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Lessons from E-ticketing July 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, india.
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Some policies and schemes coming out of places seem to have no rationale to me ( if it does to you, please leave a comment)

The Economic Times reports on the E-ticketing option for the Indian Railways. That would normally seem like good news if you arent too fond of standing in queues at railway counters. But here is the catch..rather here are the thousands of ‘catches’ :

However, if the booking is made through the internet, the passenger has to purchase two separate tickets — Mumbai to Delhi (Rs 421) and Delhi to Jammu (Rs 263). Hence, there’s a difference of Rs 167 in the fare alone. Apart from this, online charges are also levied.

The charge for a direct ticket ( for the same class etc. ) available at the counter is Rs. 517.00. Why does such a big difference exist?

And then :

The critical issue in the case of an e-ticket is the identity of the passenger. Proof of identity — be it a voter’s identity card, passport, PAN card, driving licence or a government-issued ID card — is compulsory for booking e-tickets, as well as during the time of travel.

So far so good. Read on.

The rule gets a little tricky for group tickets. Only one person’s identity is considered in the case of a group ticket, and if he/she is unable to make the journey for any reason, the entire ticket has to be cancelled and then rebooked after giving a new identity proof number. The risk here is that the passenger may lose his/her reservation and may end up getting a wait-listed ticket.

What are we trying to do here ? Disciplining people to ensure they bring their identification by heavily penalizing the entire group. What purpose is served ? Or alternately, what additional risk exists if rest of the group has proper identification ( photo ID ) ? To the best of my understanding, we need to encourage people to use e-ticketing options so that the system overall would be efficient, faster, transparent and above all convenient.

Ofcourse, a ‘problem’ with this is that people who have no access to the internet would be left out of the system and there would be a systematic discrimination against such individuals – the poor and the lowest middle class who are likely illiterate and very often have no proper identification and payment options.

How do we solve this problem ? Do we make only certain class of tickets available online ? That would again bring us to the quota system. And the moment you introduce these artificial restrictions, those who can afford to will find ways to bribe officials to buy their way out. This would neither do any good to the poor man in the queue or to the whole system as such.

If you think about it, every system in some sense is ‘discriminative’ – whether private owned or publicly owned. No matter what you do, there are always people ( in India atleast ) who cannot afford it and would thus be disadvantaged and feel discriminated against. On the other hand, if, to bring about equality, we resort to not have e-ticketing, that would discriminate against people who can actually afford it !

Perhaps the best solution would be to just let it be. Over time the system will throw up miraculous possibilities. Think for example, how can e-ticketing benefit the poor man who could not otherwise buy e-tickets and has to therefore stand in the queue ?

1. With shorter queue, he would have to wait for a fewer minutes – no mean thing.

2. Over time, the cream of this ‘left-out’ layer will see an incentive in perhaps accessing the net. The more the people are networked, the more the good for everybody.

3. If the above is rather too much to expect, cybercafes and public libraries which have internet access may, for a nominal service fee ( and public libraries for free) agree to book e-tickets for the poor – we then have a new business model.

My point is that nobody benefits from restricting use of efficient technologies and process that makes our systems efficient and transparent as a whole. Benefits of every new technology accrue to the higher classes to start with, but over time we all benefit. Sensible policies throw open interesting possibilities that a central planner technocrat/bureaucrat cannot imagine and the regulations should exist only as a measure to ensure things dont get out of hand and not to engage in social engineering to start with itself !

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