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SAHIWAL: The agent mafia rule the roost at the regional passport office here as every applicant has either to pay them to get a passport or go through the long and torturous process of facing baseless objections raised by passport officials .

The applicants allege the passport officials of conniving with the agents mafia and raising unnecessary objections which are removed within no time once the same application is forwarded through some agent sitting outside the passport office building. The agents charge the applicants Rs500 to Rs1,000 for forwarding the application.

The passport office was established in 2008 in a private rented building at Pakpattan Chowk for the residents of Pakpattan and Sahiwal districts. It has a staff of around 15 people, mostly data entry operators, working under the supervision of a director.

Muhammad Iqbal, a resident of Chichawatni, recently applied for his passport. He said the first step of the process of passport is to submit fee (Rs3,000 for normal and Rs5,000 for urgent passport) and right there the applicants fell into trap of agents.

“The applicant has to wait for three to four hours in National Bank branch which is mostly overcrowded with pensioners work. People give Rs500 to 800 extra for submission of fee to avoid the long wait,” he said.

Iqbal said after clearing the fee process he went to the passport office. The official raised an objection to the application, saying the picture in his computerised national identity card (CNIC) was without beard while he had the beard at the time of filing application.

“I was directed to either shave my beard or get a new CNIC, having a picture with beard. I spent four days, arguing my authenticity. Then someone advised me to contact an agent. I paid Rs1,000 to the agent and my application was processed by the same official who had raised the objection,” Mr Iqbal said.

Zeeshan, another applicant, said his application was rejected by a passport official because his name was not in voters’ list.

“Later, an agent got my issue resolved by charging Rs900 and nobody demanded to see my name in the voters list,” he said.

Many applicants informed Dawn the very passport officials who first raised unnecessary objections advised them to contact some agent as the agents had more knowledge of the matter.

Many agents, on condition of anonymity, admitted that objections were raised from inside the passport office and they were removed from the same office.

An agent said he had ‘contacts’ in the passport office and a percentage of the money charged from a ‘client’ was also sent in there.

The applicants allegedly pay another Rs500 to Rs800 to avoid waiting in the queue for his/her turn, besides the money paid to agents.

Rana Farooq, director of the passport office, denied all allegations, saying “there is no nexus between the passport office staff and the agents sitting outside office premises”. He said all objections to the applications were genuine and there were no “unnecessary objections”.

“The agents were sitting not only outside the Sahiwal passport office but also outside every passport office of Pakistan. How can I remove them?” the director said.

He said the agents would definitely use names of the passport office staff as they (agents) extorted money from clients by this way.

When asked that what should an applicant do to save themselves from agents, Mr Farooq said no applicant should go to the agent and he/she must approach the passport office directly but he did not reply to the question what if his own staff referred the applicant to agents.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2014