passport

My face is my passport

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Attempts have been made to reduce the time taken for issuing passports but still the verification process entails unimaginable harassment. It’s time we consider what civilised democratic countries do, scrap the requirement for police verification and let the local post office or bank do the job

The Supreme Court in Satwant Singh Sawhney vs UoI (1966) has ruled that the right to travel abroad was a part of personal liberty and the Government’s claim that the issue of a passport was discretionary violated Article 14 of the Constitution. In response the Government immediately promulgated an ordinance and followed it with the Passports Act 1967 which made the acquisition of a passport as complicated as was possible for the applicant. Today, although numerous steps have been taken to simplify and expedite things, the passport verification certificate still poses the principal problem.

For people who have no sarkari contacts acquiring the certificate entails unimaginable harassment. On paper, virtually everyone in the gazetted Government category from the lowest rung of the bureaucratic ladder to the highest can issue verification certificates. But do they?

No, because there are two kinds of officers. Those who merrily sign the passport verification certificate because the wording is too absurd to be taken seriously. And there are others (like me) who generally refused (while in service) because the facts to be certified appeared unverifiable. To start with, the person’s date of birth, educational qualifications, profession, address, previous addresses and permanent address need to be certified as correct. For argument’s sake let us treat that as done. But listen to what comes next:

The attesting officer is expected to certify that the applicant bears a “good moral character and reputation” from personal knowledge. Judged by what standard? Leave aside worn-out ideas about morality and reputation (live-in relationships, same-sex partners, smoking pot or coming home drunk are passé now), how would one know whether the friend’s son who shows up as an applicant has not been peddling Hawala in Mumbai or is really the investment banker he claims to be? And if that were not enough, what follows is even more bizarre. An intimidating inventory requires one to certify that no warrant or summons has ever been issued by a court of law and the applicant has not been repatriated home at any point of time. How would one know that?

Finally, one has to certify on personal satisfaction that the passport seeker “is not likely to prejudice friendly relations of India with any foreign country; that his departure from Indian soil is not likely to be detrimental to the security of India; that he is not likely to engage in activities prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.” The certificate says in bold print that the certifier can be prosecuted under Section 12(2) of the Passports Act for criminal abetment for verifying incorrect information. The punishment is jail for two years with fine.

So if a Government official for good reason declines to sign the passport verification certificates where do ordinary people go? Willy-nilly they have to depend on police verification which presents a different kind of hurdle. What is police verification? The Passports Act does not define police verification anywhere. Further, on what information and which standard does the policeman decide about a person’s reputation and moral character? IPC or his own concept of morality?

Stories about visitations from cops who simply hang around for bakshish are as old as the hills. Now even retired IAS officers admit to paying Rs 500 simply because the cop mumbles that money has to reach “oopar tak”. Even as ordinary people shudder at the thought of any interface with the khaki uniform, two distinguished Commissioners of Delhi police told me, “This (police verification) is an absurd system which only increases corruption — nothing more. How would the district cop of Gazipur know what I have been up to in Delhi? It is ridiculous.”

It is now possible to go round the world in less than a week and to commit a crime in Mumbai and bounce back to Azamgarh almost the same day. Abu Salem reportedly possesses 12 passports. In other words, beyond harassing the law-abiding citizen, police verification does nothing to prevent real criminals from slipping through the net.

Forty three years after the 1967 Act was born, it is time to think differently. First consider what civilised democratic countries do and by those examples, scrap the requirement for police verification altogether. Let the application be moved in person before the local post office or public sector bank that can function on behalf of the Passport office. Post offices in their new makeover as business hubs are capable of collecting and scrutinising prescribed documents and forwarding complete applications online to the National and State Crime Bureaus to scan for absence of criminal or terrorist activities. Diversifying business is their mantra these days.

Scanning the forwarded names should ordinarily take no more than three days and cleared applicants should normally be issued a passport within a week. It is a person’s right to travel abroad and it is wrong to treat the whole populace as untrustworthy because a fraction of lawbreakers exist everywhere. The obsolete practice of thanedars visiting homes must stop.

Civilised democratic countries find ways of saying “Yes” to their citizens — not give the police the power to say “No”.