Passport to hell – A day battling India’s stifling bureaucracy
Having covered government policy for years, I have lost count of the number of foreign businessmen I have heard complaining about how difficult it was to set up in India. But a visit to a government passport office just outside the capital this week showed it can be just as frustrating getting out.
The government has been talking about easing rules for the issue of passports, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has time and again called for better governance.
Both were in short supply in Ghaziabad, a chaotic urban mess in Uttar Pradesh state, one of India’s least developed, where to get anything done, it seems, you have to call in a favour.
The city’s passport office is stuck in a time warp, hours spent there a harrowing experience with applicants navigating a string of unhelpful and grumpy officials who communicate only in grunts.
Having to go overseas for work, I was willing to pay more to have my passport issued under a scheme for urgent cases but soon found that guaranteed nothing.
Hours crawled by and nothing happened. No one would accept my application. Faint with hunger and dehydrated, in desperation I sought help from officials in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi but was told they could help in any passport office in India — apart from Ghaziabad.
Finally, in utter desperation, I called a friend, a senior official in the ministry, and asked for his help. His intervention immediately changed things, and within minutes I heard my name being called.
I sailed through the sea of red tape and my application was lodged within 15 minutes.
As I left the building I pitied those waiting in the queue. They had nobody to help. I saw people from rural areas sweating it out; young women, intimidated by the sheer suffocating weight of the bureaucracy.
India is a trillion dollar economy and aspires for a seat at the global high table. But when your systems of governance belong to the Stone Age and alienate ordinary people, it has a slim chance of entering the big league.
I am yet to receive my passport and I am keeping my fingers crossed.