A Consul General has to inspire, lead and break shackles: CG Barcelona Imran Ali Chaudhary

Pakistani foreign missions have a bad reputation historically, comprising of rude officials and haughty behaviour towards our communities abroad.

However, there are notable exceptions. On a recent tour to Spain and Barcelona, I was pleasantly surprised to note that in the streets, the common Pakistani is very happy with the working of the Consulate and they ascribe it to the changes that you had brought to the Consulate. In some other capitals, I heard of the “Barcelona” model. We had the opportunity of interviewing the Pakistan Consul General in Barcelona, Mr Imran Ali Chaudhary.

Question:So whereas the general feeling is that of dissatisfaction with our Missions, what is different in Barcelona. Why do Pakistanis from other European missions come here for consular work? What is the secret of winning the confidence of the people?

Answer: I am very honoured. Our Missions abroad and infact every public office can be of two types. One is the “afsar-shahi” or “bureaucratic model.” Unfortunately, over seventy years, this model characterises government service domestically and abroad. The main plank of this model is to distrust and look at disdain at the Pakistanis living abroad. To me that is a criminal concept. That model hides itself behind antiquated and perverse rules and laws.

The other is the human model. It is the basic concept, the vision of “your state is like your mother.” So imagine a public office like your mother. It provides refuge, it loves you, it forgives you, it facilitates you, it is a roof of benevolence. So all policies that emanate from this concept are likely to win the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan. The consulate should exist for them, the consulate or the Mission should not be a punitive imposition of rules on them.

Question:Is this government sanctioned, the vision of a benevolent consulate, or is it a personal choice of an odd officer. In the latter case, all the positive changes would tend to disappear when the officer is sent to another station?

Answer: It is both. Let us go to the government first. I think the present government has taken quantum leaps for Pakistanis. A revolution has taken place! Do you realise that?

Question:Can you elaborate?

Answer: There has been more than a 100 per cent reduction in visa fees across the visa spectrum. Couple this with the allowance of a five year multiple entry visa for Pakistanis in Spain and in many countries. This is a quantum leap. The Ministry is instituting a QR code system for consular services. E visas have been instituted but are being test run. Visas regulations for diplomats in Islamabad have been eased. This is leapfrogging into a new realm for providing services to Pakistanis abroad. It is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history, infact in any nations history to take such quick and far reaching institutional changes. There is no intellectual fog in the Foreign Office actively led by the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Sometimes we don’t realise and a revolution happens around us. This is what has taken place in terms of positive change for Pakistanis living abroad.

Question: Is there political ownership?

Answer: Of course. There is a political quantum leap also. The Prime Minister, in one of his early speeches, gave us the general direction of empathy and compassion towards Pakistanis living abroad, quoting from his life in UK. Then the Foreign Minister, in a formal and institutional communication to all heads of mission, directed to serve our communities as one of the primary goals. These are specific, concrete directions. Unprecedented!

Question: Why are passports such a big problem in Spain?

Answer: You have genuine Pakistanis without and ID card and a passport who have arrived here through non formal and illegal channels. What do you do? Remember he needs a passport to register so that his three year countdown to resident status starts.

So again we go back to the basic philosophy of our missions abroad. Are they going to be punitive offices, or offices of benevolence and help.

Are you going to embrace and help tens of hundreds of such Pakistanis or are you going to make them suffer? If you follow the antiquated rules made by individuals in the past who have no idea about the situation abroad, it is shameful. The Foreign Service has an ethos which has been submerged by the “babu” approach. It is a culture of humanity and accessibility, not to where suits and ties behind closed doors. Unfortunately, the babu approach rules. However, now all of us have political direction to change it. I am glad I always followed the humanitarian model in Washington DC and Toronto on my own, but now all of us have the support of the Foreign Minister.

Again, more than the rules, it is important how you perceive the trickling Pakistanis into Barcelona. I, under the directions of my Ambassador, welcome them into our Missions, talk to them, make them feel proud to be a Pakistani.

Question:When I made a surprise visit to the Consulate, I saw a whole floor dedicated to helping applicants, filling up their forms, guiding them. I have not seen this in main premises even foreign missions.

Answer: You have to serve Pakistanis. So in Barcelona, the typical new Pakistani intended immigrant does not speak English or Urdu. They speak Punjabi and cant write.

That is where insensitivity comes in. Nadra closed its offices in main missions, and introduced online filling of forms. How do you expect a person who cant read or write to fill forms online? These Pakistanis, without help, remain in the clutches of agents, who charge excessively to fill forms, misguide and infact also make mistakes without accountability. So it was decided to facilitate, help and In premises despite The closing of Nadra office in 2018 was a perverse and retrogressive step.

So a lot of work on the second floor is applying for ID cards and POCs. You will be surprised that these applications are difficult to fill even for trained professionals. Yet there was this wrong expectation that our community would fill them up themselves. Most applicants then had to suffer at the hands of local facilitators some of whom exploited them.

Question:There have been a lot of blocked cases of passports. There were news that this issue required a lot of effort to overcome.

Answer: In the console where passports are processed, there is an option to put cases in the suspect category by “over ruling” the application. This option, designed only for rare cases, was used frequently in 2017-2018, leading to blockage of hundreds of cases of Pakistanis. You can well imagine the plight of such Pakistanis who would not be able to register and start the legalization process. These are the hidden tragedies in the cities of poor Pakistanis who were made vulnerable by such punitive action. An inquiry was instituted and corrective measures taken. Under new orders, the “over rule” button won’t be pressed. We will make all out efforts to process passports expeditiously by undertaking due diligence in Barcelona and not by sending cases to Pakistan.

Question:But is sending cases not mandatory

Answer: When the government sends a Foreign Service officer abroad, they are not sending an automaton, or a stamping clerk. An officer of experience and education will make efforts to confirm identity through an interview process and make a judgement there.

Question: But this is then only happening in Barcelona?

Answer: It should happen in all Missions. Inquiry checks should only be done in rare cases. The lives of individuals should not be destroyed in files and faxes, to which answers never come. Compassion and care and kindness should be primary and this is exactly the direction given by the political leadership, and the Foreign Minister. Things have to change, compassion has to come, and officers should be responsive to the most vulnerable segment of our community.

Question: But this is not being done elsewhere?

Answer: I am not sure I have answer to this.

Question: You have made two speeches at national events, explaining the Pakistan movement like a teacher. Isn’t this unusual?

Answer: it is vital. There is confusion in the genesis of Pakistan. Our genesis is beautiful, constitutional, political, romantic. The Pakistan movement is something to be proud of. Our younger generation and even this generation has been taught fake history. Jinnah wanted a federation, with equal rights for all. Equal opportunity for minorities, and a benevolent state. So I teach it, and the crowd listened with rapt attention for 30 minutes.

A consul general has to inspire, to lead, to break shackles, to unleash literature, opinion, and to bring families out. We are going to continue on this path and transform the Pakistani community of Barcelona into a vibrant body, that participates in Spanish society and politics and shows Pakistan for what it is- benevolence, compassion, beautiful people, intellect and energy.