x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Passport backlog riles Indians

A new company that processes Indian passports in Dubai was greeted with angry outbursts from applicants frustrated with delays and what some described as rude treatment.

DUBAI // As angry Indian customers complained of missing passports, delays, rude treatment and confusing instructions yesterday at a new processing centre in Bur Dubai, authorities said all backlogs will be cleared and software glitches ironed out this week.

"Things are being smoothed out," said Sanjay Verma, the Indian consul general. "There is a backlog of about 2,000 passport applications received in the past four days from Dubai and the Northern Emirates and that will be sorted out by Wednesday. There are no pending visa applications, except for the 140 applications that require approval from other Indian passport authorities."

Mr Verma's comments follow complaints of delays in a range of passport services. Indian expatriates and other nationals at the Indian Passport and Visa Service Centre in Al Khaleej centre in Bur Dubai complained of delays in renewals, additional pages and new passports, as well as visas to non-Indian passport holders who wished to travel to India.

"We agree there are issues and there have been complaints from people who applied for the services in the first few days since the centres opened," said said Mr Verma. "But, as of April 16, pending visa and passport applications are being taken care of. We processed 850 passport applications on Saturday, and about 1,000 applications on Sunday."

In 2008, the Indian missions in the Emirates announced their decision to outsource the collection of applications to speed up the process.

Previously, the services had been outsourced to Empost, the UAE-based logistics and courier company. At the end of the contract, BLS International had been awarded the bid to manage six of the 14 centres across the UAE from April 6.

The other centres are located within the Indian associations and are managed by the association staff.

Volunteers and consulate staff have been working overtime to assist the new company to get services "on track", more than two weeks after BLS International took charge.

The BLS centres in Dubai and the Northern Emirates receive anywhere between 600 and 1,000 passport applications a day and about 400 visa applications daily. The outsourced centres collect these applications and hand them to the missions to be processed.

The transition has shown some rough edges.

Applicants at the Bur Dubai centre yesterday complained of missing passports, long waiting times, a lack of experienced staff, technical problems, overcrowded centres, and delays in obtaining visas and passport services.

Indian expatriate Sukaina Merchant and her husband, Amir Naqvi, have visited the centre at least three times with their one-year-old son to get her passport renewed.

"My ordeal started last week when we approached the centre to renew my passport. The first time we waited for nearly two hours and they asked us for a photo affidavit, which was not one of the criteria on the list," said Ms Merchant.

"There is no standard operating procedure and each staff is giving us a different set of instructions. Some of the staff were extremely rude and one of them even asked us to go back to India if we wanted better services," she said.

"We finally had to go to the Indian consulate, who were very helpful in getting the affidavit. We finally submitted this to the BLS Centre. We hope my passport will be renewed soon," she said.

An Arab who had come to obtain visas for her colleagues also said she was frustrated with the centre's services.

"I submitted my managers' passports for visas two weeks ago as they are travelling to India later this month. I managed to get one of the passports back, but they can't seem to find the other one," said Roukil, who did not wish to reveal her last name. "I have visited the centre several times and they still don't know where it is. No one is answering the phone at the centre. It's a shame," she said.

However, officials denied that passports had been lost or misplaced. "They are all either in the consulate or with the courier company, which will be dispatching it. Our online tracking system will be in place soon," said an official from BLS International.

"About 20 of our volunteers are working at the BLS centres and at the consulate helping in data entry and sorting out applications," said K Kumar, convenor of the Indian Community Welfare Committee.

"We are fairly confident that things will be back on track soon and people won't face delays," he said.

More than 200,000 passports and more than 81,000 visa applications were processed last year at the Empost centres in the UAE.

There are more than 1.75 million Indian residents in the UAE, which causes a huge demand for passport services.

Authorities had anticipated what they had called "teething problems", but gave assurances that the transition after the contract termination with Empost would be smooth.

pkannan@thenational.ae