External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj recently proclaimed that if one has an Indian passport, “it will act as a shield in any part of the world.” Contradictions or coincidences apart, till not so long ago, getting a new passport or renewing an old one or getting a lost one reissued was a nightmare of sorts -– for many it was plain harassment at the hands of everyone, from a lower-level clerk to a secretary-level bureaucrat. No wonder that a nation of a billion-plus people had just 74 million passport holders as of 2017, according to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). But ask any Indian these days and there would be near unanimity about the ease and speed with which passports are issued and renewed. As Indians earn more, travel overseas more frequently and expand their businesses outside the country, the changes that have swept the passport services delivery system in India have come as a boon for many.
The scenario was changed by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government, after it inked a Rs 10 billion, 10-year contract with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in 2008. India has just about 23 million passport holders in 2007. TCS started work in 2012 and despite the hiccups, missed deadlines and an adverse CAG report, there has been a massive boom in the number of passports and related services given by the MEA and managed by TCS. For the first time in 2015, the number of passports issued and related services given crossed the 10-million-a-year mark. In 2017 alone, more than 11 million passports were issued to Indians. Since the time TCS operationalised the new processes in 2012, there has been a 69 per cent jump in the number of these documents issued to people. It’s not just that more passports are being issued with speed and simplicity -- there has also been a boom in the number of people now approaching the government for them. For the first time ever since records are available, the number of passport applications breached the 10-million mark in 2017. Since 2012, the number of passport applications has grown almost at the same level as the number issued. In effect, ever since the Manmohan Singh government streamlined the issue process, there has been a fourfold jump in the number of passport holders in India.
Along with these impressive growth figures, the pace of delivery of these passport services has also been remarkable. According to information with the MEA, in 2013, about 24 per cent of normal passports were issued within three days of the application. In 2017, approximately 44 per cent of non-Tatkaal normal passports were issued within three days. An astounding 82 per cent of normal passports were issued within a week and 97 per cent were issued within three weeks of the application. In 2013, only 60 per cent of the passports were issued within a week. In the case of Tatkaal passports (an express passport issuance scheme), only 10 per cent of the passports were being issued on the same day in 2013. In 2017, almost half of all Tatkaal applications were processed and passports issued in a single day.
So how did India manage to usher in this passport revolution? In 2008, when the Manmohan Singh government inked the contract with TCS, it set forth precise deadlines -– a total of 27 specific performance metrics that would have to be fulfilled by the private contractor. One of the most valuable among all these metrics related to ‘external efficiency’ -– a group of six requirements that lay at the core of dealing with passport requests of citizens. The agreement stated that if TCS made any passport applicant spend more than an hour at a passport centre, it would constitute a breach of the contract. It is not clear what penalties –- monetary or otherwise -- these breaches carried. If an applicant was made to spend less than 30 minutes at these passport centres, it would constitute high performance. During non-peak hours, the time for a contract breach was set at 45 minutes, while high performance would constitute an average time of less than half an hour spent by applicants at a centre. The turnaround time for a passport application processed online to be classified as high performance, excluding document uploads, was set at less than two seconds. A breach was when online application turnaround time exceeded eight seconds. Document upload on the portal was to be finished under 30 seconds to be categorised as high performance. More than a minute taken to upload documents would constitute a breach of the service level agreement. More than 99 per cent of all passport related services were to be provided over the internet and calls to the call centre regarding passport application complaints were to be resolved and closed in not more than two minutes. In effect, the government planned to set up a robust digital ecosystem to speed up issuance of new passports and minimise the face-to-face interaction of citizens with officials involved in the process. TCS, India's largest IT company, was tasked with putting the entire system in place.
TCS' role involved setting up passport facilitation centres across India in addition to managing data centres and disaster recovery operations. The company mentions on its website that its team of professionals “manage office networking, core passport applications, and the citizen portal.” According to official information, TCS was also responsible for setting up a central passport printing facility and providing people to man all private counters at the facilitation centres. According to the TCS website, it has opened 88 passport facilitation centres across India till date.
The first pilot project was launched in Karnataka in 2010, and some others were opened in Chandigarh, Haryana and Punjab soon after. According to official government information, “token issuance, initial scrutiny of the application forms, acceptance of fee, scanning of the documents, taking photos and biometrics” were to be handled by TCS staff at these centres. By 2012, almost half way through UPA’s second tenure, TCS managed to set up all the 77 passport facilitation centres that were initially envisaged across India. This effectively meant that people from smaller towns who had to travel all the way to a state capital to initiate their applications could now do so at their nearest town (the process is now initiated online). TCS was to recover its costs by charging applicants a service fee. TCS did not respond to specific queries on how much revenue it had earned till date through operations at its passport facilitation centres. But a rough calculation would show that the compant, which reportedly charges Rs 200 from every applicant for its services, would have earned around Rs 2.6 billion in 2017 alone from its passport operations.