My passport expired last year and I did not dare to think of a renewal, knowing full well the horrors of going to the passport office and doing the khwari.
But as a PhD student, I had to publish at least one paper internationally. Luckily, mine got accepted for “IS&T International Symposium on Electronic Imaging 2016 in Video Surveillance and Transportation Imaging Applications Conference” in San Francisco. I could no longer put the renewal off.
One fateful Tuesday morning, I finally willed myself to go to the main passport office. I arrived at 8.30am, and as I was walking towards the head office, about a dozen people who wanted to 'help' me get my passport renewed descended upon me out of nowhere!
Commonly known as ‘agents’, they have bank challan (tickets) in their hands and are ever-ready to assist you – minus the khwari, at a cost, of course.
They guarantee the submission of any application in under 15 minutes and promise to deliver the passport to your house. The offer sounded too good to be true so I did not pay any heed to the clamour and went directly inside the office.
To my dismay, I saw four haphazard queues, with no idea what to do or where to start. I looked around but failed to find an information counter.
Fortunately, I spotted a colleague who had come for a renewal too. He explained the entire process to me and advised that I should go to the regional branch at Awami Markaz on Sharae Faisal, which covers my locality. "Also, it won’t be this crowded," he had said.
He did mention, however, "Wahan link down hojata hai kabhi kabhi." (Their server link is sometimes 'down'.)
I thanked him and rushed to the regional office. A flock of agents descended once again. I ignored them and went straight ahead. This office was definitely better structured than the previous one.
Thankfully, I found an information counter as well. The man behind the desk said I would need to submit the fee at the bank and would additionally need my expired passport and original Identity Card along with their photocopies. That bank's branch was on the 2nd floor of the building I was standing in (Awami Markaz). I went down, submitted my fee, and came back up again to find a queue the likes of which I had never seen before!
The long wait
It was already 10:30am, and I had to go to the university so I decided to come back later. The next day at 9:30am, I was standing in line for a token once again. The queue was so long that it stretched out of the office and into the street under the naked gaze of the sun.
While I was waiting, I started chatting with the people around me. I was unnerved at what they had to share; a gentleman who is a senior manager at a bank told me that the last time he came, he had spent hours finishing all prerequisites, carefully collecting and organising all documents, and when he reached the last counter for the final stamp, he was asked for the original ID cards of his parents!
Another one told me that he was asked for his matriculation certificate. A third was asked for his latest electricity bill. They were told that their process could not begin without the aforementioned records.
I argued that the information counter had not mentioned any of these requirements. They smiled at my naiveté. Suddenly it struck me, after all this trouble I could still get rejected at the final counter for not having some random document.
As our queue moved forward at a sluggish pace, I did finally manage to get out of the scorching sun and under the shade. To my utter dismay, I felt a gush of hot air right above my head. I looked up to find two AC heaters droning on.
On moving forward, I saw a guard standing near the counter religiously trying to keep the queue in proper order. He was not letting anyone outside of the line go in directly. I salute the guard for that. Many people came with big references but he wouldn't budge.
Finally and at last, I was inside the office. I realised that there were just two counters; one for men and one for women. However, on close scrutiny I saw that there was another counter to get tokens. I had been standing in this line for almost an hour and was still waiting for my turn, but I saw some people coming in with agents from the exit door, going directly for their tokens without having to wait in line.
We were furious at this point. This continuous intrusion was delaying our turn. Someone behind me started shouting. We all joined in and soon the Assistant Director sahab came and calmed us down. He ‘scolded’ the token guys for the lapse.
After 2 hours of waiting, I got my token, pictures and thumb impressions done, and then came the time for data entry. The space between the token counter and data entry counter was so cramped, one could only stand sideways. Men, women, the elderly and children, all stood in a state of asphyxiation because the air conditioners were barely working.
All of this had started to feel like a very tedious and unpleasant experience. Some tried to ignore the surroundings by blankly staring at a cricket match on a tiny TV screen in a corner.
The two most frightening words
Just as I was thinking it couldn't get any worse, someone shouted:
This meant that all work would now stop. And here we were standing half suffocated, while the staff began to relax. They ordered tea for themselves and started watching the cricket match.
I remembered that I had once discussed the passport renewal process with one of my university colleagues and he had told me that he got it made through an agent.
Interestingly, the agent had told him “Sirjee jaldi karain, link down honay ka time hogaya hay.” (Hurry up sir, it's time for the link to go down.)
Almost immediately, I understood what had passed. By then, another 40 minutes had gone by and now people were starting to get angry.
By 12:15pm, I felt certain my work would not be done that day. And just as I was standing there feeling terrible about it, the assistant director announced that they could only process passport renewal applications and would not be entertaining other requests.
I was in luck!
They took my token and called my friends and I one by one. I was done in the next five minutes!
Then came the dreaded last counter which would decide the fate of my application. As I moved towards the counter, I glanced at the irritable faces of all the people still expecting to hear: ‘Link up’.
At the final counter, there was a plaque with the words 'Assistant Director' on it. The director sahab, who was by then under a lot of pressure, did not ask me anything and just signed off my application.
I couldn’t believe the relief that washed over me as I realised I was finally done.
However, the respite was short-lived as this experience made me realise how 'genuinely' interested the government is in the affairs of its people
Also read: Being a Pakistani abroad
This is just my experience. Almost everyone across the country has similar stories of horror to share about public hospitals, police stations, license offices, schools or district councils or other government-run institutes.
And then, how are we to feel when we look at the parliamentary lounges, the chief minister houses, governor houses, or presidential palaces? Our political elite seem to be taking pretty good care of themselves.
Replacing an administrator here or there, making a country a police state or fixing one department in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) will not make us a nation that cares for its people.
It can only happen when people at the top truly decide to change their value systems. Which is sure to have a trickle-down effect.
I literally await the day when Pakistan develops a consciousness towards public service. Because really, is it too much to ask?