Keep travel papers in order
Pushpa Girimaji

THERE have been innumerable cases of passengers getting stranded in a foreign country because either the travel agent or the airline failed to inform them about certain travel regulations. In the case of Air India vs Kamdar, for example, the travel agent issued Kamdar and his friends confirmed tickets to travel to Moscow and return in six days, while, according to the rules governing the excursion tickets sold to them, they had to stay in Moscow for a minimum of 10 days to utilise the return tickets. This they came to know only when they arrived at Moscow airport for their return journey and were refused passage.

Similarly, passengers have had to return—after several hours of travel—without reaching their destinations because they were not informed of the transit visa requirements of certain countries. In the case of Harjinder Singh Bajwa vs Thai International, the travel agent who booked the tickets of three senior citizens from Delhi to Vancouver did not inform them that they would need a transit visa for the stopover in the US. The flight had two stopovers—one at Bangkok and the other at Seattle. The airline obviously did not check their visas properly and allowed them to travel to Bangkok.

At the time of boarding at Bangkok airport, they were refused passage on the ground that they did not have a transit visa for Seattle, and were sent back to Delhi.

Here is a case where a passenger, all set to travel to Dubai, was turned back at the international airport. This time it was not the travel agent or the airline that was to blame but the passport officer. Now, the ticket to your travel abroad is the passport. Without it, you cannot step outside the boundaries of your country, nor can you get the visa to enter another country.

In this age of terrorism, where passports are put under a microscope and scrutinised for any signs of forgery or fraud, it is absolutely necessary that your passport is without any blemish.

Given this scenario, imagine landing in a foreign land with a passport that is not even validated by the passport issuing authority with the required signature. The officer issuing the passport had forgotten to put his signature on the seal, and since a person obtaining a passport may not be aware of these requirements, it was never noticed.

Anuradha Gopinath even applied for a visa to travel to Dubai on that passport and was granted the visa.

However, on the day of travel, when she arrived at the international airport and showed her passport, the airline spotted the lacuna and said she could not travel. Imagine a person’s frustration—you make all arrangements for travel, buy your ticket, foreign exchange, pack your bags and then at the time of boarding, you are told that you cannot travel because of a mistake made by a passport officer.

Anuradha then field a complaint before the consumer court in Bangalore, which awarded her Rs 10,000 as compensation and Rs 2,000 as costs. This was, however, contested by the passport office before the higher courts on the ground that the issuance of the passport did not constitute ‘service’ as defined under the Consumer Protection Act. In its revision petition before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, the passport authority argued that the passport officer was exercising a sovereign function and that courts had no jurisdiction to adjudicate over such complaints.

It also argued that no payment was made to the officer towards issue of passport and, therefore, it did not become a consumer case at all. Dismissing such arguments, the apex court pointed out that the passport officer was not exercising any sovereign function, but discharging a statutory duty. Besides, since a fee was charged for issuing a passport, it constituted a ‘service’ as defined under the Consumer Protection Act, and consumers could seek redressal for any deficiency or negligence in that service.

Said the commission: "A passport, which is issued without the signature of the competent authority, is on the face of it invalid. It would have placed the complainant in a precarious position and she might have been hauled up for various offences if she had tried to go abroad on that passport. Such lapse amounts to a serious deficiency in discharge of duties, which is in the nature of rendering of service. Hence, the complaint is maintainable".