In what could be another significant step towards bringing about an e-governance revolution in rural India, Common Services Centres (CSCs) across the country are set to be given more freedom and the power to help manage the passport process. These centres will be allowed to collect documents, photographs and other necessary details for passport issuance. What is more significant is that initial “non-police” verification will also be done by the Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) who run the centres. The charges for this per applicant will be around `100. However, the CSCs will not be allowed to conduct biometric verification as it is a complex process and needs a highly secure system. The CSCs do not have a secure system or premises where the process can be carried out.
Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sources told Tatsat Chronicle that the necessary approval for managing passport kiosks in rural areas had already been given and the signing off on the formality completed at the official level. Sources said that top Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) officials were consulted in the process as the matter was related to security issues.
Applicants’ endless wait?
While the purpose of the Common Services Centre (CSC) is, of course, to facilitate various services for the people living in rural and semi-urban areas, questions are, at the same time, being raised over the selection of village-level entrepreneurs (VLEs). There is no dearth of complaints about how applicants seeking to be VLEs continue to wait for approval for a long time. While waiting for their IDs, the applicants doubt the process of selection of VLEs, alleging that “those close to higher-ups or suiting one agenda or the other are handpicked on priority.” “The role of some private firm associated with the services is also questionable,” say sources. “When I got myself registered, I was told that approval will come within 15 days, but even after two months there is no sign of approval,” an applicant told Tatsat Chronicle. Similar complaints abound, saying that applications are being turned down on one pretext or another. These aspects also need looking into.
When contacted, the project manager for CSCs in Haryana, Prabhjot Singh, confirmed the step, saying that CSCs would soon start non-police verification for passports. “The police part of the verification cannot be done by us, so the responsibility involving other steps will be given to the existing centres,” he added.
As of now, Common Services Centres are only allowed to fill in application forms and upload them for those seeking passports in their area of operations.
With this fresh mandate, the CSCs will operate Passport Seva Kendra rural kiosks with more responsibilities and powers. “After the final touches to some technical and practical aspects related to the process, services will be launched nationwide very soon, maybe by Diwali,” an MEA official said. “It will be a big leap towards bridging the digital divide in rural and urban India, an objective that the CSC project was launched for.”
As of now, CSCs are only allowed to fill in application forms and upload them for those seeking passports in their area of operations. Apart from filling and uploading applications, the VLEs make payment of applicable fees online on behalf of the applicants and schedule their appointments at Passport Seva Kendras. Now, the VLEs will be empowered to collect and upload documents and photographs after verification. This step is a key first step towards issuing a passport.
Once the new system is launched, it will benefit rural youth immensely as they will be able to get their documents checked and uploaded at the local kiosk itself. On a functional level, issues with applicants’ documents will be checked virtually at their doorstep and they will have the opportunity to rectify problems, if any, immediately.
“This will generate employment in rural regions where more people will be needed for the job of uploading and handling the process and other related work,” said a senior official at Electronics Niketan. But the question is whether the government is also considering giving more financial support to the VLEs so that they can employ the youth at their CSCs. Government officials do not have a definite answer to this, but they point out that the earnings of VLEs will rise with the increase in assignments. They will be allowed to charge more from the applicants, leading to more revenue for such local processing centres, and this will therefore create an opportunity to employ more people. Also, the possibility of government incentives and benefits, whether in cash or kind, has also not been ruled out.
The CSC district manager of Ambala, Haryana, Vivek Sharma, said that if the new responsibility was given to the VLEs, they would be in a position to discharge it fully as even as of now the process related to passports is done by them smoothly. Yashpal. a VLE running a Common Services Centre at Samalkha in Ambala, says, “Youngsters from different rural pockets who have completed their studies visit the centre to apply for passports. The CSC charges `50-60 per candidate for uploading a passport application.”
He adds that since his centre caters to a small village the number of applicants is low as of now. “Only around five-six passport applications are uploaded per month from my centre,” Yashpal points out. But the number is expected to go up after the new facilities are provided.
Asked about current difficulties, Prabhjot said that as of date, no centres face functional problems and the process is smooth. Sharma seconds this, saying that they face no difficulties in the day-to-day process. He says that CSCs in his district provide around 400 services. Several VLEs said that the number of passport applicants in the rural pockets is high as large numbers of young people apply since a passport is useful for many purposes other than travel abroad.
Several Village Level Entrepreneurs said that the number of passport applicants in the rural pockets was high as large numbers of young people apply for the document.
VLEs are looking forward to the new responsibilities. Amit Kumar Mishra, a VLE operating a CSC in the Saraswati Puram suburb of Lucknow, said that he had not yet received any official communication. Sources, however, said around half a dozen centres in Uttar Pradesh had been asked to undertake the new work for a few days to acquire feedback on problems if any. “Some issues did crop up, and the arrangements to address them are now being put in place before rolling out the new work definition across the nation,” said a senior officer in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).
Similarly, some centres in Haryana including one in Jind district were asked to perform the new tasks. The feedback received from there is being looked into so that bottlenecks, if any, can be done away with before launching it nationwide. An official said, “Teething troubles do come up, but they are being dealt with. Technically qualified persons in various capacities are already looking after the CSCs in different states. They are capable of sorting out technical issues.”
An IAS officer who was earlier in charge of the entire e-governance system at Electronics Niketan said that a plan to give more responsibilities to the CSCs regarding the passport issues was also in the pipeline. Once the proposed change meets the benchmark that the government has set, the other plans will be rolled out, he added.
At present, 3.75 lakh CSCs operate across India, most of them in rural or semi-urban areas. This is why the government wants to use such a vast and extensive network to do the bulk of work at the village level itself. As the number of people seeking passports is rising, the thinking is that the initial process should be handled at the local level instead of applicants travelling to distant places just to initiate the process and get their documents verified. One of the main objectives of starting CSC projects was to take the services to the doors of people in rural areas. Unemployed youngsters from villages had to spend on bus or train fare to reach cities for such work. Moreover, many people in villages stood to lose a day’s earnings to get the work done. Officials say that with these problems in mind, CSCs were serving the purpose of improving local governance across rural regions of the country.
In fact, the Common Services Centre is a special purpose vehicle of MeitY. In 2014, the MEA along with CSC e-Governance Services India Limited of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) launched passport-related services through the network of CSCs across rural pockets in India. It was first tried out in some centres of Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh as part of a pilot project. Subsequently, the services were rolled out for the entire country.
The CSCs are a strategic component of what the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) is all about. This plan was approved by the government in May 2006. Basically, the CSCs are the delivery points for government, private and social sector services in the areas of agriculture, health, education, banking, insurance, pension, utility bill payments, entertainment and the like for the rural population at their doorstep. Passport-related services were added as part of the ongoing efforts of the government to boost e-governance. Now, the new step to empower VLEs and CSCs further will give more impetus to the entire e-governance structure.
Be ready to cough up more bucks for the visa!
Blackstone, a global private equity major, is set to acquire a majority stake in visa processing company VFS Global. It has already signed an agreement with EQT Private Equity and the Kuoni and Hugentobler Foundation (KHF) for the same. Blackstone will pay $1 billion for a 75 percent stake, and the remainder will be leverage taken on for the acquisition.
VFS Global is 90 percent owned by Swedish private equity firm EQT and 10 percent by the Kuoni Foundation and founder-CEO Zubin Karkaria. With this new system in place, there is every likelihood of Visa Facilitation Services Global (VFS-Global) charging more than before as a visa processing fee. Industry watchers believe, and rightly so, that those seeking visas for different destinations abroad should now be ready to cough up more money once they visit VFS Global centres.
The company, which manages visa and passport issuance related administrative and non-discretionary tasks for its client government, has 3533 application centres and operations in 143 countries across 5 continents, with 63 client governments.
According to information, EQT Private Equity will remain indirectly invested in the company with a minority position alongside Blackstone. Blackstone, as majority shareholder, and KHF, as a minority shareholder, will be co-investors in the company following the closing of the transaction.
With passport processing being made easier through CSCs in India, what needs to be ensured is that visa-seekers are not overcharged at VFS. There have been massive reactions on social media platforms as well on VFS Global, which provides visa services on contract with several embassies in India, going to Blackstone. “Visa processing charges at VFS India are already insanely high. It is almost equivalent to the embassy fee. With the company going to new ownership at a huge cost, the cost will go up all the more,” many travellers say. Priority visa charges will be much higher under such changed circumstances.
MeitY sources say that the government has more robust plans to expand the reach of CSCs. “The strength of CSCs in 2021 is 3.75 lakh and thousands of applications from candidates seeking to be VLEs are under consideration. The applications will be cleared soon to give the youth employment that will go a long way in sparking the rural economy,” officials said.
A huge number of villagers already avail of CSCs to avoid travelling to district or state headquarters for minor issues in government offices. Passport division officials are of the view that entrusting VLEs with more responsibility will also ease the burden on Passport Seva Kendras (PSKs) considerably. However, police verification has to remain the same. The biometric data collection part of the process will also continue to be done at the PSKs.
Meanwhile, a CSC district manager posted in Himachal Pradesh complained that poor internet connectivity was hindering the functioning of some centres. “Uploading of documents for passports could be a major problem in areas with poor internet connectivity,” he said. He pointed out that passport applicants were higher in Himachal Pradesh than in many other states. As of now, VLEs take a lot of time due to technical snags that occur frequently, he said. He has written to the authority concerned.
Established in 2006, this CSCs run on the public-private partnership model. Local entrepreneurs set up the centres with basic connectivity and related infrastructure, operate them and are paid for every transaction undertaken. CSCs were established with the initial aim of offering government organisations a low-cost medium to deliver e-governance services to the rural population. The mandate was later widened to handle pension schemes and other financial activity as well.