July 17: Getting a passport in Calcutta requires more than just correct documentation. You need to pass an unofficial test of patience and endurance at the Passport Seva Kendra before the actual interview determines whether your application goes through or not.
Applicants who have been to the passport office adjoining Ruby General Hospital would know what it is to be standing on the road in sun or rain, their olfactory senses assaulted by the combined stench of garbage vats, clogged drains and a fish market.
A lucky few do manage to time their visits perfectly with the prefixed appointment slots so that there is minimal waiting involved before they are called in. But for people coming from far - and they constitute the majority of first-time applicants - there is no way of avoiding this torture since missing an appointment would be worse.
Entry into the passport office was from the main gate facing the service road along the Bypass until construction of the Garia-Dum Dum Metro started in that area. The gate through which passport applicants are now let in is at the rear of the premises, off Anandapur Road. Metro queued up with scores of applicants, many of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres, to find out how they stand the test.
Applicants and those accompanying them have to stand on the opposite side of the 30ft road, inches away from a stinking open drain. The nearest garbage vat is inside the perimeter wall of the Kasba Industrial Estate, barely 10ft from the queue. There are at least three more further down the road. A fish market 50m away adds to the overpowering stench.
Retired State Bank of India employee S.K. Deb and his daughter Sudipta, who works for Cognizant, were in the queue of people on a weekday afternoon when the vats were being cleared. Handkerchief or dupatta, everyone had a stink shield over their noses and mouths.
"The surroundings are extremely unhygienic. Why should citizens of a civilized county be put through such an ordeal?" said Deb, a resident of Behala.
No seat or shade
When it rains, you need more than an umbrella to get by.
During the downpour last Tuesday, blackish slush from the drains quickly mixed with the ankle-deep rainwater that had accumulated on the road. Hasim Ali Sheikh, who sells guavas outside the passport office, pointed out that this was a regular occurrence during the monsoon.
On a hot day, the absence of seating or even a shade is just as tormenting. Fifty-something Mumtaz Begum had reached Anandapur from Raigachhi Ghat village in Rajarhat on a hot Monday morning along with her son Sheikh Najim. "We arrived at 9am, one-and-a-half-hours before our appointment. I am still waiting," she told Metro at noon, seated on a slab of stone with her back to an open drain.
Beside her was a youth from Sankrail in Howrah. He too had arrived well before his call time at 12.45pm. He had a white handkerchief over his head as a shield from the sun.
A. Halim, 67, and wife Shamsur Begum, 58, had to wait about 30 minutes before being let in. "My back and legs hurt. It's not always possible to reach at the appointed time when you are making a long journey. They should make some seating arrangements," Halim, a resident of Bagnan in Howrah, said.
Cars are allowed to be parked on one side of the road, mostly over garbage, but the fee is double that of the municipal corporation rate of Rs 10 an hour. Debasish Laha, mortgage manager in a bank, paid Rs 40 for 90 minutes of parking when he and wife Moumita were there to apply for their infant daughter's passport. Asked why the fee was higher, the parking attendant told him: "Because my employer needs to share his earnings."
Deputy passport officer S.R. Das said there was no space for a reception on the ground floor of the Passport Seva Kendra at 781 Anandapur. There is no plan to create one either. "We let applicants in 15 to 20 minutes before their call time. We have had to shift the entrance to the rear because of the Metro project. We had contacted the CMC to clean up this place a little, but it is still far from that," he said.