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Indian passports to go digital next year

Country preps for e-passports and overhaul of backend infrastructure to enable better security, easier access and faster issuance of travel documents.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

INDIA--The government appears on track to issue some 800,000 e-passports next year and begin piloting its new backend system touted to enable faster delivery of passport services, baring no further delays.

The Indian government next year will launch its e-passport initiative, as well as the Passport Seva Project, with pilots expected to commence this year.

Implemented by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) under a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme, the Passport Seva Project entails digitization of the entire passport services. It seeks to deliver all passport-related services to citizens in a timely, transparent, more accessible and reliable manner, through streamlined processes and trained workforce.

This US$207.3 million (10 billion rupees) project is part of the government's National e-Governance Plan (NeGP).

"The unique feature of Passport Seva is that citizens will be able to get a passport in three working days," Neel Ratan, executive director at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview. Currently, it takes nearly a fortnight or longer, for local citizens to get a new passport. For travel documents that are needed urgently, arrangements are made under the "tatkal" scheme for passports to be issued within a week. The Passport Seva project aims to cut this down to a day.

Under the initiative, passport offices across the country will also be spruced up. "The offices will wear a more contemporary look," Ratan said. PwC assisted the government in designing and conceptualizing the project.

Indians will also get new e-passports designed to facilitate international travel by allowing automatic identity verification and faster immigration inspections, as well as provide efficient border protection and security.

"An e-passport incorporates a security microcontroller, embedded in the back cover of the passport, which securely stores information printed on the document," Mahendran Kathiresan, Infineon Technologies' business development manager of chip card and security, said in an e-mail interview. Infineon is the supplier of contactless security microcontrollers (MCU) for the e-passport initiative.

Kathiresan explained that e-passports support a combination of electronic and optical security features including watermark, optically variable device and hologram.

If an e-passport is misused, the immigration checkpoint will be able to detect a mismatch between the printed and digital information, and authorities can take necessary action against the offender.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) sets the standards for e-passports that have been implemented in over 70 countries. Data in the Indian e-passport can be read in other countries as it adheres to the ICAO global standards for biometrics and secure storage of personal data in travel documents.

Seva pilots next month
The Passport Seva Project was unveiled in October 2008, after the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) signed the agreement with TCS, which included plans for the first pilot trial to commence in June 2009 from centers located in Chandigarh and Bangalore. The rest of India, to be serviced by 77 stations, will be issued e-passports in 2010.

However, the project has since missed its June 2009 deadline.

TCS declined to speak to ZDNet Asia, but A. Manickam, joint secretary and chief passport officer for the Union Ministry of External Affairs, said the government will make a major announcement regarding the project next month. "I would not like to make any comment prior to that," Manickam said in a phone interview.

In a local newspaper report, Tanmoy Chakrabarty, vice president at TCS, said it was hoping to proceed with trials at the Chandigarh and Bangalore centers in October. This timeline was reiterated in a government Web site, which stated that TCS was looking to implement the project at six pilot locations next month and 77 centers by June 2010.

Explaining the missed deadline, Chakrabarty said in the newspaper report: "The Ministry of External Affairs did not make us available to the disaster recovery site for this project, which led to the delay."

E-passports enhance security
Meanwhile, the government launched its e-passport scheme on Jun. 25 this year, where President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Vice President Hamid Ansari were the first ones to receive their biometric passports.

E-passports have been issued to diplomats since July this year, but are expected to be extended to all citizens from September next year. Around 800,000 e-passports are estimated to be issued by 2010.

While Infineon has secured the initial e-passport trial, its competitor NXP Semiconductors is hopeful it has a role to play when the scheme is extended to the general public next year. Claus Hansen, NXP's Asia-Pacific senior director of sales and marketing, said at the Identification Summit 2009 held in Delhi last month that the company in January delivered some 170 million e-passport chips.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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