Any citizen of Indian descent who has had the misfortune of needing a passport made anew, renewed or replaced due to damage has to run the gauntlet of our Regional Passport 0ffice- quaintly named the Passport “Seva” Kendra. Gone are the days when an agent would be a palmed a few hundred rupees, followed by showing up at the Passport office….er..Seva Kendra and waiting in the queue from the crack of dawn. And then watching helplessly as high-fliers with some kind of insider acquaintance or adequate palm-greasing capacity, coolly glided past you to the head of the queue.
Now, it is different, I was told. The entire process is online, transparent
with no possibility of any hanky-panky. “Oh! How wonderful!” I thought proudly, “India is finally making progress. We have an impartial system in place in the hallowed sanctum of Indian citizenship”.
How naïve I was, in my surmise of our feudal system and its stranglehold on our people.
After one fills an online form, the process of getting an appointment begins. For some strange reason, this happens at the ungodly hour of three in the afternoon. An hour, when, I trust most hard-working people are slaving away at their respective jobs. The portal opens at the exactly three P.M. and dispenses with appointments for the next two days within two minutes. Alas! There are literally thousands of people (and agents) lying in wait with their computers logged on and the appointments disappear like a puff of smoke if your finger is delayed from clicking even by a nanosecond. So, what this means for a normal person is that fifteen to thirty minutes prior to the said time, one logs on at the site, switches off one’s phone, does not take toilet breaks. Some recite Hanuman Chalisa or its equivalent as the clock crawls closer to the witching hour of three.
So rare is success in holiday season, that celebratory parties must be given by lucky winners of the coveted appointment.
After trying for nearly a week, a process guaranteed to give one an ulcer, if not fired from the job (for unblinking computer-gazing for days on end at the three P.M. muhurat), we called up an alleged agent, who promptly gave us short shrift. He had others who had been waiting months, he said….his voice trailing away sounding distinctly melancholy, depressed perhaps by repeated ‘three P.M.failures’
The 24-hour help line directed us to the Regional Passport Office, ‘between 10 and 12.30A.M.on working days’ for appointments. Little did we know that we were now wedged in the jaws of the monster of bureaucracy. We did reach fifteen minutes before the hour, but a serpentine queue had already curled up outside the gate and was flicking its patient tail. Like a good middle-class persons who are against the practice of queue-jumping, we walked to the end of the queue. Some well-dressed persons did slink in, as if their designer duds and fancy car made them blind to the Patiently Waiting Great Unwashed at the periphery of their vision.
THE UPSTAIRS SAHIB
At 10.A.M., we were allowed upstairs and separated into different queues. The more seasoned among the applicants were already ensconced in front of the correct offices with the attitude of those digging in for a long wait. I was the fifth in my queue, but the person that I had to meet was a no-show for the next forty minutes. In a bizarre manner, which only happens in India, people were chatting with each other in a we-are-in the-same-boat kind of way. They shared stories of how an entire family had their passports issued, save a little girl of nine. As all eyes swung towards her, the girl in question looked sufficiently shame-faced as if she was guilty of something criminal. Some one spoke of being away during the postal arrival of the passport, which then disappeared into the dusty confines of bureaucratic indolence..
At eleven-fifteen, we were loudly informed that the person we wanted to meet would not be coming and asked to join a longer queue on the other side, thereby pushing me to fifteenth place. At this position, we would be exceeding the closing time of 12.30., so we decided to cut our losses and gave up. Returning a couple of days later, an early arrival ensured us an enviable fourth place in the upstairs queue. We had a ring-side view of the Indian art of queue -jumping.
The sneaking person and the security employee of the passport office make eye-contact and a silent mysterious message (of reward offered or already given?) is exchanged ending with the applicant’s visiting card taken and given to the officer. The next person to be called was usually the card-giver making a mockery of the patiently waiting members of the queue.
All this while, various clerks are zipping In and out with mysterious forms ‘to-be urgently-signed’ by the sahib, thereby cutting into the time assigned to the waiting people. The scion of an industrial house stood in the queue with us, but a dress-designer thought she could skip ahead giving me interesting insight into their respective psychology. After watching this desi pantomime for a few minutes, I raised a vociferous objection, hoping to shame the performers involved.
What was most surprising was that I was the lone voice speaking out, the others merely contributing murmurs. I wonder if as a race we invite subjugation or are conditioned to meekly accept whatever is meted out. Where I expected to see disgust and anger from my fellow-sufferers, I only saw envy, resigned acceptance and at times fear of being targeted by the sahib/staff thereby botching any frail, fragile hope of getting their passport done in time.
The queue did not move faster, but I was spared the indignation of being superseded. By the time my turn came, I had a splitting headache and my companion was irate. In the tones of one conferring a great favor upon us, we were given our appointment.
As for what happens during the actual application, watch this space for updates.