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Selfless, faceless civil servants and their truly heroic acts

By Ajit Balakrishnan
February 20, 2019 09:44 IST

Enabling the online booking and payment for Indian Railway tickets is one such case.
Amitabh Pandey's book is about how he went about enthusing teams inside the Indian Railways and facilitating online reservations, says Ajit Balakrishnan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

In When it Clicks: Field Notes from India's E-Commerce Revolution, an India Railway Reservation pioneer tells his story in a world that is awash with misgivings about what the Internet revolution has wrought.

Such misgivings range from accusations that e-commerce is destroying the livelihood of small shopkeepers who employ half of India's young who are desperately seeking jobs in urban India to escape the misery of rural India, to accusations that the Internet is being used to fix elections.

In this dismal scenario, the book shines a bright light on an achievement most Indians will probably agree on: The availability of online reservations on Indian Railways.

Gone are the days of waiting for hours in queue at dawn or dealing with sleazy brokers in dark alleys to get a railway ticket to go see your parents.

And this book is by one of the key people who fought against overwhelming odds to make the Online Railway Reservation system happen.

Few people would have dared to take on a job as gigantic as this. The Indian Railway system has 7,300-plus railway stations that carries millions of passengers every year over 67,000-plus kilometres in the country.

Imagine also the task of making it happen in an organisation that employs more than 1.3 million people.

 

Amitabh Pandey's book is about how he went about enthusing teams inside the Indian Railways and facilitating online reservations -- with all its complexities of keeping track of seats availability across thousands of trains, to taking the booking, getting payment systems implemented and ensuring that tickets are delivered safely to ticket buyers across the vast expanse of India.

The Indian Railways Web site went live in August 2002 complete with online payments at a time when most Indian corporate bosses viewed the Internet as a plaything where their teenage children went and listened to pirated music and films or viewed pornography.

Yet in those early days, when telephone lines barely worked and most banks did not offer online payment facilities, online ticketing at the Indian Railways leapt from a few hundred tickets a day to several thousand tickets a day in a few months.

The cliché is that real start-ups get started in garages. Mr Pandey and the online Railway Reservations team were given a stretch of corridor in an Indian Railways building where they created a small room barely large enough to house three server racks and his team.

We are a country in which selfless, faceless civil servants undertake some truly heroic acts, but the media glory is focused on 'start-ups' and business tycoons. Enabling the online booking and payment for Indian Railway tickets is one such case.

Having toiled in the Internet industry for two decades, I can venture to say that just about the only worthwhile achievement of India's e-commerce industry is this: Creating the online reservation and payment of the Indian Railways.

The rest of India's e-commerce industry seemed to be devoted to flooding the Indian market with cheap Chinese fake-name consumer electronic goods and running up astronomical losses.

Reading this book, I suddenly recalled how much of the foundation of India's later success in Information Technology services was laid by outsourcing contracts that the India Railways (and later the nationalised banks) handed out in the late 1980s to Indian entrepreneurs.

These projects enabled and nurtured the early IT services companies and helped them prepare to capitalise on the worldwide Y2K boom of the late 1990s.

The author devotes some of his book to an overview of the online travel industry in India, particularly the venture-funded air-travel portion of it.

He analyses the various segments of this industry and concludes that 'the pattern is slightly disturbing'.

He says there is a 'tendency towards hubris when large sums of money are available to burn' and that there is an attitude 'get me the best there is, money is no object!' This leads to unnecessary waste.

He concludes that maybe 'venture capital perhaps needs to introspect' and adds that 'most VCs have their roots in the West'.

He asks, like many others, about the e-commerce industry, 'How long will loss-making operations last?' and follows it up with an interesting discussion on whether the market share they have acquired by discounting prices be lost once the discounting stops.

These questions, plus the ones he raises on 'Dark-Suited Bankers' in India who, in his view, never take risks, and on whether electronic transactions can replace the 'overworked, often rude and ill-informed and unhelpful babu' and thus make the life of ordinary citizens in India a little more bearable, should make this book appealing to all thinking people.

Mr Pandey accomplishes all of this in a mere 156 pages, something you can easily read, let's say, on a Bombay-Delhi flight.

When It Clicks: Field Notes from India's E-Commerce Revolution, by Amitabh Pandey, Pan Macmillan, Rs 299, 156 pages.

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age. You can reach him at ajitb@rediffmail.com

Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com
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