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Home > Business > Special


Flight plans and govt employees

Govindraj Ethiraj | May 01, 2007

Two years ago, on my way to Dubai, I was stopped at the airline check-in counter in Mumbai and dispatched to the immigration officer on duty. My crime was that my passport did not have an Emigration Check Not Required (ECNR) stamp, nor did it have a temporary clearance from the Protector of Emigrants.

I was aware of both. The fact is that I did not have the time to get the clearance as the ticket was booked in a hurry. My rant on why I don't have an ECNR can spill into three columns, so I will pass for now. So I carried my Income Tax Permanent Account Number (PAN) card and even some other certificates, which would demonstrate I was a graduate and that I paid tax.

The duty officer kicked off the fencing round by insisting it was not possible to make exceptions. "I know you can," I said, brandishing all my documents. "All that is of no use," he said. "But surely my PAN card has some meaning," I pointed out. "No, that is issued by the ministry of finance, we are the ministry of external affairs." "Brilliant," I said, "now what?"

"We do make exceptions, but only to the following categories," he said after 15 minutes of verbal duelling and 45 minutes away from departure. He then produced a paper with a list that has till this day left me staggered. There were 17 categories of exceptions. Careful scrutiny showed that with some luck I could squeeze into one or two of them. But then the paperwork had not been done. Yes, one category was all government servants.

Twenty minutes to departure and we were still arguing. Suddenly, he put up his hands, shrugged and summoned his assistant to fetch the stamp. "Someone like you should know the law and abide by it. I am allowing you this time," he said. "Sure," I replied and couldn't resist adding, "I don't need the Government's protection. I would be happy if they protected me while I was in the country rather than out of it."

In the last two weeks, politicians of several hues have made news for various "exit-point" transgressions. Notable of them was of course the BJP MP, now under suspension. All of whom would be waved through at immigration in India and perhaps be treated a little more deferentially at the port of disembarking. After all, here is a person who represents the interests of several millions in a state of a billion.

And then came the curious incident apparently involving a minister of state (MoS). He raised a fuss because he was not exempted from security checks on his way out. His rationale: he was flying out on official work. The CISF, which monitors security at Indian airports, said: "Ministers of states are not entitled to exemption whilst travelling, even if they are leading official delegations."

It makes my stomach turn to even imagine how this event would have played out at the airport, having witnessed similar ones in the past. Minister (or his cohorts) begins yelling at the airport, crowd gathers, security staff go into a tizzy, consult superiors, paperwork and await the dreaded call from someone "higher up". Result, at least in most cases, the security lines get backed up even more, delaying the unprivileged lot. But who cares about them anyway.

I wonder (in such cases) why the MoS couldn't go through the checks. What did or does he find so demeaning about it? To him or his so-called position (read status). If I was standing behind him in the line or in the airport at the same time, I would have been happy to note how a minister behaved like he was an elected representative and not royalty. Instead, I have concluded, what an embarrassment, man! Or worse, what else do you expect from these chaps?

Now, there are 23 exceptions to the rule when it comes to allowing people through at airports without checks. I think it's a pretty disgusting figure. And I am sure there must be many lobbies that must be fighting for more, as I write. The MoS, sadly, did not belong to any of these 23. By the end of the week, I am sure he will be added. It will be a tragedy otherwise. Considering that his entire office is treating this as a matter of national importance.

Is there a solution to this? I am not sure. One is that senior politicians set an example and behave like normal individuals, which they are sometimes forced to do when out of power. Second is that officials are rewarded when they do their job in a public sort of a way. Like the CISF chaps apparently did, when they told the minister to hold his guns.

I did make it to the Dubai flight. I was officially made an exception (no, I did not threaten or call a higher-up). When I went back to the airline counter, they said it was shut. I went back to the duty officer to remonstrate.

To my surprise, he accompanied me to the check-in counter and requested the counter supervisor to please "adjust". To my utter shock, they did. So I too became an exception in the state of exceptions. I only wish I didn't have to.



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