November 2011

Cross-Border Electronic Access

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While much has been said about transforming the current services into e-Services and many have already been through that transformation, passports is one area where we keep hearing a lot of things and yet have not seen much happening.

On one hand, the status is largely ambiguous for the electronic passports or visas, on the other hand even less is known on what  the normal passport that we get today will change into. Passport is one document that gives you identity and nationality, both, yet it is one of those documents that are not compulsory to possess. In the case of passport one who needs to travel abroad mostly gets it made. A lot of it is also due to the cumbersome process of getting it made.

As an MMP

“BIIMETRIC Visas are already up and running and you will see e-Passports also very soon”

Why did the government feel the need to have biometric travel documents?
Due to growing security threats and consistently increasing number of illegal migrants the need of a proper mechanism for monitoring and checking on these things came to the fore. We needed a total revamp of the current structure of travel documents– passport, visa, immigration documents etc. This revamp consisted of three steps as envisioned by the authorities- firstly, how to how to ensure that all visas are unique that is the visas cannot be duplicated and misused. As I told earlier, this step is already in process and biometric visas are up and running in various parts of country. Next step was identified as how to ensure that the passports cannot be forged, this is currently in progress with the e-Passport or biometric passports being processed. Third step is how the information related to a person can be centralised yet not compromised. This step is not a very difficult as through ICT it is conceivable to integrate information in all the different departments like airports, immigration offices, ministries, etc. So presently we are actively working for biometric passports.

Who are the main stakeholders and what is the role of private sector?
It is a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) and TCS is our private stakeholder in the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) Project. Other stake holders are NIC: Government IT Support for the project, Security Press of India: Printing of all electronic passports and documents, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs. The role of TCS is developing and managing the front-end operations of the 77 PSKs. All the back-end sensitive work will be done by NIC.

It is going to be huge transition for the authorities as well, how well are they prepared? What is being done for the capacity building of the officials at the airport, immigration offices and checking posts to deal with electronic travel documents?
Yes, it is a huge transformation for us and we are aware of the problems that the officials might face initially. The capacity building has been started and is being taken care of by the MHA. Like every new project it will take some time to fully come in process but in time it will become one of the best systems and would help us achieving the objectives laid down.

You must have been asked the question many times, but, why is the project running so late? Are there any serious issues being faced?
There is nothing like that, it’s a huge project of over INR 1 billion so there are lot of things to be taken care of. Such large scale projects require many notifications, consultations and approvals. Being said that, I would also say that the project is in its advanced stages and awaiting approvals and nods from various authorities. In fact, as you know, the pilot of PSK project has already started in seven cities. So, yes, we are taking more time but in that we are only trying to ensure that the glitches are overcome before it becomes operational and not the other way round.

What are the various factors that need to be kept in mind for such huge a project and re-engineering of a whole system?
Selection of software is critical so that the software is protected and no information is compromised. Another caution factor here is the creation of infrastructure at airports and ICPs. The infrastructure is crucial because it is a new system which will encompass all sorts of new systems and processes. Integration of information horizontally and vertically is another critical factor as unless there is integration of information the process can become haphazard. So much and more factors are there, small and big, that need to be constantly checked on various stages.

UID Project is the subject of every discussion. Is there a possibility of linking e-Passports, e-Visas with UID since both are based on biometric identification?
Not really. UID is strictly identity whereas passport is nationality and I don’t think we can link it. But again we can’t say about future, as of now, there is no such plan.

The ‘Passport Seva Project’ was launched by the Ministry of External Affairs under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), with the aim of delivering passport services to the citizens without any hassles and with wider accessibility and reliability. The project envisaged setting up of 77 Passport Seva Kendras (PSKs) across the country, a Data Centre and Disaster Recovery Centre, call centre  operating 18×7 in 17 languages, and a centralised nationwide computerised system for issuance of passports. The entire operation will function in a “less paper” environment with an attempt being made to deliver passports within 3 working days to categories not requiring police verification

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This is the ideal scenario which has been kept as a benchmark. Tata Consultancy Servies (TCS) has been the private partner in this undertaking and as per the agreement TCS is to develop the software and will operate the front-end of the ‘Passport Seva Kendras’ but the back-end operations dealing with ‘sensitive information’ will remain in government hands. The project was estimated to cost over INR 1 billion.

All this has come to pass due to current complicated process of getting a passport made, which takes anywhere between 1 month (minimum) to several months. The main reason behind this can be complacency or serious gaps in the process. Noting the problems the citizens are facing the government duly acknowledged it by including it in the NeGP as a MMP. But, all said and done, the MMP is running over two years late since its first deadline was in June 2009.

Status Quo

As part of ‘passport reforms’ a website has been developed which deals exclusively with passport applications. Citizens can also download the form from the website and take a print out of the filled out application form and submit it along with all the relevant documents to the respective passport office. The website has all the details regarding passport application, laws, passport act/rules, FAQs and much more.

Tanmoy Chakrabarty
Vice President-Government Industry Solutions, TCS
“One has to understand all the implications of such a large-scale project. As of now the project has completed its pilot phase and is undergoing the rollout phase”

Some of the new developments which are citizen friendly include acceptance of forms without attestation of gazetted officers and with cash application fee. The new passport project aims at easing the whole process for the applicants.

In the MMP, the Passport Seva Kendras (PSK) are being developed in 77 districts and their role is  to act as passport form collection centres. Instead of the Passport Office one can go to these PSKs and submit their application for fresh passports, renewal or any such requirement.  The slow pace of work has received a lot of flak from all stakeholders as it is running way behind the schedule. TCS, which is the private partner for the project has been in news regarding the delay.

When asked to comment on the same, Tanmoy Chakrabarty, Vice President-Government Industry Solutions, TCS remarked, “The project has been delayed and we are aware of it but one has to understand all the implications of such a large-scale project. As of now the project has completed its pilot phase and is undergoing the rollout phase.”

The pilot phase as he informed includes establishment of the PSKs in selected 7 districts. “We have already started the PSKs successfully in seven cities- Mangalore, Bangalore, Hubli, Chandigarh, Patiala, Amritsar, Ludhiana.” The delays that occurred have been rumoured to be due to technical defaults. The latest news which has been announced is regarding developing of three new PSKs- two in Delhi and one being in Gurgaon.

“As far as PSKs are concerned they are being allotted the aim of expediting the process of passport applications and to streamline it. In these PSKs the police verification might also be included. You cannot pinpoint one reason for delay of such large-scale projects. It will most likely be fully functional this year,” said Amrendra Khatua, Joint Secretary, Consular, Passport and Visa, MEA on being asked about the Passport Seva Kendra Project.

“Getting a passport made is one of the major tasks today that we as citizens face. If only the process was made more transparent with less number of stages to it. However, we are seeing positive transition happening through the online application and hope it continues with the whole process becoming more accessible,” said Vijay Parashar, a bank employee.

And then there is e-Passport

In simple words, e-Passport is our very own passport with a biometric chip embedded in it to store details such as fingerprints, iris scan or other such biometric proof that is unique to a person. e-Passports are a parallel project of the Ministry of External Affairs and it is aimed to finally replace all the old passports with this new breed in time. e-Passports are being introduced because of various reasons, security, monitoring and upgradation being some of these.

“Due to growing state of security concerns we decided to take help of electronic technology for passports, visas and all such documents. This decision was taken almost three years back in a interministerial meeting between Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs,” informed Amrendra Khatua, Joint Secretary, Consular, Passport and Visa, MEA.

This project is being implemented under another MMP of the NeGP called Immigration, Visa and Foreigners Registeration and Tracking (IVFRT).

“e-Passports are in the final stage prior to implementation and are awaiting consultations and approvals from various concerned departments and Ministries”

In order to modernise and upgrade the Immigration services IVFRT has been identified and included as one of the MMPs to be undertaken by the Ministry of Home Affairs under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP). The core objective of this project is to develop and implement a secure and integrated service delivery framework that facilitates legitimate travelers while strengthening security. The project includes 169 Missions, 77 ICPs (Immigration Check Posts), 5 FRROs (Foreigners Regional Registration Offices), and FROs (Foreigners Registration Offices) in the State/District Headquarters. The implementation of this MMP will enable authentication of traveler’s identity at the Missions, ICPs and FROs through use of intelligent document scanners and biometrics, updation of foreigner’s details at entry and exit points, improved tracking of foreigner’s through sharing of information captured during visa issuance at Missions, during immigration check at ICPs, and during registration at FRRO/ FROs. Understandably, e-Passport is a part of this initiative and as of now is in the finals stage of implementation.

“e-Passports are in the final stage prior to implementation and are awaiting consultations and approvals from various concerned departments and Ministries, however, biometric visas are already up and running and have been provided to many diplomats as a kind of pilot,” said Amrendra Khatua.

“Five years back the usage of biometrics was not at a very impressive scale. Over time it has increased due to increase in awareness as well as reduction in cost. Today biometrics is a very affordable means for identity management, especially the fingerprint recognition mode. However, if you talk about government projects like e-Passport cost is never a factor there as security concerns are much more serious and thus affordability is never an issue,” said Ranjit Nambiar, Director of Sales – South Asia, HID Global on commenting the feasibility and affordability of such a project in India.

World View

Worldwide, there are many countries who already possess biometric and smart technology enabled systems for tracking movement in and out of the countries.

A very big step in this regard has been the Visa Waiver Program by the United States. This programme enables nationals of 36 participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business (visitor [B] visa purposes only) for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

The program was established to eliminate unnecessary barriers to travel, stimulating the tourism industry, and permitting the Department of State to focus consular resources in other areas. It is related to biometric passports in a way that as part of the participating countries in this agreement biometric passports and visas are mandatory. As part of this project many countries have developed biometric passports and visas. Out of 36 countries in the VWP some of the South Asian countries are Japan, South Korea, Brunei, and Singapore.

What does the Future hold?

As of now PSKs are being seen as the next development to speed up the process of passport acquisition. In near future though, e-Passports are progressing to become our new reality and asset.

e-Passports will enable better monitoring of movement in and around the nation and also ensure a speedy process of travelling. Yes, it will take time to come into action, it will be difficult to transit to electronic documents but once the transition comes through it will be a tool in our hands and make our nation a notch higher on the pedestal of development.

Though there is no specific deadline and as MEA states the projects of this large spectrum need a lot of consultation and approvals even after the major tasks are done and thus sometimes run behind schedule but nevertheless, the future looks quite tech-savvy. What is left to see is what we make of it. Will the project be another unfulfilled dream or turn into a reality?

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