“What do you need to get a Passport without hassles? A) Money. B) Influence. C) Patience.”. That was my opening googly to the Regional Passport Officer in an interview on NDTV in 2011 . As it was my first brush with this 2002 batch IAS Officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre on deputation, who looked like a college student, I expected him to be clean bowled around his legs. Guess what? Dr. C.Senthil Pandian swept the delivery all the way to the deep fine leg boundary with this repartee: “ D) None Of The Above.” I was impressed with the reply but skeptical. After all, he had inherited an office that was mired in a corruption case. In hindsight, Option D didn’t turn out to be a glib punchline. From two and a half lakh passports when he took over three years ago to close to four lakh passports per year today, there have been sweeping changes in a department that if you went by public perception, probably required another option E) All The Above!
From a typical Central Government establishment at Shastri Bhavan, with touts attached, to a spacious 20,000 sq ft office at Rayala Towers on Anna Salai with Passport Seva Kendras in South, North & Central Chennai outsourced to smart, young executives in ties from Tata Consultancy Services, Senthil Pandian can be credited with infusing the e-governance model and fresh air to what was once considered the domain of stuffed shirts. Thanks to the online application system for appointments, your mouse or smart phones can do what the good old travel agent or tout promised to but more often than not, failed. Quite like the old Hero Honda ad line – ‘fill it, shut it, forget it’, the new mantra at the Passport Office could well be, ‘Click It, File It, Collect It’. So what are the stipulated timelines in question? If all your documents are in order, two weeks to get a fresh passport, of which ten days are for Police Verification. Three days for a tatkal application. Three days for a re-issue or renewal, provided the police verification is clear. And how long to stake out at the passport service kendras? The passport chief claims just about twenty minutes to an hour, again if you follow the guidelines carefully.
Thinking out of the box and using discretion to relax rules to help people in distress symbolise the ‘good particle’ in bureaucrats and distinguish them from the mere file pushers. Or robots! As I push the boundaries and give Senthil an emergency scenario that requires issue of a passport the same day, he does a sort of Usain Bolt sprint. “In anout thirty instances, we have issued passports in an hour.” This is in cases of death of family members or medical reasons necessitating urgent travel. It’s the “worst nightmare” for an applicant and this is where “we need to be humane.” Senthil recalls how the door bell at his home rang on a Sunday. The visitor was in tears and sought his intervention for an urgent passport as her mother had met with a fatal accident in the United States. “Initially I was furious that an applicant landed up at my residence on aSunday but after hearing her story, I realised that the least we could do to ameliorate her pain was to issue a passport asap. The next day before noon, we handed over the passport to her.” In another instance, an elderly couple approached him after their son suffered a heart attack in France. “They didn’t seem to have proper address proof but after ascertaining that it was a genuine case, we helped them.” More recently, “we opened our office on a Saturday” to help a cop in Chennai whose daughter was found dead in the UK under mysterious circumstances. “We issued his passport in about an hour.” These passports are usually issued with validity for just one year.
With a spurt in the number of fake passports created by criminals who replace photographs on stolen passports with their own mug shots, the Ministry of External Affairs has been on high alert. Under Senthil Pandian’s leadership, Chennai has emerged as arguably the first unit in India to implement the issue of passports with additional security features. These feats are no flash in the pan. Having served as Collector of five districts in Uttar Pradesh, this Madurai born and educated officer had scored a hat trick of awards in his cadre State under both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati regimes before coming to his home State on deputation. The State Literacy Award in 2008, the Chief Minister’s Social Welfare Award in 2009 and the AIDS Awareness Award from the Union Ministry of Health in 2010 adorn his resume. Back in UP, Senthil Pandian is known for his fearless crackdown on the ‘Education Mafia’, especially in districts like Ballia and Pratapgarh where “mass copying was rampant and schools used to open only during exams!” Senthil’s drive led to the “de-recognition of many institutions.”
Had it not been for the Civil Services, Senthil Pandian “would have been happy as an agricultural scientist.” The namma Tamil Nadu officer studied Agriculture in Madurai and completed his Masters and PhD in Delhi with a Fellowship from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. “Money or prestige was never my mantra. The satisfaction you get by helping someone is something no money can ever buy.” That’s living in tatkal mode!
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)