.

On Friday, a senior citizen went to the RPO to renew her passport and reported things I don’t get to know from newspapers – that touts at Chennai RPO are alive and well, that they will charge you Rs.400 for the staff to recognise your presence and receive your application, and that even after paying, the staff will spray spittle in your face and bark orders. All this is far removed from the urbane and soft visage of Minister S.M. Krishna, who presides over this festering mess at the MEA.

Today, the Times of India has a story that talks about some of the problems in the Chennai RPO. The allegations are predictably met with strenuous denials from the staff. Of course, the RPO could be cleaned up overnight if all the newspapers decided that must be done, but for their own reasons, they prefer not to. Television is useless here because it is either busy purveying propaganda for political parties or the market, or fixing deals between the two. I doubt if an anchor such as Barkha Dutt or an editor such as Vir Sanghvi has seen the inside of a passport office in a long time (the former is likely to turn up there if terrorists visit, not to see how passport operations go on).

Since the Times story does not seem to be on their website, it is useful to summarise some of the points:

Touts make hay at teeming Regional Passport Office, says the headline of the TOI story. So what are the problems?

  • Applicants waiting at the office are unable to tell touts and officers of the department apart. [This is very strange, unless they have had the same training and are also recruited in much the same way. Hasn’t anyone heard of name badges?]
  • There are private security guards, but these people are obviously on the take. [Privatisation doesn’t solve problems – the RPO issue proves this once again.]
  • The local police have failed to act on the touts. Moreover the CBI is also in the same premises [but they are busy poring over much more important papers. No one is available to handle these chronic problems. Or perhaps they are very friendly to the RPO, and don’t want to deprive him of sleep. Note that there are two problems – the touts are not technically committing an offence that the CBI can pursue, so it has be looked at by Tamil Nadu’s invisible Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, while those accepting bribes under gazetted employment must be collared by the CBI]
  • There is a proposal to deploy the CISF in the RPO. [The airports have benefited in some measure, as political hangers-on now find it difficult to have a free run of the place. But that is also due to the love that terrorists have for airports. ]
  • Everyday, there are 2,000 visitors to the RPO [and they must pack themselves into the narrow staircase and dingy corridors, taking in body odours of hundreds of people and inhaling countless dust mites.]

Only sometime ago, there was a high profile arrest of the top officer of the Chennai RPO, Sumathi Ravichandran. That case has disappeared from the headlines – after all, we know about the proverbial memory of both the public and the media. The more important lesson here is that arrests and media exposure is no deterrent to corruption. There is so much at stake that the officers swing right back into action as soon as the cameras have left, with the touts in control.



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