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Passport at your doorstep: A Saga of Service Excellence

“I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light.

And pursued my voyage through the wilderness of worlds.

Leaving my track on many a star and planet”

Journey Home, Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore

The story of the Indian passport’s evolution is similar to the journey of a tourist into the wilderness, enduring all difficulties before emerging triumphant and leaving an impression on the locations he visits. The Indian passport starting its journey from the time of the First World War has gone through tremendous transformation through the ages to emerge as one of the largest citizen services delivered by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India (GoI). The experience of the citizens who applied for passports in the past (until the late 2000s) was typically harrowing, with heavy paperwork, long waiting times to get an appointment with the regional passport officer, a cumbersome police verification process, the black-box process of passport approval, and an indefinite wait for the printed passport to be issued. These processes could take anywhere from three months to six months, sometimes resulting in the loss of job opportunities and severe anxiety for the citizens. Indian passport services have come a long way from snail-pace delivery to one of the world’s lightning-fast and delightful passport delivery systems in a decade. How did this transformation happen? What prompted the MEA envisage restructure the processes and eliminate the pain points to citizens and place in strategies required to make the Passport Seva Project (PSP) a success saga? How did collaboration with a private partner help the Ministry in restructuring an archaic process to make it efficient and effective and thrive in a rapidly evolving environment? What should the Ministry of External Affairs do to cope up with the burgeoning demands on this service to deliver superior customer experience at every touchpoint connected with issue of passports?

The Genesis

The Genesis

It all started in 1920, when the British Indian Empire enacted the Indian Passport Act of 1920, which mandated British Indian passports for its subjects, including Indians, to establish control over their foreign travels. However, after independence passport services were briefly discontinued, only to be resumed in 1952.  The passport was an object of elite and respectable Indians, a valued possession obtainable after passing a literacy test.  Until 1966, passports were issued based on administrative instructions, sometimes leading to discretionary and discriminatory practices. However, the central government introduced an ordinance in early 1967, later the Passports Act of 1967, on June 24 of the same year, enabling all Indian citizens to possess a passport.  This day became a red-letter day in the history of Indian passports and is celebrated as “Passport Seva Divas”.  Three different types of passports were issued: (i) dark blue for common citizens; (ii) white for government officials; and (iii) maroon for diplomats.

Passports continued to be a matter for the rich, who travelled abroad for business and leisure, and government officials for diplomatic purposes.  This situation changed with the establishment of the International Airports Authority of India (IAAI) in 1972.  In the early 1990s, Indian economic policy went through a significant overhaul, allowing private participation in international trade.  The new economic policy termed “liberalization, privatization, and globalization” (LPG)” resulted in the entry of many foreign companies into India.  With these companies, many Indian and foreign airlines forayed into the Indian air travel market.  The entry of airline companies in India operating on international routes slowly but steadily changed the landscape of passport requirements in India.  In the 1990s, about 42 airline companies operated from, to, or through India.

With the discovery of petrol in Middle Eastern countries in the 1940s and 1950s, their economies boomed in a matter of decades, called the “Gulf Boom” (1972–1983), resulting in labour shortages in these countries.  India, especially the state of Kerala, became the labour capital for these countries, sending a beeline of labourers to work in oil refineries and construction sites.  This necessitated the issuance of passports to Indian citizens to enable them to work in Gulf countries.  Another significant global event that changed the landscape of passport services was the advent of information technology (IT) companies in the United States of America in the 1990s.  Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle became major recruiters of Indians who could write assembly languages and software codes.  Availing certifications from burgeoning computer training institutes such as NIIT and APTECH, many Indians were willing to shift to the United States, looking for greener pastures.  This put a lot of pressure on the passport offices to quickly issue passports to the citizens.  There were instances where the officials had to work long hours to clear pending passport requests.  Passport authorities issued about 100,000 handwritten passports, valid for 20 years, to its citizens from 1997 to 2000, a feat considered impossible due to mounting pressure from all sides.

Birth of Passport Seva Project (PSP)

Birth of Passport Seva Project (PSP)

The passport seva project (PSP) was launched with the vision “to deliver passport services to citizens in a timely, transparent, more accessible, reliable manner, and in a comfortable environment through streamlined processes and committed, trained and motivated workforce[1].” MEA worked towards achieving this vision in phases. The genesis of PSP dates back to the year 2006, when Mr. Sharat Sabharwal, Additional Secretary/ Special Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs contacted Mr Satyanarayana, founder CEO of National Institute for Smart Governance (NISG) after going through the Passport Seva files which had documentation of hardships faced by applicants in getting a passport.  NISG identified several key problems in the passport delivery system that MEA was trying to solve at that point in time.

One of the key problems related to service delivery or the uncertainty in the system.  This essentially meant that once an applicant applied for a passport, there was no assurance given by the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) on when the passport would actually be delivered.  There was a serious lack of service assurance.  It was a kind of black box for the applicant, who had to wait for ages without any information about the rejection or acceptance of his or her application for a passport. The second major problem was the hassle faced by applicants for something as simple as submitting the application form for a passport.  When NISG officials visited different passport offices, they found applicants waiting in queues as early as 3 in the morning.  They found that villagers used to come overnight and camp outside the passport office to be in line in the morning.  In a conversation with the case authors, Mr. Mojeebuddin Khan, GM at NISG, narrated the following:

Imagine the plight of the applicant who would get in the queue when the office opens, reach the window, and then be told by the officer that the application is deficient. Do people really need to face this kind of hassle for something as simple as submitting an application? The procedural hassle created a kind of system where the middlemen had a role to play because the passport application became so difficult or so mired in mystery that the middlemen offered help.  When we studied the system, we realized that there was no need for a middleman at all.  The process was actually very simple and the middlemen thrived only because of a culture of lack of communication, lack of awareness, and lack of sharing information about the detailed steps to be followed, how it should be done, what needs to be done, etc. So it was that kind of gap that allowed middlemen to thrive. We came to know that there was nothing, actually middlemen used to do.  They simply had access to the passport officers, who simply accepted the application. That’s it. The passport officer would look at the application, scrutinize it, and see whether it was deficient or not. So it was a total black box for the applicant where the middlemen actually benefited.”

NISG identified problems at the provider end as well, that is, within the passport offices.  The leisurely pace of work at government offices was evident in the passport offices as well.  The processes were well documented and defined on paper, but in practice, they were not uniform, inconsistent, and not implemented very well across the offices. So it was left to the passport officer in charge to take initiative and set things right.  This was a typical scenario.  Thus, bringing about internal efficiency was a big challenge.  The fourth challenge was making the entire process watertight in terms of safety and privacy.  Mr. Khan recalled that these were the initial challenges identified by NISG to start working upon.  Upon getting the report from NISG, MEA got approval from the Union Cabinet in September 2007 to outsource the front-end activities to a private partner.  MEA also decided to establish 77 PSKs nationwide and create a centralized system to link all the service providers.

“We stood outside the passport office, spoke to the applicants standing in the queue, and tried to understand their problems. We spoke to travel agents, who used to provide the services as middlemen. So we tried to understand stakeholder perspectives at different levels. Technology, of course, was an important element in this whole thing. But before technology, we wanted to first solve the problem at the process level, for which we worked on both sides, the user side as well as the official side, which was the back end. So processes on both sides were addressed in our solution, and then technology was superimposed to make things more efficient, faster, and secure. Unlike many other government services, a passport being a national identity document, the system had to be made more secure. Starting with accepting the application, different aspects of security had to be kept in mind. We shared with MEA the key aspects of the solution that was proposed. We reached out to the industry, consulted different players in the industry, tried to triangulate with them and verify with them the technologies, the solutions proposed, etc., so that it doesn’t land into trouble later,” said Mr. Khan.

[1] Passport Seva official website

Entry of TCS – Redefining Public-Private Partnerships

Entry of TCS – Redefining Public-Private Partnerships

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) awarded the project to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), one of the leading IT companies in India, in 2008 through a competitive bidding process.  On October 13, 2008, the MEA and TCS signed a Master Service Agreement (MSA)[1].  Based on volumes and subject to 27 strict service delivery levels, TCS would recover its costs through a service charge per passport.  The Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) model is used for the project, and the private partner has to undertake initial investments.

The PSK being a physical facility, it took TCS and MEA a long time to finalize the site, spaces, and facilities for the setting up of PSKs.  Site selection took the maximum amount of time, and it was only in 2012, five years after TCS came on board, that the PSP was legally declared open.  PSK was initially known as Passport Facility Center, and one of the prerequisites (as per the RFP[2] for the site) was accessibility of the center by citizens.

According to Mr. G. Chamu, Senior General Manager, NISG, ” TCS used to come with five or six different options.  TCS has to identify the site since it is a public-private partnership model. In this public-private partnership model, they are supposed to invest in all the things, the infrastructure, the land, the water, the parking, everything. They speak with many property owners, and they come back to the government to inform them about the available spaces.  A government officer appointed by the regional passport officer, now called a passport officer, checks the sites identified by TCS for conformity with the RFP.”

The passport officer would basically check the site for accessibility and necessity, among other parameters.  Once the government gives its nod to the site, TCS engages with the property owner for negotiation, the terms and conditions of which are known only to TCS.  After this, TCS has to come up with a plan for the PSK design as per the specifications given in the RFP.  TCS has to deliberate on the infrastructural design of the PSK too, which has an IT and a non-IT part. This is a time-consuming process since it involves a lot of planning and people management at all levels.  Once the design is approved by the government, TCS begins the job of setting up the PSK at the identified site.

According to Mr. Chamu, once the location was finalized, TCS began meticulously planning for developing the infrastructure at the selected site.  TCS identified citizen problems by observing their movements in PSKs and the problematic areas were taken into consideration while developing the PSK site. For example, keeping the comfort of applicants in mind, desks for filling up the application form, officials/kiosks for answering the queries of applicants, changing rooms in case of rough weather conditions, separate rooms for nursing mothers, toilets, backup power supply, etc., were envisaged and acted upon.

[2] For details of the Master Service Agreement between MEA and TCS, please refer to Annexure 2

[3]RFP shared in Appendix.

Roll-Out Challenges

Roll-Out Challenges

The first and foremost concern for MEA was to give the applicants service assurance about the delivery of their passports on time, and this required bringing about a very fundamental change in the culture and mindset of the public officials who are involved in the passport offices.  According to Mr. Khan, “We had to go for another revolutionary idea of actually, you know, pulling out the government officials from the comfort of the government office and making them sit in a Passport Seva Kendra. That’s not a joke, and MEA faced huge resistance in achieving that.  There was a lot of bad press too.  There were court cases. So you can imagine the kind of resistance and the challenge that was put on the project, which had to be faced by MEA and which had to be, you know, addressed.”  The passport office staff were unionized, and in order to nudge them to accept the new PPP model, they had to be incentivized both monetarily and non-monetarily.  Hence, the credit for the success in providing service assurance to the applicants goes to every individual and every team that worked towards achieving this goal, said Mr. Khan.  Each official at PSKs was made to face the applicants directly instead of having a junior clerk do the job.  Improvements and evolution in the process are still going on, as per Mr. Khan.

The private partner TCS had to undergo teething problems in the initial stages of the project including slow serves, which crashed frequently. [4] Consequently, applicants who had registered online found it difficult to fill in the application forms and they returned back to PSKs for manual submission of documents and forms.  TCS faced challenge in integrating its software with the existing software, PISON, of the old passport office.

MEA knew very well that the documentation process associated with passport application was cumbersome and had to be streamlined.  After getting the contract, the first task of TCS was to look into the documentation process and bring about changes in the same.  TCS employees were utilised to map the entire documentation process.  TCS realised that there was a lot of back-and-forth movement of applicant files that delayed the issue of passports.  TCS reimagined the whole process to make it unidirectional so that applicants need not move from one counter to another back and forth.  MEA brought in verifying officers and granting officers to the PSKs set up by TCS to help the latter reimagine the entire documentation process and make it applicant friendly.  In this way, the PSP was ready for pilot testing in 2010.

Initial resistance to PSP came from passport agents, who realised that digital passport delivery threatened their existence as they could no longer extort money from troubled and confused applicants.  The digital mode of passport delivery has made the system transparent.  Therefore, the agents tried to highlight every glitch associated with the process and demanded changing the system to the old one.  The new system also posed a threat to photographers, who previously used to click the ‘passport-size’ pictures of applicants since this was a preliminary requirement for passport applications.  Hence, photographers also protested against the new digital passport delivery system.  However, the continued commitment and support from MEA subdued the protests.

Another challenge was changing the mindset of Indian citizens to adopt the new system.  People were apprehensive of the online application process, and because of this, they still queued up in front of PSKs.  Passport officers had to stand in front of PSKs from early morning to convince the applicants that their requests would be processed only at the scheduled time, and they did not need to stand in long lines waiting for their turn.  There were instances where people would book online appointments but not show up at the scheduled time.  These no-shows led to losses and delays in the system and required immediate redressal. 

[4] The Times of India, July 28, 2010

Connecting the Dots with Technology

Connecting the Dots with Technology

Waiting for passport issuance is an agonizing and mentally taxing process.  PSP came up with an online portal dedicated to passport seva.  The Passport Portal caters to all passport-related needs of applicants.  Applicants can also book an appointment at the nearest PSK through this portal.  The portal provides users with all the necessary information, from booking an appointment to the final delivery of the passport.  Applicants can also voice their grievances through this portal.  This is in sharp contrast to the earlier times when applicants had to run from one government official to another to seek information about passport-related issues.  Now they can access all passport-related information at the click of a mouse, and that too from the convenience of their homes.  Information was made even more accessible through the mobile application mPassport Seva, launched in May 2013.  National Call Centres further supported the system by offering clarifications and advice to applicants in 17 different Indian languages covering the citizens of various vernaculars.  MEA has also launched both offline and online awareness programs to educate the rural population about the online application process.

PSP introduced the Premium Optional SMS Service in November 2013 as a measure to bring transparency to the entire process of passport delivery for an additional fee of INR 40.  Applicants who avail of this service will receive nine SMS alerts about the status of their application, police verification, the printing of passports, time of delivery, any system errors in processing, and any system error in processing.  This premium service is interactive; applicants can send queries to a specified contact number.  Applicants can use this service at any stage of the passport processing journey.  This service requires no additional software support to the mobile and can be availed on all mobile phones (both smart and feature phones).

Previously, applicants had to stand in long, serpentine lines to fill out the application form for passports before the introduction of the online portal.  Now applicants can upload completed application forms through the online portal from the convenience of their homes.  After this, they must visit the nearest PSK to prove the integrity of the documents and for further processing.  The process is so streamlined that applicants are informed about what documents to carry during the verification.  This has helped applicants save time, money, and energy.  Integrating passport services with AADHAR-UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) has further reduced the document requirements of the applicants.  Applications with AADHAR-UIDAI as identity proof are processed more quickly than other applications.  The applicants can also electronically share their “Digilocker” account, which electronically verifies and stores individuals’ essential documents for passport-related document verification.

With the introduction of an online payment facility in July 2013 in collaboration with the banking partner SBI and other associated banks, both applicants and PSKs were able to free themselves from the complexities of handling cash.  Applicants must pay an advance fee for application processing through this facility before visiting the PSK.  It has resulted in the optimum utilization of PSK resources as applicants were motivated to go physically to the nearest PSK and avail of the services.  To support the not-so-tech-savvy applicants, MEA enabled Common Service Centers (CSCs), operated by entrepreneurial youth in their respective towns and villages, to help applicants with online filling up forms for a nominal fee of INR 100.  Through this initiative, MEA enabled applicants to reject the services of brokers.  PSKs also have two dedicated counters to help applicants with little or no knowledge about the documentation process.

Previously, appearing for passport interviews with the regional passport officer was a harrowing experience for the applicants as they may have to wait a whole day for only a few minutes of in-person interviews.  Applicants with access to touts and employees working in passport offices jumped the queue for quicker appointments, much to the chagrin of other applicants.  However, technology is currently used for queuing management, wherein applicants are served based on a first-come-first-serve basis on their prebooked appointment status and fee payment.  The computerized queuing management has resulted in applicants going through the process of passport issuance hassle-free and relaxedly without the earlier pushing and jostling associated with standing in long queues.  The queuing management is also flexible to accommodate the varied needs of applicants, such as applicants with kids, ladies, senior citizens, and applicants with medical conditions.  Each category of applicants is managed separately through an electronic queuing system.  Ladies with infants and senior citizens need not take a prior online appointment, and they can walk into the nearest PSK to get their passport issue resolved.  Once the applicants reach the PSK, they are cared for by well-trained TCS staff to assist the applicants in their passport application journey.

The process of police verification was one of the most time-consuming and cumbersome processes in the entire journey of passport delivery.  PSP developed a mobile app, mPassport Mobile App, to help the Police Department in field visits for address verification of the applicants.  This app has considerably reduced police verification time from 49 days in 2013 to four days.  Furthermore, integrating the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) database with the AADHAR-UIDAI has helped in the identity and criminality verification of applicants.  The use of technology also streamlined the passport printing process.  Regional Passport Offices (RPOs) have been equipped with the software and hardware to ensure passport printing promptly.  In case of spillovers at RPOs, the Central Passport Printing Facility (CPPF) came into the picture, which was equally equipped with the necessary infrastructure to take care of the printing of passports.  The re-engineered process has also eliminated middlemen out of the picture, who used to usurp applicants for getting the passports delivered. 

Keeping the Winning PPP Going

Keeping the Winning PPP Going

It has been noted that government projects are financially stressful, and the cooperation of higher officials in the government department is crucial for executing the project successfully.  Indian IT companies generally tend to avoid government projects unless it is the government’s flagship project. [5] It is mainly attributed to cost overruns and delays.  Although TCS won the contract, it was a challenging task for the IT giant to pull it off initially.  It had to invest upfront in IT infrastructure and real estate to build PSKs.  The only way TCS could make money was by charging the applicants a fee for the service.  Mobile apps were not initially part of the project proposal; hence, TCS had to build the necessary infrastructure and incur the cost.  TCS got excellent cooperation from MEA in this respect.  With the support of TCS, MEA also stretched to cover some functionalities for the smooth delivery of passports to the country’s citizens.  The initial contract with TCS ended in 2018, which MEA extended it for two more years.  The pandemic period was not profitable for TCS as people were not applying for passports during the pandemic.  Income was not coming in for TCS during the pandemic, but its expenses for maintaining the existing PSKs remained the same.

Post-pandemic the GoI has announced the issue of e-Passports to citizens applying for a new passport or renewing their existing passport.  The next phase of PSP, that is, PSP-V2.0, will be facilitated by TCS again.  An agreement to this effect was signed between MEA and TCS in 2022, and the deal is valued between INR 60-80 Billion.  The winning combination of TCS with GoI will delight applicants in the near future also with their citizen-centric approach.

[5] Economic Times, July 7, 2022

PSP-The Citizen-Centric Approach

PSP-The Citizen-Centric Approach

One of the significant outcomes of PSP has been digitizing the entire passport delivery process in tune with the GoI’s mission of digital India.  Any Indian citizen can apply for a passport using the GoI official website.  The portal provides all necessary information to applicants and helps them schedule an appointment with the nearest PSK.  As a result, over seven crore applications have been processed through PSP till now.  Nearly 50,000 applicants are serviced daily in PSKs [6]. The citizen satisfaction rate is 99.8%.

The primary stakeholders—the applicants of passports opine that the current passport issuance process is fast, swift, and hassle-free way beyond their imagination.  Many applicants are overwhelmed with the hospitality of the staff, transparency in the system, and streamlined processes at PSKs.  The applicants mentioned that they never thought applying for and getting a passport was easy.  Not only has the time for renewal and issuance of passports decreased dramatically, but the process has also become so organized that even minor applicants, uneducated people, and senior citizens can go through it effortlessly without assistance.  From the entrance to exit, every applicant is assisted so well that applicants experience the true meaning of “Seva”.  Phenomenal changes in unwanted delays and tatkal passport facilities have made the Passport Seva services of international standard and at par with the best in the world.  The standard and efficacy of passport service delivery have reached such heights that they are now a benchmark for other government offices/services.

The use of papers for documentation was drastically reduced due to the digitization of the passport delivery process.  The application has become less bulky due to fewer annexures that need to be attached.  The annexures can be uploaded directly to the online portal by applicants.  In the future, MEA envisages eliminating the paperwork associated with the police verification process.  Police verification will be made digital, and the verification report will be uploaded to the online portal of PSK.  Other green initiatives include reducing electricity consumption at the PSKs as they operate 24×7.  Efforts will be made to make PSKs efficient at power consumption.

[6], December 2018

PSP-Ready for New Challenges?

PSP-Ready for New Challenges?

The PSKs try their best to issue passports without any process delays and address passport-related grievances/queries at the earliest.  Still, certain challenges hinder the swift services as envisaged by PSP.  The challenges currently faced by passport offices are as follows[7].

  • Delay in issuance due to technical glitches: Technological support is core to the functioning of PSKs. Any technical issue delays the process to a great extent, causing anguish and frustration among the applicants.  Technical problems are often notified to applicants via the official website of Passport Seva.
  • Cases of Usury: In a press release dated June 14, 2019, MEA cautioned citizens about fraudulent websites and mobile applications collecting information from applicants and a hefty fee for filling up the online application form and scheduling an appointment.
  • Geographical Disparities: Some regions of India, mainly rural and semi-urban areas, do not have easy access to passport services, despite the best efforts of the MEA, resulting in uneven access.
  • Fraud Prevention: The activities of the PSKs and POPSKs involve ensuring the legitimacy of applicants and minimising potential security risks. However, verifying the authenticity of submitted documents and preventing fraudulent activities can be challenging, mainly due to the steady advancement in fraudulent techniques and strategies.
  • Upskilling Workforce: With the changing employment landscape, where the reliance on digital technologies has gone higher, the workforce, especially in the MEA, has some serious catching to do.

[7] The Tribune, 2021

What Next: Striding Forward with More Splendour

What Next: Striding Forward with More Splendour

The Henley Passport Index has ranked India at 87th out of 110 nations as of February 2023.  Currently, Indian passport holders enjoy visa-on-arrival or visa-free facilities in about 60 countries and territories, as opposed to 20 in 2020.  However, MEA has to initiate steps to make Indian passports stand at par with international passports concerning digital upgrades, design, and security features.

To address the above, MEA is all set to introduce ePassports, an upgraded version of the existing traditional passport.  The ePassport will provide smooth passage at international immigration counters.  The ePassport will carry personal details and biographical information in a chip embedded in it.  The software for the ePassport has been developed by IIT Kanpur and the National Informatics Center.  Established in 1976, NIC provides Union and State governments with technology-driven solutions.  The ePassport is set to make the immigration process smooth across the world, and it will give enhanced protection against fraud to its holders.  It will follow the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards.  Established in 1944 as a specialised agency of the United Nations, ICAO has laid down procedures and standards for peaceful international air travel.

The partnership between TCS and the Indian government will transform the way we receive passports in the future.  This PPP has the opportunity to completely transform the passport experience by fully utilising the possibilities of artificial intelligence, powerful data analytics, cloud solutions, chatbots, natural language processing, autoresponse, and biometrics. This is not only a technological advance; rather, it is evidence of the government’s commitment to provide each and every citizen seamless, excellent service.

The PSP has to ensure that the benefits of this digital transformation reaches every corner of this diverse nation, regardless of access to advanced technology.  That is a challenge lying before PSP-to strike a harmonious balance between innovation and accessibility. As the PSP marches forward to cross even more ground, it has to ponder on ways to use cutting-edge technologies like blockchain to protect the authenticity of documents and maintain national sovereignty. It has to devise ways to make the passport experience even better for future generations.  The journey ahead is destined to be exhilarating, with boundless potential.  Let us wish the voyager success in the exciting journey ahead…



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