Ever heard of a government department whose one wing goes en masse for lunch while the other wing efficiently continues to function, leaving scores of people - the elderly and women with crying babies included - cursing their fate? Welcome to the passport office in Delhi.
My visit to the Regional Passport Office - behind Hotel Hyatt Regency - on Friday was an eye-opener.
Journalists often use their contacts in the government to get their work done at the passport office. I too have done it in the past. This time I sought a fresh passport online, courtesy Tatkal Seva. I was asked to be at the office at 12 noon.
The government has (rightly) outsourced the bulk of passport related work to a private agency. They are the ones I first dealt with. They were efficient, courteous and helpful, answering questions to our satisfaction.
After my passport application and supporting documents were verified at the front counter, I was told to be seated - like numerous others - before being sent to A Wing (also with the private agency) where a pleasant young man did all the scrutiny besides photographing me and taking my fingerprints.
The work over in 10-15 minutes, he assured me that my passport would be delivered at my residence in three to four working days. He asked me to go to B and C Wings that I learnt later are with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
The difference in demeanor between what I had encountered thus far and this section was so stark that I first took these officers to be from the security agencies.
There were two desks each in B Wing (B1, B2) and C Wing (C1, C2), each manned by an officer. C2 had two: a young man and an elderly man. An Assistant Passport Officer (APO) was also chipping in.
The waiting area here had 40 chairs but it held around 60 men, women and children. Courtesy an automated numbering system, I was called to B2 where the officer scrutinized my documents. I was told to wait to be summoned by C Wing.
Lo and behold, sharp at 1.30 p.m., all the officers in B and C wings trooped out for a 45-minute lunch. (Do people eat for 45 minutes?) The APO followed after a while. In effect, the MEA section at the passport office was now shut although the private agency - where lunch is for 15 minutes and by rotation - didn't stop working.
This meant more and more passport applicants kept pouring into the MEA section that was now crippled.
Two of the officers returned to their seats at 2.15 p.m. One officer strolled in eight minutes later, another close to 2.30 p.m.. By now disgruntled people were murmuring that nothing will ever change in the government, Modi or no Modi. The regulars said this was "a normal affair" at the passport office.
Just after 3 p.m. I was summoned to C2 (with two officers) where the final scrutiny ended in some five minutes. (Why should there be two sets of scrutiny by MEA?) As I had done everywhere, I asked where I had to go next.
The young man replied something to the effect "Exit Window". Since I didn't understand what it meant, I repeated my question. Before he could answer, the elderly officer had the audacity to tell him in Hindi: "Jawab dene ki zaroorat nahin hain." (There is no need to answer.) He then looked at me and circled something with a pen on a paper that I had submitted earlier.
When I said I didn't understand what was being conveyed to me, this officer turned to an employee of the private agency and said all forms should be printed in Hindi also since "people don't understand what is printed".
I was shocked by his conduct. All he had to tell me (which I learnt from others) was that I must proceed to a window nearby to get an acknowledgement slip and head home. I shudder to think that the officers I saw in the passport section could one day be posted in some Indian diplomatic mission.
Discourtesy breeds when there is no supervision, when there is no fear of disciplinary action. It is time for Sushma Swaraj to pay a surprise visit to the Delhi passport office - and crack the whip.
I offer some suggestions. MEA officers must be identified by name and designation. There should be an email ID to report lethargy and discourtesy. Why should MEA officers dealing with the public have lunch for 45 long minutes? Do they take so much time to eat at home? This must be curtailed. B and C Wing officers must lunch by rotation. Dissenting employees must be sacked.
Finally, like the private agency, the MEA should seek comments about its officers from passport applicants. The comments - positive and negative - should go into their confidential records. If the passport office is supposed to be the MEA's public face, let's strive for a pleasant face.