Locals have protested over instances of extortion and lack of facilities at the regional passport office in Sialkot.
A large number of residents protested against the local administration and said that it was becoming impossible for people to procure a passport from the office without greasing the palms of agents and other officials.
“It’s not just passport officials. We have to pay Rs500 to the main guard just to be able to stand in line for the passport!” said Mubashar Zahid, a Pasrur resident. Residents in the area said that the passport office was severely short staffed and that there was often a long delay in both collection and submission of relevant documents. “It takes weeks just to get the relevant documents submitted and then it takes months to get the actual passport,” said Momina Bibi, from Sambrial.
The Sialkot regional passport office is located in a few rented shops in Sialkot city’s congested Hajipura locality. The place has been stated to be insufficient to accommodate the large number of passport seekers belonging to both the neighbouring Sialkot and Narowal districts. A rush of the passport seekers can often be witnessed in front of the office, which caters to a population of over seven million people.
Sialkot Citizens Rights Protection Forum chairperson Dr Muhammad Muneer Butt has expressed grave concern over the situation. Butt said that the passport office was not only crowded and insufficient to deal with the number of applicants but was also besieged by corruption. “Many of the passport agents have links with the district office and certain MPAs. The office blatantly extorts the public and no one has bothered to put a stop to this,” he said.
Butt said that agents at the office had a fixed rate of Rs500 to entertain an application. “Each applicant needs to pay the fee to get the token to even enter the passport office. We are asked to return the next day if we don’t have the money,” said Hafeez, who is making his eleventh trip to the passport office to submit his papers.
Residents complained that there were also two separate lines at the office for catering to people who had paid off the agents with high sums. “There is a long line of people who have paid the Rs500 amount and a shorter line of people who have paid higher sums to have their documents processed quickly,” Hafeez said.
Butt said that despite several appeals by Sialkot’s political, business and religious circles, the regional passport office had not yet been shifted to a more suitable location. Butt told reporters that Narowal had been given the status of a district 21 years ago in 1990 but the district still didn’t have its own passport office.
“This tiny office caters to two major districts,” he said. Butt said that there were also reports of people being arrested from the office for being allowed to process documents on behalf of other people.
A few weeks ago two men were arrested by the police after other applicants noticed that a passport office agent was processing their documents even though they were carrying someone else’s papers.
Butt urged the government to establish a regional passport office at Narowal, enabling the local people to get their passport from Narowal office.
“This will ease the burden on this office and it will make it easier to monitor its activities,” he said. When contacted, officials of Sialkot regional passport office negated all the allegations regarding corruption at the office. They said that they had sent a plan to shift Sialkot passport office to another suitable location to the federal government for approval but had not received word in this regard. “We are waiting on the go ahead to shift the office,” they said.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2011.