According to the Act, all travel agents must be registered; though an unconfirmed count puts the number of travel agents in the state at around 20,000, the number of those registered with the government is less than 200; which means majority of them are illegal
The Panama boat tragedy in which at least 20 Punjabi youth travelling illegally to the US are feared drowned has brought the focus on the state government’s shoddy implementation of the Punjab Travel Professionals’ Regulation Act, 2012.
The Act that regulates the working of immigration and travel agents in the state remains a paper tiger, used merely to “scare” travel agents than take any real action against them.
The Act provides for the registration of every travel agent in the state with the competent authority, which is the deputy commissioner. Though an unconfirmed count puts the number of travel and immigration agents in Punjab at around 20,000 churning a business of Rs 1,500 crore, the number of agents registered with the government is less than 200.
Since the last date for registration of agents with the government was June 30, 2015, majority of travel agents operating in Punjab are illegal. However, action against them is almost non-existent. Other than a handful of districts, where police initiated action against the immigration agents, thousands of fly-by-night operators continue to charge lakhs from youth desperate to settle abroad, smuggling them through dangerous routes.
The slipshod implementation of the Act is borne out by the fact that after it was passed by the Assembly in 2012 the state home department took almost eight months to compile its rules, which were finally notified in August 2013. Deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal directed deputy commissioners to begin the process of registering travel agents and complete the process by October 31. The date was extended by a month, and again by another month. The Act was then challenged in the Punjab and Haryana high court by a set of travel agents, but despite the court implicitly stating that there was no stay on the operation of the Act, the registration process across Punjab virtually came to a halt.
Following a series of meetings between an association of travel agents and the deputy chief minister in January 2014, a host of amendments, all loaded in favour of travel agents, were introduced, diluting the original Act. Besides a change in the name of the Act from the Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act to the Punjab Travel Professionals’ Regulation Act, the amendments included a change in the manner complaints against travel agents are processed and reduction in penalties applicable in case of non-compliance or breach of the conditions of the Act.
The process of amending the Act took another eight months and the final notification of the amended rules was issued in September 2014. However, despite the Act that was “acceptable” to travel agents, the registration process failed to pick up.
In April 2015, the high court dismissed the petition challenging the Act, following which fresh petitions were filed by agents in May questioning the jurisdiction of the Punjab government in enacting the Act. While admitting these petitions, it was again made clear by the high court that there was no stay on the implementation of the Act.
The new last date for registration was then set as June 30, 2015, and despite a lapse of seven months, the government remains completely ineffective in closing down the shops of the illegally operating agents. A letter from the home department of October 7, 2015, to all deputy commissioners and SSPs in the state, instructing closure of unregistered agents, did not yield any result.
Why travel agents do not want to register
*Payment of licence fee of Rs 1 lakh for travel agency older than 5 years and Rs 25,000 for others
*Half-yearly details of clients and fee charged has to be given to DC
*Punishment in case of an illegal activity is imprisonment up to seven years with fine
*Any proven fraud may result in cancellation, barring of firm’s operations
*The agent should have no criminal record
*Police verification of all information
*Minimum size of office laid down
*Renewal of registration every five years
*Administration’s consent for seminars and advertisements
Who come under the ambit of the Act
District-wise number of registered agents*
Amritsar: 4; 115 applications pending
SAS Nagar: 32; 110 applications pending
Kapurthala: 64 applications pending
Fatehgarh Sahib: 3 applications pending
Tarn Taran: 10
Jalandhar: 2; 417 applications pending
Nawanshahr: 33; 56 applications pending
Hoshiarpur: 71 applications pending
Patiala: 19; 38 applications pending
(*based on information available with the home department. Districts not listed have not sent their information)