Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's India That Stops India.

(Author's note: You may skip to the conclusion if you don't want to read the torture I went through while submitting my passport renewal application at the PSK. Seriously. I wouldn't mind. I needed to vent it out, and thus this. Although, if you read it, you'd know my plight and know what to expect if you happen to go sometime soon.)

Day: Friday, 12th October, 2012.
Task: Go to the Passport Seva Kendra (henceforth, PSK) Malad, and complete the submission of the application and documents for the renewal of passport.

And this, was an experience of a lifetime. An experience I will tell my grand-children about how things were in the India I lived in. Yes, I surely will. Before them, it's time for you to read about it.

Let's rollback a little...

When dad realized that my passport was going to expire soon, he asked me to get done with the renewal of the same as soon as possible. I realized that it should be a pretty easy job, since all I remembered of the previous application was signing and clicking a photo with a white background especially for it. That's it. Until...

I called the travel company which takes care of my grandpa's tour bookings and talked to an uncle there who told me that the agents are no more allowed to take care of passport applications and they have to be made themselves, by everyone. He gave me a long list of documents that I should carry, even though it was a re-issue (in the passport office terms). Some 10-15 documents.

I filled up the form online. It is a pathetic looking website. No kidding. We live in the 21st Century, when even teenagers (including me) have their own websites. Took some time to figure out what's to be done because it was a heck of a terrible design. It bombards you with too much information, in too little space (take a look: http://passportindia.gov.in/). I was eventually done filling up the form online, and getting a PDF from there, after much deliberations. After that, I tried to select an appointment to submit the form and the documents at the PSK. I couldn't. They allow you to select an appointment only 3:30 pm onwards until 5 pm or so. I accepted that and then tried selecting an appointment the next day. I got one, after more than 15 days, for 12th October, 2012.

I checked the documents check-list on the website, and it said I needed to carry only my old passport, with two first and last page self-attested photocopies since it hadn't yet expired. Along with renewal, an automatic minor-to-major change in my passport had to take place too, since my earlier passport was issued to me when I was 14.

D-day arrives.

I took print-outs of the 2 PDFs I got from the website. A form, and an appointment confirmation.

I got ready in a hush and then hurried to get a few photocopies of the 15-odd documents that I was told to carry, and made my way to the PSK. I reached there at 12:28, for my scheduled appointment of 13:00, and reporting time of 12:45.

On reaching there, I saw the gates closed. People standing in a queue outside the gate, in the scorching sun, surrounded by hawkers on a 2-lane 2-way street. Yes, a 2-way Mumbai street with busy traffic, buses, cars, auto-rickshaws. And yes, everyone had no option but to wait in the scorching sun.

I saw those with the 12:45 appointment go in at 12:30 when the watchman came by and opened the door for them, and let them in after checking their slots. The watchman just disregarded anyone asking him anything. I witnessed a bus conductor knocking on the door for 5-7 minutes before the watchman came by and answered it. He was there to enquire about the passport procedure and was shooed away by the watchman asking him to come at 10:30 on Monday, if I remember right. I saw a senior citizen couple come almost 2 hours early for their 2:30 appointment. After much consideration, the watchman let them sit in the shade of a tree inside the building compound (I believe that was because the uncle had a strap over his chin and to his ears).

I eventually made my way into the PSK compound at 12:45 when the watchman let me in after the same procedure as the prior. The first thing after I was let in the door that I noticed was that there was a long, really long and big compound that led to the PSK door. Everyone could easily wait in the compound, in the shade of the trees. After being frisked, I was let in the 2nd gate. And that's when my experience began spiraling downwards.

Stage 1: Getting a token.

Once in, I was completely lost over what to do and where to go next. There were 5-6 queues of at least 20 people each, waiting for something, i.e, atleast 100-120 people. What, I wondered. I looked around, completely confused, for a board on the walls which would tell me what next. I asked a guy with an ID, about what was I supposed to do next. He asked me if I had a Tatkaal application, and when I answered in the negative, told me to go and stand in one of those queues. I did.

I was still confusedly looking all over the place for some checklist, some procedural guidance board or sign. I couldn't find any. Eventually, on observing the people getting off the queue, I realized I would be given a brown envelope with some papers inside it, and a bar code printed paper.

I waited in that line for over 50 minutes, all the while thinking why would they let so many people take a particular slot if they couldn't manage? My chance came around 1:35. I was asked to photocopy a middle-page of my passport at the very spot, then. Luckily, the photocopy centre, inside the PSK, which had a queue of 25 people or so when I entered, was empty, and I got it done in a jiffy. She also asked me for an address proof (which I with the numerous other documents so that I wouldn't have to go there again), which was never mentioned on the website. She took my documents and asked me to wait. I asked her how long it'd take, and she said it wouldn't be more than 15-20 minutes. By now, the queues were with just 5 people in the 3 queues that were running.

After 5 minutes, I saw her walk away with another lady. I peeked at her desk and saw a few brown files just lying there. I was hungry too! And was getting delayed because she wanted to gossip with her next-counter lady while having a merry lunch.

Going back 20 minutes, while I was standing in the queue waiting for my turn. The queue next to me read 'For infants (less than 1 year) and senior citizens only'. When I entered, till when my photocopied documents were taken, there was absolutely no one who was waiting or submitting documents in that queue. The lady there was busy chit-chatting with everyone else who worked there, while everyone else's queues kept getting elongated from 15 to 20 to 25 people. A guy who stood ahead, asked her if she would accept his documents as she was free. She asked him to read the board, and said a simple no. All this when there was no one in her queue but the other queues were over-flowing with applicants.

I saw people who had 14:00 appointments come and get their tokens, and moving on to the next round while the woman who accepted my application had her lunch. That's when I felt like pulling that woman from her lunch box and asking her to give me my goddamned file and a token, before she headed to fill her stomach!

In the meanwhile, there were atleast 3 couples with babies less than a year, and half a dozen senior citizens waiting in the queue for them, with no one to cater them (because the lady there was having her lunch). None of the guys at the 2 on-going queues answered them properly. They just asked them to wait (in turn, delaying issuing them tokens, which would make the whole process for them just longer). I also saw a lady with a Tatkaal passport application wait in the line for a token while she didn't have to, only for the lack of knowledge and availability of any help (had I known any better, I'd have helped her).

Finally, the lady came from her lunch at around 2:15, and then after another 15 minutes, gave me my file and the token. I was thoroughly pissed by then. Sadly, I didn't know that this was just the start.

Stage 2: Zone A.

I walked into the next part of the PSK, only to see a large seating waiting area, with a few LCDs mounted on the front wall. It had Internet Explorer 6 (sorry, couldn't ignore) running on it, with a dynamic file which had some counter numbers like A1, A2, A3, in one column, and token number on the other. Another LCD had the same from B1 onwards, and C1 onwards, with token numbers. The A zone had the token number of N150 or so reading on it when I entered. Mine was in the 220s. The B zone had something around N100. And that's when I realized that it's going to be a long, long time before I got home.

I stopped keeping a track of how long I waited. When my number flashed on the zone A LCD, I asked another guy with an ID about where to go, and he guided me to go through a door. Once there, I saw around 30-35 well-built cubicles. The sad part? Only 12-15 of them had attendants sitting on them and doing their job.

I waited for the previous applicant on my allocated cubicle to get done. When I sat there, the first thing I saw was a Canon DSLR in front of me. I saw one LCD monitor facing me, another facing the girl who was verifying, my details. Soon, I realized that there were scanners, printers, finger-print readers and all kinds of modern stuff that you'd expect there. She got done with submitting my application pretty quick, and I paid the cash there. She was humble, soft and helpful. And directed me to zone B.

Stage 3: Zone B.

When I walked into zone B from zone A, the LCD there read N150s. And I sat in the waiting area there (yes, another seating waiting area in zone B), and waited for a real long time. I didn't take too long to realize that the priority was given to senior citizens, Tatkaal applicants, and minors, and normal applicants were just pushed lower in the priority order. Another thing I realized was that the token numbers displaying there weren't in sequence (like in A) but according to when the application from zone A was submitted. First come, first serve basis kinda.

In the meanwhile, I got like really hungry, and decided to visit the small food stall inside the premises. It was out of all kinds of snacks, and only had a handful of desserts left. I munched on one of those little brownies and waited for my turn to come. It did come when I had lost all hope of it coming by. And I made my way to the zone B cubicle to find a typical Government employee.

He was getting done with the previous applicant too. I stood close by, observing a 3-4 year-old cute girl roaming around the whole zone. When my turn came, when I was about to sit down, the uncle asked me to wait. My expressions changed to bewilderment. He asked me to wait until my number flashed on his computer screen. I said my number was flashing on the LCD and so I was sitting. He told me that he wasn't drinking his tea which was now getting cold, and instead doing my work, and even then I wasn't waiting. I stood there waiting for 2 minutes, while my name and details finally appeared on his screen. He quickly verified them and pushed me to zone C. Again, it was because it was a re-issue that it all was so quick.

Stage 4: Zone C.

Just out of zone B, I got a call from home about when I would be coming home, as it was already over 5 pm. I was staring at the LCD which would tell me which counter to go to in the zone C, while talking on phone and saying that I'll be done soon. That's when I saw an uncle from zone C pointing me with an angry expression. I hurriedly kept my phone and walked to him. He angrily asked me why I wasn't paying attention to him and talking on the phone instead. I politely told him that I was looking at the LCD and waiting for my number to flash there. He asked me if I was talking to my 'girlfriend' and I replied even more politely (realizing that he can cancel my application here, and I'd be forced to face the whole torture again) that it was a call from home. He threw (literally) my old passport across the desk and told me that it hadn't been cancelled yet. I asked him what that meant, and he rudely told me that it hadn't been cancelled. I asked him if it was necessary and he said yes and I should get it done. I enquired about how to do that. He asked me to go to the zone B again and get it done.

I went to the zone B again, and waited until the uncle was done with another applicant. He quickly stamped it, when I asked him to, and then told the next applicant to wait until he finished his tea (!!). I walked out to the zone C again and waited while he got done with another applicant. He saw that my old passport had been cancelled and took my application and threw it on the floor where other applications were kept, and asked another applicant to sit down there. I asked him thrice if the procedure was done and he looked at me with fierce expressions and said yes. I walked towards the exit gate, submitted my receipt for the cash I had paid, and the token number paper, and left.

Conclusion:

5 hours and 10 minutes. It was 17:38 on my watch when I left the gates of the PSK. I had lunch at 18:00.

An experience of a lifetime, ain't it?

Now, the most disturbing fact.

All this is managed by the reputed Tata Consulting Services. Yes, the TCS we all feel proud our fifth-engineer-friend or relative gets a job in. The website is proudly managed and made by them, and so is the whole PSK. Those at stage 1, 2, and the security guys, boasted their TCS IDs.

Such a poor, confusing website (check out TCS's own website), incredibly poorly managed PSK, IE6 (when IE9 is out since over 2 years) running to display the information, while they splurge the Government money on unnecessary DSLRs (point-and-shoot cameras do an extremely good job of capturing a portrait) and separate scanners and printers (and not MFDs), while most of the cubicles don't have staff to use such expensive equipment!

This here, is one classic example, of how private companies dupe the Government and the people, in the name of computerization. A reputed IT company, exploiting the Government, wasting people's time, and making the passport procedure just so bloody complicated and tough!

This, is sad when it's form one of the most reputed IT companies in India. After this, I thoroughly am demotivated to work in TCS (even though I never planned to).

And there's another side of this same coin. The Nandan Nilekani-led Aadhaar project. The most challenging identity project that was undertaken by the Infosys co-founder. I remember getting an appointment one day, going the next and coming out 15 minutes later. It doesn't have anything fancy. Heck, even their offices don't have ACs! And yet, it's more than a million times more efficient.

Only if the Governments that we elect understood the plight of the common man and did something about the numerous documents that we have to produce to get one damned document.

I turned 18 last year, and since, I have been in the same state. It's crazy. The driving license, PAN card, Aadhaar card, and now the passport. Documents, applications, more documents, photocopies, mistakes... The process is never-ending! And still, I'm trying to find out how to get my name in the electoral list so that I can vote in the 2014 (or the 2013) elections. Don't direct me to the Jaago Re website. That is utter crap too. It gives me a blank PDF form with none of my details filled in it, even though I have filled it atleast thrice with 3 different e-mail IDs. Their customer service e-mails aren't replied to, either. It just, equally sucks.

How simple would it be, to get an appointment at the UID office, get your documents verified once when you turn 18, and then have all your documents sent to you? Driving test, cool. I wouldn't mind giving it. But, the rest? Unnecessary misuse of resources, money, time and energy. Utterly.

I really wish someone gets some sense and the Aadhaar UID project gets the boost to eliminating every hurdle in its implementation, and becomes universal for every document you ever have to have. I would love to live in an India that would ensure that.

And it's not the Government who is to blame for the lack of deployment of the same. It's we, the people. Let's face it. How many of us have called, e-mailed or written to our representatives in the LS, about what we want them to represent us for? What have we done except going on that holiday to 'vote' as if we do the nation a service by voting!

We don't ask them the tough questions. We let them test our patience. We let them push us through the hurdles and yet we stay mum. We'll read a blogpost like this, or an article somewhere, and then after 15 minutes, we'd be busy in our own world, a world where the politics and the betterment of this nation doesn't even cross our minds. That's the India we live in. And I pity it.

Yes, it's India that stops India. Isn't it only India that stops India?

Until the next post...

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