Indian Railways: More Questions Raised Than Answered

Posted on July 1, 2012 in Specials

By Shobhit Agarwal:

Indian railways is burdened with the task of providing transportation services to some 1.2 billion commuters. Given the vastness of the task, one doesn’t need to be an Einstein to figure out that a comprehensive system needs to be in place to support such a large service. But a casual assessment of the system will soon convince one that the Indian railway system is the epitome of corruption in this country.

Covering all the loopholes and corruption involved in Indian railways will require more than one’s lifetime. This is one system that is plagued by inefficiency right from the base level, the peons in the railway booking offices, to top-level railway officials, who take various projects under the railways. In this article, we restrict ourselves to the evils of a very small but fascinating component of the railways — the ‘tatkal’ system.

Three months prior to the date of travel, the bookings for any train open. Although, majority of the seats get occupied during the first few days of booking, there is still a vast majority of people who make last-minute decision to visit some place or whose presence is required somewhere emergently. In order to aid such late-bloopers, the government started the ‘tatkal’ system, wherein tickets to any train can be booked a day before the journey, albeit at a higher fare than normal booking. Given the soaring prices of air tickets, the middle-class-dominated Indian population is more than happy to oblige the government with a few extra bucks in return of a confirm rail ticket.

All of it sounds very systematic and orderly, wherein is the problem?

The problem lies in the booking of these tickets. Railway ticket reservation offices open at 8 AM across the country, for bookings to all the trains as well as for tatkal tickets. The rush is crazy and every second that passes after 8, the probability of a person getting a confirm ticket decreases exponentially. The commuters have two ways of booking the tickets — through a ticket agent or getting it done personally.

Through the agents: The biggest beneficiaries of the tatkal system isn’t the ‘travelling’ class, it is the ‘booking’ class instead. The travel agents usually charge a commission per ticket (on an average Rs. 400) a small portion of which they channelize in the system they have placed, while pocketing the rest of the profit.

There are two lines of command that the travel agents follow. Either they have direct understanding with the officials at the railway ticket booking centres, wherein the officials are given a share of the agent’s commission upon the booking of each ticket, or they hire unemployed youth living in the slums, pass them the details of the passengers and the ticket fare, and pay them a small incentive for every ticket they book.

The direct setting with the ticket booking official isn’t that predominant. Only a few travel agents are able to establish it. On the other hand, the one with the unemployed youth presents a very interesting scenario. Since each person is allowed only one reservation form, which can book tickets for up to 6 people on a single train, these wanderers have devised their own way of beating the system. One of them usually goes and sleeps outside the ticket office at midnight. By around 7:30 AM, half an hour prior to the opening of the counter, the rest of them arrive and go and stand right next to their accomplice, bypassing all the other people who had been waiting in the queue since the wee hours of the morning. Each one of them then collects a form to a different train. Sometimes there are unruly scenes, wherein the people in the queue oppose to any unfair interjection. But since the nomads aren’t adverse to violence, more often than not, people watch it happen helplessly.

And in spite of the government enforcing various protocols like ID proof, authorized signature etc., they still beat the system and manage a very high percentage in getting the tickets booked.

Getting it done personally: The biggest sufferers of the tatkal system are the people who try to get the tickets booked themselves.

Lining up early in the morning, only to be pushed to the back end of the queue by the time the counter opens, the travellers are left with little choice but to cough up those extra 400 bucks to the agent in order to get their tickets.

The problem is for all to see. What is its solution?

Actually, the solution is quite simple. All the government needs to do is place token counters, like the ones issued in banks, at the tatkal booking offices, with the added constraint that each person can only have one token. That way, the infiltration that usually happens can be avoided, giving the average commuter a fair shot at getting his tatkal tickets booked himself and avoiding the dependency on the ticket agents.

Like the tatkal system and the pnr status system, most of the problems that have marred our rail system have simple solutions. The only thing we need to do is take the initiative of bringing about change, the rest will follow suit.