The ministries of home affairs (MHA) and external affairs (MEA) have been at loggerheads for several months over the database of Indian passports. Driven by the necessity of detecting fake passports, the MHA wants immigration officials to have full access to the database. The MEA remains mired in the size and complexity of the undertaking; it wants to talk but the MHA is more interested in action.
The 26/11 Mumbai attacks had spurred the government to launch with great fanfare the Immigration, Visa and Foreigners Registration & Tracking (IVFRT) programme. The IVRFT tracks the movement of foreigners from visa issue to their travels within India and eventual exit. The big hole left uncovered by the IVFRT was Indian passports. “It is easier to come to India with a fake Indian passport than with a fake visa,” is how a senior government official describes the current situation.
An Indian passport raises a red flag at immigration only if the holder’s name is on the Black list. Immigration officers have no way, however, of knowing if the passport itself is fake or obtained illegally. This loophole can only be addressed by cross-checking a passport with the database of all passports ever issued by the MEA.
Such a database exists. The records of about 100 million passports are maintained in the MEA’s Passport Related Information Data Exchange (PRIDE), developed by Tata Consultancy Services as the backbone of the ministry’s ongoing Passport Seva Project. The MHA, in charge of implementing the IVFRT, wants PRIDE in its own network as soon as possible, but South Block’s PRIDE remains intact where it has always been. “We only had a negative list, now we want the positive list,” says a MHA official, adding, “We can only create unique case files for Indians, like we do for foreigners, only after passport issue data is made available for the Bureau of Immigration’s network.”
The matter has been raised with MEA since August, and also at the last meeting chaired by Home Secretary R K Singh to review the progress of the IVFRT on Thursday. Letters have been written by the home secretary as well the former junior minister to their counterparts across the road on Raisina Hill. The MEA claims that there more technical discussions are required before access is given, as sharing of database has legal and technical complications. “We are at the technical stage... This is very sensitive data. There has to be a data trail, to show who is accessing what information. There are privacy related issues too,” says a senior MEA official. Meanwhile, the MHA’s impatience is being fed by fears of fake passports going undetected. An official cites the recent example of a Bangladeshi national who had overstayed in India for medical treatment. Convinced by touts that he would be arrested if he asked for visa extension, the Bangladeshi bought a fake Indian passport to go home. “The case only came to light as the Bangladeshi dutifully surrendered the fake passport to our high commission in Dhaka,” he says. There is a thriving fake passport rackets in the United States, catering mainly to persons not allowed to visit India because they are on the Black List. “It is the easiest thing to take a stolen passport booklet and fill in new details and photograph,” says a MHA official. The security threat is obvious. “We are taking this issue very seriously,” the MHA official says.
- Sunday Standard