First Port of Call (Published on Republica)

( This piece was carried by Republica on February 2, 2014)

In recent times, the serpentine queues outside the Department of Passport (located inside the premises of the former royal palace) for Machine Readable Passports (MRP) has been the talk of the town. So has the corrective measures undertaken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), now led by a young professional diplomat, to improve the delivery of passports.

I too am a victim of our faulty passport delivery system. Sometime ago, I started receiving frantic calls from close relatives in the US. They asked me to trace their passports, for which they had applied through the Nepal Mission to the UN (in New York) last August. I visited the Department of Passport the other day to see if some of my former colleagues could help.

I saw that additional collection counters had been added. The Director-General stated that previously, applicants had to wait for 10-12 hours before their documents were checked and submitted. Now that time has been reduced by half. Indeed, this is an improvement.

However, applicants still face many obstacles in submitting their passport applications, especially those who are located outside Nepal. From my experience I know that diplomats stationed in New York often do not respond to applicants’ phone calls. And when they do, they give the standard reply that once passports are collected from Kathmandu, they will be duly dispatched to the concerned. Apparently, there is no follow-up with the Department of Passport from their side.

Let me given an example. Here I refer to the applications deposited at Nepal’s UN mission (New York)—although such on-duty lapses are no less frequent in Washington D.C. and elsewhere.

Two of my family members (daughter and her spouse) in St. Louis, Missouri (in the US) had applied for MRP in August, 2012. They had submitted their applications in person. If there had been any missing document or information, the concerned mission officials could have instantly asked the applicants and cleared things up. But when the officials collected the forms (along with a fee of US $150 each), they did not bother to check the information provided in the application.

The status of the two applications collected by our mission in New York remained unknown for several months, despite regular follow-up by the applicants. Upon my humble appeal to the chief of the Department of Passport last week, an official helped me locate the actual forms. Astonishingly, one of the forms (Bharat Kandel’s) was not of the required size, and the other did not provide the applicant’s ‘old passport number’. According to the official, this was what was causing the delay in processing. The application asks for old passport number, but nowhere does it mention that the ‘old’ passport refers to the one which the applicant currently holds (as I later found out). No wonder people get confused so often!

With cooperation from departmental colleagues, I have now informed my relatives abroad to take further action to expedite the processing of their passports. Let’s see how long it takes now.

Bharat Kandel’s old passport expired last December. He had to go all the way from St. Louis to New York to submit his application. His agonizing wait for another new passport has cost him a lot. He is barred from making any travel even inside the US. Who is responsible for this irrecoverable loss: the ambassador or the concerned official at Nepal’s UN mission?

Worse still, I met one Lila Bahadur Darjee of Bhojpur, an operator in a British-owned gas company in Doha, Qatar, who was sobbing at the office of the director (administration) of the Department of Passport. He had lost his lucrative job because his MRP was not delivered on time. MoFA claims that it had been dispatched to Doha, but diplomats at the embassy in Qatar never received it. The director advised him to lodge an appeal to revoke the last request and apply for another passport!

Darjee had paid 200 Qatari Riyal (1 unit Qatari Riyal=Rs 27) at Doha for his new passport. His old passport was expiring in a few months and he wanted a new one before that. He was on leave for two months while he waited for his MRP. It never arrived. As a result, he was deprived of a job that paid him 3,200 Qatari Riyal (approximately Rs 85,000) a month. Who will compensate him for this irreparable loss?
The cases mentioned here represent just the tip of the iceberg. Based on my experience, I offer some suggestions to improve our lackluster passport delivery system.

There needs to be better coordination between passport application collection centers (in and outside the country) and the Department of Passport. The officials at these centers need to be better trained to check the application forms properly so that the chances of rejection are minimized. For this, some personnel from the Department of Passport can be asked to work with new staff at collection centers. And why should applicants be made to pay extra for new passports when the old requests were denied for no fault of their own?

The new head of MoFA should immediately institute measures to make embassy officials, including ambassadors, accountable for lapses in passport delivery. This is no way to treat hardworking Nepali citizens whose money pays for the privileges of our non-performing diplomats.
We need to judge our diplomats by their work performance. Only this will result in greater efficiency in our diplomatic system. By adding three collection counters at Department of Passport and immediately shortening the waiting time, the new chief has reminded us of the old proverb “the morning shows the day’’. But will he be as determined and focused in solving the problems listed here?

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