6th July 1997


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They wait and they wait

Although many breathed a sigh of relief when the passport office was shifted to
Bambalapitiya, the lack of basic facilities has given rise to certain hardships.
Chamintha Tilakaratne reveals the story behind that passport hassle

Nayana Priyadarshani left home at four 4 a.m. from Elpitiya hoping to reach the passport office in Colombo by at least 9 a.m. so that she could be one of the first in the queue. Leaving her children at home, she arrived with her brother but was unable to get into the office for hours. Without any water to quench their thirst or a shade to protect them from the sun and the rain, she and her brother stood for hours on the pavement. All this to obtain a passport that would enable her to apply for a job in the Middle East.

Pushparani had come with her husband, Stanley Francis and their four-year-old child also for a passport for Stanley. He, like many Sri Lankans, hopes to fly to the Middle East to take up a job that he feels would rid them of their poverty. Standing outside the passport office holding her sick child by the hand for hours, Pushparani’s only wish was for a seat and a glass of water.

These are only two out of the thousands of people who come each day to the passport office, recently shifted to Station Road, Bambalapitiya, from the high security zone at Cheithya Road, Fort, its earlier location. Although many breathed a sigh of relief when the transfer was made, the lack of facilities provided for the passport- seekers are glaringly obvious.

According to officials at the Immigration and Emigration Department, around 3,000 people visit the office daily. Many are accompanied by their relatives and friends and this adds up to more than 5,000 people daily.

S.M Hemalatha from Yakkala who was among the many at the passport office said,"All day I have not had anything to eat or drink and in this heat it is very difficult to stand and wait. I finally decided to go and have a cup of tea and maybe a snack. It cost me fifteen rupees for the roll and I was too afraid to ask for anything else. Therefore I decided to return without a cup of tea or any other drink." The Station Road area which houses the Majestic City complex and other trendy shops is hardly the place to find inexpensive meals.

Rain seems to be another factor of inconvenience to these people. On rainy days, many had rushed to the railway station for shelter and to the near-by shops. Many had almost camped behind the buildings or wherever they found shelter and were too afraid to leave the place for fear they might lose their turn.

T. M. Tennakoon Banda from Matale who was accompanying a relative who had come Colombo to obtain a passport said what was most sorely needed was a decent toilet facility. "We are men and we can go to the railway tracks when we want to go to the toilet, but what about the women? There are no facilities for them. From morning till whenever they give the passports they sit here and wait. Authorities must look into these needs," he added.

The problem for applicants exists only till they enter the Department. This wait usually lasts for over two hours at the least.

N.A.B .Bambarawanage, Deputy Controller of the Department of Immigration and Emigration said there are thousands of people who apply for "same day" passports to whom they have to give priority. "If the number of people exceed a thousand, then usually our officials have to stay till late and finish the work. At times we even stay after ten or eleven in the night. As for the facilities provided for the people, we have opened a cafeteria and have installed chairs for over three hundred people within the passport office premises at Star Tower. Apart from that, we have also provided public toilet facilities which were not available at the former place, which I think is an improvement. Most of the facilities unavailable at the former office have been provided here at least to the applicants. Travelling is also convenient with trains and buses freely available. We are also making plans to provide entertainment such as TV for people waiting till late in the night, he said.

But obviously a majority of people are not satisfied with having to wait outside the office on the road for long hours. "Everything around here is so very expensive and there is not much room to sit either, it is a choice between squatting on the pavements or standing. Because of the traffic it is quite difficult to stand on the pavements as well," was what many of the people ‘The Sunday Times’ spoke to had to say.

Security personnel at Majestic City said the number of people who come there has increased and to some extent they had become a nuisance for they come with their families and hang around till they get their passports. Shop owners also confirmed that the number of shoppers has increased and that most of the time people come in search of toilet and other facilities. Motorists too complain that the traffic on the road had increased making it difficult to negotiate during working hours.

Although the Department’s move to Bambalapitiya was a welcome one, many feel that authorities should consider these problems which not only applicants and their family members face but also shop owners and others.

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