India on Wednesday became the first major developing country to launch electronic passports that will act as a shield against fraudulent misuse and spur easier travel to other countries.
President Pratibha Patil launched the e-passport scheme at a ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan when External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee presented the first diplomatic e-passport to her.
Mukherjee also presented an e-diplomatic passport to Patil's husband Devisingh Shekhawat.
The biometric passports are initially meant for diplomats. They would be issued to those included in the "officials category" from next month. The scheme will be extended to other citizens from September next year.
"It is compatible with international standards and national identity cards and would protect against fraud and security breaches," Mukherjee said.
"It is easy to verify the authenticity of e-passports," he said while allaying security concerns about the new scheme.
"Around 800,000 e-passports would be issued by 2010," he added.
“It will make it easier for the Indian citizens to cross border control points with e-passports reading facilities,” Patil said.
Alluding to India's rising international profile and growing global linkages, Patil underlined that the passport issuance is an area where the government has to constantly balance the needs of security with making passports and travel facilities easier for the people.
Mukherjee then visited the residence of Vice President Hamid Ansari and presented e-passports to him and his wife. Later on, he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his 7 Race Course residence and presented him his e-passport.
“The e-passports will be issued to all fresh applicants and to those who apply for reissue,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna clarified.
With the national launch, India has become the 42nd country to issue e-passports and the first major developing country to do so.
Most countries have started issuing e-passports only during last two years.
The Indian e-passports conform to the specifications laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The e-passports contain an electronic contactless chip embedded in the passport booklet and its cover page has an ICAO approved special logo.
The chip in the e-passport booklets for diplomats and officials will contain data such as facial bio-metrics, signature, name, nationality and date of birth of the passport holder. Specified bio-metric features such as finger-prints of the holder are also proposed to be added to this data when e-passports are issued in the ordinary passport category.
The external affairs ministry has designed e-passports to prevent fraudulent misuse and tampering as these passports will have the necessary technical features to prevent access to the data stored in the chip by unauthorized persons.
E-passports will also be useful in preventing holding of multiple passports, he added.
The National Informatics Centre has designed the e-passports in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, and the India Security Press, Nasik.
As more and more Indians travel abroad and the demand for passports growing by 18 percent per annum, the ministry has already initiated the Passport Seva Project for introducing latest IT solutions to simplify procedures and to cut down on paper work.