Meet the man who ensures smooth passport delivery at your doorstep

Muktesh K Pardeshi, Joint Secretary & Chief Passport Officer, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (Express Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)
Muktesh K Pardeshi, Joint Secretary & Chief Passport Officer, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (Express Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)

Getting a passport has been an arduous task for the citizens but with the intervention of technology, things are changing quickly. Although, in recent past, the number of applications have increased substantially, the time taken for police verification and issuing the passport has gradually gone down. In an exclusive interview with EC’s Mohd Ujaley, Muktesh K Pardeshi, Joint Secretary & Chief Passport Officer, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India shares insights into how the Indian Passport department has leveraged technology to significantly improve the process of issuing passports

How was the year 2015 for the passport division?

It was a great and productive year. It was productive in a sense that we have been able to achieve the target of 20% growth. In 2014, we had setup the extremely ambitious target of issuing 10 million passports and after having crossed the mark, we are the third country in the world after USA and China to have issued more than 10 million passports. We crossed this milestone in 2014. But we also wanted to sustain this momentum. Therefore, in January 2015, we have collectively set the target of 12 million passports to be issued. We take pride in saying that we collectively met this target for the year 2015.

What does this mean? It means that efficiency in the passport offices has improved and there is ease of access to passport services. Thus it’s interesting that Kerala is no longer the number one state which once used to have maximum passport applications and issuance. It has been replaced by Uttar Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh, we have seen 40% growth and in a period of three-years, the passport numbers have doubled. In 2013, it was around 6.5 lakh and in 2015 it touched 13.5 lakh. This development is indeed incredible as we could not have thought of this number two years earlier.

More interestingly, the growth has come from semi-urban areas such as Gorakhpur and adjoining districts of Varanasi, Bareilly and some rural districts attached to Ghaziabad. So we have been startled by this development. In fact, Kerala is now at the number three position. For the first time, four states—Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamilnadu—have crossed the mark of more than a million passports.

What could be the reasons for this development?

I think ease of doing business at passport offices could be one of the foremost reasons for this development. Since, I have been in this job for over five years now, I perhaps can give you some insight on why this is happening. In earlier days, until and unless it became necessary for a person to have a passport, the person would not apply for it. But that trend is now clearly changing. Young people are very enthusiastic and they are applying in large numbers.

Recently, I interacted with a group of youngsters in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh and I was amazed to know that when a young person from his village got his first passport, there was a celebration among his friends. After some days, some more friends of his came together to Gorakhpur and they applied. Fortunately, they also received their passport. So the first guy automatically became a kind of brand ambassador of passport seva in his village. So every time somebody has to apply for a passport, he helped them and for that he got a free ride to Gorakhpur and at times a free movie ticket to watch with his friends. This kind of small but impactful things are happening on the ground leading to a huge growth in the number of the passport applications.

In 2015, you achieved the target of issuing 12 million passports. What is your target for 2016 and is there any special plan to achieve these numbers?

Focus on ease of doing business at Passport Seva Kendras (PSK) will continue as it is crucial for the growth and that is also the idea of the Ministry of External Affairs. We know that we have been able to achieve handsome growth of 20%. So even in 2016 we are targeting15-20% growth in the number of the passports. But more than anything else for the sustainable growth, it is important to simplify the process so that people should be able to get the passport in as less time as possible. Reducing the timeline to deliver the passport will be the focus in 2016.

In the last couple of years, we have improved our efficiency. Ease of transaction at passport offices has also improved but the third focus factor for us is to improve accessibility. We initially had 77 passport seva Kendras (PSKs). This went upto 85 and by the end of this financial year (2015-16), the number of PSKs will go up to 90. We expect this number to go up to 95 by the end of 2016.

Once upon a time, there used to be only two passport offices for North-East—one in Guwahati which used to cover six North-East states and Kolkata used to take care of Sikkim. Now each of these states have a PSK. We are also setting up PSKs in Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh in the current month itself. Also, there are pockets that are remotely located like Leh or Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh. By the second half of this year, we will reach out to all such places. So overall, in the year 2016, you will see increased focus on accessibility.

Are the 95 Passport Seva Kendras enough for the entire country? Big states like Bihar have only one or two PSKs. Is there any plan to open multiple PSKs in states?

We have thought of a couple of solutions. Firstly, we are increasing the number of PSKs from the present 75 to 95 by the end of this year. Secondly, the ministry is going to have another feasibility study to setup PSKs for the period from 2018. Questions such as whether these 95 PSKs will be adequate enough in the next stage of passport seva will be addressed. A study will be commissioned shortly and depending on the study recommendations, we will decide the next course of action.

In the meanwhile, we are conducting passport camps at the district level, especially in those places which are remotely located. In the year 2015, 125 such camps at very inaccessible and remote locations were organised. We had camps in Leh, Daman & Diu and Lakshadweep. In Lakshadweep, we camped in a place called Agatti, which has a total population of about 10 thousand. I have personally visited this region. People were so happy that they said they had never expected the Ministry of External Affairs to land in Agatti Island with merely a population of 10 thousand and organise a passport camp for them.

The Ministry of External Affairs has recently decided to accept police verification after the passport has been issued. Will the number of passports go up?

Yes, the number should go up. What government has done is that now for well-documented citizens, getting the passport has become hassle free. By well-documented citizens, I mean a citizen who has a legitimate Aadhar Card, PAN Card and Voter ID Card. They will be issued passport first and police verification will happen later. But there are large number of people who may not have all the documents. They will have to go through regular procedure.

When you compare our country to countries like Singapore, getting a passport in our country is a little tough because people usually do not have all the documents. They try to get it when they have to apply for passport. But this is completely different in Singapore. Getting a passport is a much easier exercise because from the time of birth itself, each citizen makes sure that all the necessary documents are in place.

Among all the MMPs, the Passport Seva service stands very tall. How do you think technology has played a role in helping the department achieve its objective?

This project has become the role model for e-governance. Among all the MMPs under NeGP, the Passport Seva has been one of the most successful projects. This has been possible because of full digitisation of the documents. Earlier files were manually processed, but not any more. The first thing is that when you visit the Passport Seva Kendra, we digitised your file and then we throw the paper. Its all paperless and now there are no more cases of missing files. Now, we are issuing 12 million passports every year, and we would not have come across a single case of missing passport as everything is digital. This is the best example of true Digital India.

For digitisation, we are taking the photographs ourselves. Earlier, we used to take the photo from applications. However, these photos could be substituted. But, now with digitisation, it cannot be. We are also leveraging mobile phones. Applicants can track the progress of the passport application via SMS. Now we also have an application for the police department. This is part of e-governance which has been taken to the next stage of m-governance.

We are also focusing on a true integrated government model. Most of the government agencies work in silos but at the passport seva we have an integrated government—we are linked with the police districts, the Aaadhar, India Post, and and with all the embassies. So we have taken e-governance to the next level called m-governance, which ultimately helps in realising the vision of integrated government (i-government). So the whole operation for the government as well as for the citizen has become seamless. In addition, the process has also become secure for the country.

Twelve million passport in an year means that your department is dealing with large number of personal data. How does your department ensure security and privacy of the data? Has there been any case of data breach in the last couple of years?

We have a very robust security mechanism in place. Passport data has been declared as extremely sensitive data. In the National Security Council (NSC), there is a mechanism to ensure cyber security of these sensitive data. In the last five years, we have seen many attacks, but we have been able to deal with it because of the robustness of the system that we have created.

On the privacy part, we are very conscious about it. All the data that we collect is in the safe hands of the government. Although, we work in the public private partnership (PPP) mode with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), they are not the custodian of the data. The data center and disaster recovery centre is owned by the government.

We have two-key system in place like the bank locker. The citizen may think that they have gone through the TCS counter at PSK but the moment the data is submitted, they cannot open it. Like in a case of bank locker, there are two keys—one with the bank and the other with the customer. To open a locker, you need both the keys but the moment it is locked, the bank cannot open it. Similarly in our case, the moment data is submitted, it becomes the sovereign property of the government.

Are you also using some data analytics tools to understand the trend emanating from the data of passport applications?
Yes, we do use data analytics in a significant way. In fact, it has been very helpful in the projection of our annual growth, pocket growth, demographic growth and understanding seasonal fluctuations. The huge data we have created in last five years is very beneficial. They give us solid understanding about different trends leading to better efficiency and productivity.

For example in UP, we are better placed now because of data analytics. The moment we saw the trend of growing demand, we geared ourselves adequately. Had we followed the old system of operating, we would not have been able to achieve the kind of growth that we have seen in UP. So, we diverted people, created more counters and camps and allocated more resources to UP. This all has been possible because of timely analysis of data. The data analytics will also help in projecting future growth and accordingly the government will also know the pockets where the demand will be high. This helps us in setting-up the new PSKs.

Muktesh K Pardeshi, Joint Secretary & Chief Passport Officer, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India at his New Delhi office (Express Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)

The government was mulling of issuing biometric passports. Is there any progress on that and what are the future plans to make the passport more smart?

The work is under tendering stage for biometric passports. Right now, it is not mandatory for the countries but it has been recommended by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a Montreal, Canada headquartered civil aviation body that is responsible for setting-up norms for international air travel.

The one mandatory norm which is now operational was that by November 2015, everybody should carry only machine readable passport and must not carry handwritten passports. From last two years, we have been issuing machine readable passports. We also ran a campaign sensitising people if they have a hand-written passport, they should get it replaced. Most of the people have already replaced their passports. Some hand-written passports may still be present, but if the owner of these passports do not want to replace, the government cannot force them to do. But the fact is that they now cannot travel on that passport. However, through your medium, I would like to request if any of them still possess the hand-written passport, they should get it replaced from the nearest PSK.

Actually in mid-nineties, hand-written passport was issued for 20 years. So somebody who got a handwritten passport in the year 1997, his passport is still valid till 2017. However, if this is handwritten, they can’t travel on it.

The e-passport that we are envisaging will have an invisible chip in which data will be stored electronically. So even if somebody tries to play around the data of the passport, they won’t be able to change the data inside the chip. So the passport will become more secure.

For biometric passports, our target is to do it by the end of 2016. In many airports there are e-gates. A time will come when you may not have to go through the manned immigration counters. With an e passport, the e-gate could read your passport by showing the passport and you will be allowed to go. Of course, these are futuristic things that require infrastructure upgradation but surely one day it will happen.

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