I have spent the last three months consulting on criminal justice sector reform in the district courts in Punjab, in Lahore. I am a lawyer and am listed in the local bar in Sindh. The registered address on my ID card is of Karachi.
While living in Lahore, I was unexpectedly required to apply for an urgent passport. This, however, turned out to be a more daunting exercise than expected.
The day before I applied, July 2, was a bank holiday and thus all branches of National Bank of Pakistan (where one must submit the passport application fees) were shut. I appeared outside the bank at 9am on July 3. The bank did not open. A man approached me outside the bank and was very willing to assist me to pay my passport fees. I was able to pay my challan directly to him and he “easy-loaded” my payment into the system.
I arrived during a torrential rain storm on the morning of July 3 at the passport office in Barkat Market in Lahore with the requisite documents (as listed on the Directorate of Immigration’s website). In order to apply from any jurisdiction other than what is listed on your ID card, the applicants must have their present address “complete” and “attested by a gazetted officer bearing the CNIC and telephone number of attester below his name stamp.”
It is not clear what a “complete” address means and how this arbitrary requirement of attestation from a grade 19 officer assists the passport office. Most people reportedly pay an officer at the nearest National Bank of Pakistan to attest the form or have such letter attested from a close friend or relative. Any such attestation thus loses its corroborative value before the state.
When I arrived at the passport office with my request to apply from Lahore where I am currently residing, I was promptly told that I should return and obtain an attested rent agreement that proves that I am residing in Lahore. I attempted to reason with the director (through a clerk and guard) to explain that I live with my aunt and thus have no such agreement. He refused to meet me.
Thus, in the torrential rain, on the advice of a man I met outside the bank, I went to the Lahore High Court to apply for a passport from there. This man accompanied me to the passport office where I was told to pay Rs10,000 (as a bribe!) beyond my already paid passport fees, to obtain a passport without any ‘hitch’ and any additional submission of documents.
Despite being a registered advocate in the Sindh High Court, I was refused passport at the normal price in the LHC. I required an urgent passport to travel for a course abroad and so was compelled to pay the extra bribe. I was verbally told to return to retrieve my passport on July 7, which was a Saturday.
On my way back home, my ‘contact’ informed me that the passport office had misinformed me regarding collection as they are in fact closed on Saturdays. July 9 was the date that I was to receive my passport as per the “urgent slip” that was provided to me. I thus reached the LHC on July 9, again. Much to my dismay, I was told there was a “technical error” in the system and that my passport was not ready. My newfound contact had earlier warned me that it might cost me even more to obtain my passport “on time.” I refused. Despite paying urgent fees to obtain the passport within four working days and extra funds on top of that, I still did not receive my passport.
A passport is a national travel document and thus should be easily obtained by every citizen of Pakistan — in any regional office across Pakistan. In principle, this is permitted on the website of the department of Immigration. In practice, officers make it impossible to apply for a passport out of station. I was able to obtain a NADRA identity card in Lahore without any additional checks or proof of stay in Lahore. Why then are passport offices asking citizens for rent agreements?
Institutions of the state should facilitate civilians, not block them at every stage. If citizens choose to traverse through regular processes (without protocol), they are turned away. If they pay bribes, they are ushered in. I was compelled in an emergent situation to pay a bribe but am saddened to have done so in a court of law.