New Delhi: The Passport Seva Project, an ambitious e-governance programme that aims at passport delivery in three days, has entered its most crucial stage. The rollout of 77 Passport Seva Kendras is expected to begin any time now in major Indian cities and be completed by January 2012.
Things have not been entirely smooth for the pilot project running for the past year in seven centres in Karnataka and Punjab that are part of the 77 kendras.
But now the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the private service provider, Tata Consultancy Services, are confident enough to introduce the new system in the designated cities.
"We hope to start the Passport Seva Kendras (PSKs) within June in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala," a senior MEA official said.
Thereafter, every month will see the opening of three to five new centres, with 20 kendras becoming operational by September. "We hope to have the total rollout by January 2012," he said.
This would mean there will be 77 PSKs functioning around the country, along with the 37 current regional passport offices which will be incorporated as back-up centres.
The project aims to streamline the process for issuing passports that had become notorious for long delays and touts and has an ambitious stated aim to deliver a passport within three days.
This month, the MEA will also operationalise the Central Passport Printing Facilities in Delhi, which will mean that instead of blank booklets, only filled-up passports will be sent directly to the kendras, plugging a major security risk.
The other institutions required for the smooth functioning of the project - data centre and disaster recovery centre - are already in place.
The software application developed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to drive the entire project got its certification by a third party audit agency under the Department of Information Technology in January 2011. Incidentally, the start of the project last year had been delayed due to critical errors in software, detected during the testing process.
The crucial aspect of the project is the online application process, with applicants being able to choose their desired date and time for submitting documents for verification at the PSKs.
However, Bangalore applicants often found that the only appointment slots available were after two weeks or more.
"We know that some travel agents with very fast computers were logging in as soon as the appointments began in the morning and filled in all the slots," said the official.
The problem was compounded by the fact that the kendras had been instructed not to accept walk-in submissions.
After several complaints in Bangalore, the number of appointment slots were increased substantially, walk-in submissions were accepted in certain cases and a new centre was opened in the city to deal with the backlog and additional rush.
One of the main lessons learned from the pilot project in Bangalore was that the actual demand for passports may outstrip that of any anticipated growth pattern.
"As the economy has prospered, one of the first things that are applied for are passports," the MEA official said.
Accordingly, the layout and capacity of the new PSKs have been revised to cater to any kind of additional demand.
In fact, the sharp rise in the demand for passports, even as government manpower remained static, was one of the reasons for going ahead with the project. The annual growth in the number of new passports being issued has been about 20 percent in the last few years, with the highest number of 5.52 million passports delivered in 2010.
"Currently, only about five percent of India`s 1.2 billion population own a passport. The numbers will only rise and rise," said the official.