Friday, September 7, 2012

DNA investigations: Home and finance hold e-passport to ransom

DNA investigations: Home and finance hold e-passport to ransom

India’s ambitious Electronic Passport (e-passport) project is in limbo.

It’s been more than three years since the idea was mooted. But nothing has moved because the ministries of home and finance want a particular company, with objectionable dealings, to handle the project.

Both the ministries have worked to delay the project so that the French company Gemalto gets a clearance.

Despite objections from the intelligence bureau, the MHA has been sitting on the issue for more than two years. DNA had earlier reported, quoting an IB report, that the company was supplying smart cards to Pakistan as well.

India is a signatory to the Montreal Agreement signed by several countries which makes it mandatory for all member countries to switch to the e-passport regime. Several of these countries have already made the switch.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), nearly 100 countries now have e-passports. India has not been able to do so because two central ministries are too busy lobbying for this one company.

On July 17, 2012, external affairs minister SM Krishna, in his reply to Rajya Sabha MP Dilipbhai Pandya, said, “The matter has been pending for want of security clearance from the home ministry despite several reminders at various levels.” Krishna’s ministry is responsible for distributing the e-passports once they are ready.
E-passports are similar to regular passports except that it has has a contact-less integrated circuit (computer chip) embedded in the back of the passport book.

A technical committee was formed in February 2010 to look into the technical aspects of e-passport inlays. Nine companies, which participated in the tender process, were marked as technically qualified for the project.

These companies even got security clearance from the home ministry. Approved ‘tender specifications’ were released to them for submission of bids by July 26, 2012.

But the ministry decided to release fresh security clearance following a complaint against one of the companies, which participated in the tendering process.

“If there is an objection against one company, why is the entire process delayed?” asked DK Singh, a Supreme Court advocate who plans to file a writ petition on the matter. “The finance ministry can easily choose the best among the other eight so that the project is not jeopardised.”

Instead the home ministry asked Gemalto to file a self-disclosure report on the points of concern. “Will any company show dubious credentials as dubious? It’s a joke,” Singh said. “This is to favour the company.”

The finance ministry doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to see the project implemented. KK Prasad, GM, Security Printing and Minting Corporation of India Ltd (SPMCIL), which is responsible for the project contract, has been allegedly lobbying in favour of Gemalto.

He continues to remain with SPMCIL under the finance ministry despite his tenure getting over in December 2011. Prasad belongs to the Naval Armament Depot, which comes under the defence ministry. He has been on a 3-year deputation with SPMCIL since December 2008.

DNA has copies of letters, which testify that several requests to extend Prasad’s tenure in SPMCIL had been turned down. They also say his continuation is a violation of terms of the department of personnel and training (DoPT). During his tenure, Prasad allegedly gave seven extensions for opening of the bids.

The Rs200-crore tender is for procurement of electronic contact-less inlays along with operating systems. It is one of the largest contracts that SPMCIL has rolled out in recent years.

Taking note of this, another SC lawyer, Pradeep Shukla, has given notice to SPMCIL, saying, “It seems that Prasad is continuing illegally as GM to accomplish some unfinished task such as finalisation of e-passport tender in favour of Gemalto.”

Gemalto spokesperson Yvonne Lim, however, insisted that the company never had any dealings with Pakistan regarding passports. “Gemalto serves governments in over 50 countries with our secure documents and e-government solutions, earning their trust and confidence by acting with the highest level of integrity while handling each project and consistently delivering the industry’s best quality and professional services,” Lim said.

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