Quick passports will still remain a mirage - project delayed

NEW DELHI - Promising a passport within three days, it peddled a dream to Indians crowding understaffed and overburdened regional passport centres. But the Passport Seva Project - one of the government’s flagship e-governance programmes - is running behind schedule.

In October 2008, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) signed the agreement with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to implement the project, estimated to be worth Rs.1 billion. Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon had then said the pilot project - with centres in Chandigarh and Bangalore - will become functional in June 2009, with the rest of the country to be serviced by 77 stations in 2010.

But it seems increasingly unlikely that the schedule will be adhered to. A major reason for the delay is the inordinate time required to draft the software requirement specification (SRS) document, which was completed only recently.

“We didn’t realise how much time it would take to draw up this document,” a senior official closely involved in the process told IANS.

The SRS, which details how the software program will behave in diverse circumstances, had taken a lot of brainstorming sessions between MEA and TCS engineers. The final document comes to about 400 pages.

Also, the state-run National Informatics Centre (NIC), which had so far managed the back-end of the passport system, handed over the data for 80 million records to MEA earlier this month.

The data will be kept in a specially constructed data centre as it awaits ‘migration’ to the new software program developed by TCS.

But there’s more to be done before the pilot project gets off the ground.

The ministry still has to sign a non-disclosure agreement with TCS, as the latter will have access to information of millions of applicants. Incidentally, MEA has insisted that all “sensitive activities” will be carried out only by government agencies.

While the main data centre is ready, the recovery centre is taking a lot of time to be set up. “It was assessed that it will be too risky to start the project without a back-up data centre,” he said.

Last week the ministry signed a deal with the state-run Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) to build the recovery data centre in Chennai. The STPI has apparently said while the physical infrastructure would be in place by mid-July, the networking to different stations may take longer.

Confusion also persists on whether the NIC’s current PISON (passport information service system on the net) will continue in parallel to the proposed TCS software - and, if so, their mode of compatibility.

The dilemma has arisen as Indian missions abroad - which also issue passports and are linked through the NIC program - are not part of the Passport Seva Project.

This is not the first time the schedule has been changed. Earlier, before the formal signing in October, there had been assurances that the pilot project would start by March. But the formal announcement listed June as the deadline for the pilot project.

The agreement has a strict provision for levying penalty on TCS, but the ministry has decided to not yet invoke that clause.

When TCS was contacted about the status of the project, its officials directed all queries to the ministry.

“It is a very complicated process. The project is ongoing and will be started very soon,” A. Manickam, joint secretary, consular, passport and visa, MEA, told IANS.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at devirupa.m@ians.in)


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