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Our Big Fat Stapled Passports

Omkar Goswami


When I was a university student in the 1970s, there were still quite a few countries where a blue ‘Satyameva Jayate’ passport-holder did not need visas. Within Europe itself, if I remember correctly, an Indian could travel to some of the Scandinavian nations and most, if not all, Warsaw Pact countries without a visa. Indeed, there was a brief period where West Germany was also visa-free.


That is now proto-history. No Indian can travel to any European nation without a visa — either Schengen or country-specific. Ditto for Canada, USA, all of Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. Within Africa, only Kenya gives a visa on arrival. In Asia, barring Hong Kong and Nepal, you need a visa for all other nations — a few of whom like Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka sometimes give it on arrival. Which leaves only the islands in the Indian Ocean. And we should thank our stars that Seychelles and Maldives don’t yet need a visa, while Mauritius gives it on arrival.


The upshot is that frequent international travellers soon run out of pages in their passport. A typical Indian business traveller’s passport is a big fat multi-stapled volume consisting of three to four separate booklets — something that protrudes like a handgun or a bullet proof vest when it sits in the inside breast pocket of a jacket. If it can fit into such a pocket at all.


Take my case. I travel often enough, but less than many people that I know. My ‘bundle’ consists of three firmly stapled booklets. The earliest one, now expired, doesn’t have a square inch of unstamped space, and exists only because it contains the US visa valid up to 2009. The middle one is also bereft of any free pages; and its raison d’etre is the UK and Schengen visas valid up to 2008. Stapled on top sits my most recent passport. Consisting of a mere 36 pages, of which five are occupied by the Government of India’s printed material, the free pages are rapidly coming to an end. I suspect that sometime this year my bundle will get fatter by another booklet.


Immigration officials at the major international airports that witness a regular flow of Indians have come to terms with our big fat stapled passports. Even so, many travellers put multi-coloured Post-It stickies to flag the relevant visas for the benefit of passport control officers. And quite often these immigration fellows — not reputed for their patience or sense of humour — get exasperated with the fact that the relevant visa is in one booklet while the current passport is yet another.


Of course, hell breaks loose if you land in a lesser known international airport or country. Two weeks ago, the passport officer at Munich airport freaked out because he couldn’t understand where to stamp — next to my Schengen visa in the expired middle passport which had no space left, or in my new passport which did not carry the visa. I stood bemused for over 10 minutes while he conferred with his superiors. But when a Chinese immigration official with scant knowledge of English pulls you aside because is suspicious of a person having many stapled passports, you get very worried.


The solutions are simple. For a country that is globally spreading the gospel of IT, why should each new booklet for a given person carry a different passport number? If all my details, including fingerprints, are logged into a computer system which then links it with a unique passport number, then why can’t fresh booklets be issued with the same number?


The second solution is to issue special booklets containing 100 pages, against a higher passport fee. Earlier, you could get a 60 page ‘Jumbo’ booklet at an extra cost, which had 53 usable pages. In their wisdom, the passport authorities have eliminated the jumbo booklet altogether and standardised everything to the 36-pager.


So, can we have a 100 page booklet? And a unique, never to be altered passport number against a given individual? Surely these minor administrative reforms shouldn’t be so difficult to undertake?



Published: Business World, May 2007


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