Recently, I had the dubious pleasure of visiting the Passport office because I had to have a new passport with the new, improved biometrics technology made in order to travel outside Pakistan. A day before, I had heard a Brigadier who is at the head of NADRA, the agency responsible for all these advancements in our official documents. A mere day before having to face the reality of getting a passport made, I listened to the usual presentation about how technologically advanced our ID cards and Passports have become with no mention of how the hassles involved in each procedure have increased in direct proportion to the technology.
Should you, as an ordinary resident of Karachi, looking to have some summer fun and frolic with your family, want to travelling outside Pakistan, your day will begin, tediously enough, at approximately five am, when you will get out of bed to get ready to arrive at the Passport Office located at the Awami Markaz at approximately six a.m. to ensure you get a place at the head of the long line of people who have come for exactly the same purpose. If you’re like me, a complete newcomer to the unorganized hell that is government offices and the inevitable queueing outside them, you arrive at 8 a.m., an hour when you would imagine nobody would be outside the office, but find that in reality people have been in line since six a.m.
You will, as you stare in shock at the line of twenty to twenty five ladies (this is the “ladies line”, which is nearly half the length of the mens’ line) be approached by several “agents”, who will claim that, for an extra few hundred rupees, they can get you inside to the passport office before those waiting in line are allowed in, thus ensuring that you are one of the first few people in the next line, inside the Awami Markaz and get your passport procedure done with much faster. Having nothing to lose and everything to gain, I agreed, paid the man and was duly snuck in the back way with a group of others who were very much inclined to take the easy way out. Once inside the mostly closed and deserted Awami Markaz building, a place I had not been to for years and remembered as the glittering, shiny new shopping center, we were told to hurry towards the Passport Center inside. Unfortunately, the people who has been waiting outside since six a.m. saw us creeping about inside and burst in through the security barriers. One of our number notices this and most eloquently yelled “Run!” before breaking into a panicked jog. I assume visions of pitchforks and torches were dancing about in his head as he urged his womenfolk to follow suit and make it to the Passport office before the justifiably angry mob.
Upon reaching the entrance of the passport office it was discovered that since it was not open yet, we would be beaten back enthusiastically with a large stick if we did not all get in line. The females were mostly ignored, the men got the brunt of the threats with the large stick the guard was waving about. I took the oppurtunity to push my way to the front of the line of women and watched a potential tragedy unfold: one young man took grave offence to having the guard grab his collar and push him back and had almost literally jumped on him, stick nothwithstanding. As obcenities flew back and forth and various people grabbed both the fighting men and pulled them apart, the boy’s weeping mother shoved herself in the middle of the foray to make her son back off the guard. The potential for immediate tragedy was enormous here: one mother, caught between a guard rabidly brandishing a large stick and her hotheaded son, hell bent on breaking the guard’s skull open. In a few moments, thankfully, everyone had managed to pull the two apart and attempted to calm the boy down while pushing the guard back behind his iron gates.
After this incident, the office, which was meant to open at 8 a.m. every morning, remained unopen till nine, while a sea of people remained sweating in the small corridor with a single rotating fan on one wall. After an hour of children crying because of the heat and various halfhearted rebellious measures, the guards threw the crowd a bone and proclaimed that we were to make a single file line for the men and one for the ladies to get in because the gates would be opening soon. “Soon” meant fifteen minutes later, which was when the gates were graciously parted and the ladies were allowed to file in and get in line within the (blessedly) Air Conditioned NADRA office to obtain their tokens. Now the token is issued after you produce various identification documents and contains a number, using which you are to be summoned to various conters where you will be fingerprinted, photographed and asked questions which are already answered on your identity documents. Thankfully, none of these procedures involve lines.
Once done with the whole process and having visited nearly five different counters, I asked several times if I was done for the day. Upon recieving an affirmative answer from several sources, I concluded it would be safe to exit the area since once you left, the only way back in would be through the same mob that had been at the entrance. Once outside, though, an odd sight greeted me: The two points of entry/exit were completely filled with an angry mob wanting to be let in as guards shouted, waved sticks and generally did whatever was necessary to keep them at bay. How was one suposed to actually leave the Passport Office?
It was while wondering how to go about leaving the area that I witnessed the second act of violence of the day. A man in his late forties, trying desperately to be heard or seen above the crowd tried to rush in as the flimsy gates were opened for someone to come in. The guard closest to the door grabbed the man by his kurta and attempted to shove him back on the other side of the metal gate with one hand. What ensued was a tussle of epic proportions between an said gentleman and a muscled security guard, stopped only when bystanders (as usual) pulled the two apart. The forty-something gentleman’s final words before storming into the passport office were that he was not here for the passport, but on official business and had the [insert rude words] listened to him instead of grabbing him, he would have explained as much. Apparently the gentleman was not without repute within the passport office because a few minutes after he had stormed in, a guard who was obviously in charge marched out, told off the offending muscled guard and smartly rapped a stick on the flimsy gates. He then announced that the mob should stop behaving like animals and make a proper line so that those whose turn it was to get in could do so and those who wanted to get out could do so without being torn to shreds. It was at this point that I was able to make a quick exit out of the area and return to civilization.
The moral of the story? There isn’t one. It’s a sad testament to the governing body that every citizen in Karachi who needs to have a passport made to go anywhere in the summer is required to be crammed in with a few hundred others to get this relatively simple task done. I couldn’t help thinking of the presentation of the Brigadier at the PDC who was unabashedly proud of NADRA having implemented Biometrics for Pakistani passports which required everyone with an old passport to get theirs re-made. Six million people in this city must travel to one single center where it’s truly the survival of the fittest, as illustrated by one man who collapsed due to the excessive heat in the corridor with a single fan. Maybe one of these days, the people will start to matter more than statistics of technological advances to proudly display in front of foriegn dignitiaries.
For other related experiences, check out Sabeen’s Account of a Saturday Spent at the Passport Office and Umar’s Passport Renewal Experience.