Bookings. Bookies. And Bakwas.

The Indian Railways’ Tatkal Seva was supposed to leapfrog the endless queues for a paltry ticket to ride and get you instant booking nirvana. But as an inane debate on a Hindi TV channel last week showed, the waiting list remains a wailing list, while middle men show us the middle finger.


Ever tried to book a rail ticket, found out there were none to be had and then waited for 48 hours before the journey, expecting to get it on the Tatkal Seva – the premium instant reservation system of the famed Indian railways? And, did you manage to get it? Seems like most people come away empty handed, for that was the basis of this TV debate on Aaj Tak they asked me to come for.

To be honest, I was in two minds. The issue related to governance all-right, but these days most of the time you have to be careful before saying yes to be on TV shows – particularly Hindi channels. But Imran, the guest coordinator for the channel knows me and I thought he would not call if this was not going to be a serious take. It seemed that the programme producers too were keen to have it out on the issue – given that there was nothing but criticism about it whoever you asked.

Besides, Pravin Pandey who works in my office blurted out a tale of woe. He got up at 4 a.m. one day and queued up at the railway station counter after the Tatkal internet site showed availability of tickets. The counter opened at 8 a.m. and by 8.10 a.m. the tickets were gone. Another time, he says, he found the Tatkal site showed a waiting list of 89 but when he went to the private travel operator Make-My-Trip site, it showed him 12 tickets were available. Pravin traveled Tatkal on that occasion. By this time, everyone had come crawling out of the woodwork in the office. Pawan Singh lamented that if you pay for it online and don’t travel or cancel, you would suffer trying to get your money back. Jha joined him in a chorus about the agents who throng the counters and operate literally like bookies. Even Khema Singh, the normally unflappable office peon is on his feet on this one. Soon I am surrounded by anti-Tatkalis [no, that isn’t a religious sect] and I am expected to go.

Now I don’t trust anything that the railways put out except that the carriage runs on tracks of iron, so I did not see the point of protesting – and frankly, where is the scope of debate on such issues; everyone is of the same opinion. But I thought this might be a good opening to argue that the Tatkal scheme was merely a symptom of what the real problem of the railways was, and so I went.

Whenever I go into a studio and I see that you are expected to sit on bar stools I get cold feet – for it seems to me like this programme was put together just minutes before telecast and they did not even have furniture to offer the debate some sincerity. Besides you get the distinct feeling that everyone on the show is in transit. So here I was, propped along a wall of guest speakers none of who seemed familiar, but all bobbing on the hydraulic stools they had given us, so there was something common between us, after all. Not a great start exactly, but what to do.

The anchor, Ritul Joshi, [who I later learnt came from Bhimtal, in my home state of Uttarakhand] started flamboyantly with traditional Hindi TV channel élan and succeeded in making it like a great secret had been de-coded, or a bomb defused, whichever is bigger. A package of interviews with travelers took so much time, I didn’t even figure the programme had started. We had been on air for some time and within breaks the anchor would ask us to ask questions of the person from the IRCTC – the internet service providers to the railway for reservations and who the channel was targeting big time. I had to remind the anchor that we had not come to interview the guest.

So I stayed out of the banality for the first twenty odd minutes of the show until I got a chance and started elbowing my way into the argument with my argument – that the problem had nothing to do with the internet or the concessionaire or even the number of touts who corner these tickets in connivance with railway clerks or even the fact that sites of private agents like Make My Trip often show tickets available while the IRCTC site shows a waiting list. That is par for the course because as long as we have the massive imbalance between supply and demand, these manifestations, or symptoms would remain.

And if the real problem was supply, which in effect means shortage of seats and trains and network and frequency, the only person responsible for the mess was really the railway minister and the establishment. For good measure I added that we had not had an Indian Railway Minister for a long time – all we have seen in the recent past were provincial railway ministers of Bihar and Bengal.

Honestly, we – as a people – have become so flaky that we can be distracted from the real issue like a kid with candy floss. The reams that were written about an ex-railway minister merely because the railways made a tidy profit during his tenure is a case in point. Hell, the railways can make a profit with one arm tied – it’s a bloody monopoly. [Quite like your power distribution companies in Delhi.] You don’t need to fete a railway Minister for that! Besides, it is because of the consistently poor performance of Ministers that we are having to deal with issues like a failed Tatkal Seva in the first place, right? And to think that this particular ex-Minister was lecturing MBA students and the world for this feat! Anyway, my final proposition was that the Tatkal was only a mechanism of advancing corruption to a higher level and that it served no purpose conceptually.

My neighbour [neigh-bore!] on the show, who was representing the railways murmured in my ear that is spite of what I said, nobody would agree to the abandonment of the Tatkal Seva. Before I could respond, a caller did my work for me and asked out aloud what the purpose of the Tatkal Seva was when everyone and his uncle were on a wait list – just like the general category seats. Neighbour had to concede to the anchor that he agreed with the caller.

But really, think about it. Isn’t it a strange way to operate –  that you first block a certain number of seats from the full quota, then release them just a day or two before departure under full pressure of demand at a premium and call it instant reservation. What a joke on the people. Actually, if you really think about it, it is only a mechanism to shove the poor man off the footboard: what else are you doing when you charge a premium which can go up to 50% of the original fare to get a Tatkal reservation. Effectively it is a means of generating higher revenue by creating artificial demand that is only for richer customers. And this is the grand socialist dream run of the railways! Mamta Di whose heart beats for Ma, Mati and Manush [ Malda, Murshidabad, Midnapore, eh? ] should be taking note of this!

By the way, the guy on the show who contradicted me that the Tatkal fare was not 50% higher but only 30% higher was wrong. Since the Tatkal fare is fixed, it depends on the original fare to decide if it is 50% premium over the price or 30% or less or more. For example: the Tatkal surcharge for a 2nd class AC ticket in peak time is Rs. 300, so if the original fare for the trip you are taking is Rs. 600, then that is a 50% premium. If the original fare were Rs. 900, that would be approximately 30% and so on and so forth. [There is also an off-peak Tatkal surcharge. Bad news: off peak is only from July to September. Welcome to crowded India]

So, while that was the gist of the TV show, we did not come to that consensus before going the full Hindi hyperbole route. So there was more of ‘kya kar rahi hai railways ki internet seva, kyoun hoti hai unki site crash’ etc. etc. The anchor had to be told in between breaks to give the IRCTC guy a break – he was only selling seats he had and they were far short than what people needed. By the time she figured it out, we were more or less done and the only good part was that finally everyone agreed that the Tatkal was a fraud on the people, that it was pro-rich, that it enabled corruption, and that it was inefficient and useless and should be withdrawn.

My only satisfaction was that I maneuvered the debate to my point of view and was hoping the tenor of their TV campaign henceforth would be that essential issue of poor planning and leadership at Railway Bhawan rather than the banal typicality like ‘bhanda phod’ and ‘kaise loot rahe hain dalal aapka haq’ or whatever.

I should not have been too hopeful. It’s been a few days since and I believe the ticker on their channel now claims something to this effect: “Server down kar banate the Tatkal ticket. 2 Booking clerk, 12 log giraftar. Adalat pahuncha Aaj Tak ka asar.”

India’s No. 1 TV channel settles for a clerk’s head, while Mamta Di sweeps Kolkata civic polls. Guess why nothing changes.


Excerpts of my parts of the show are on the vodpod section on this home page.

One Response to “Bookings. Bookies. And Bakwas.”
  1. Manish Sarraf says:

    Ultimately the Aam-Aadami has to suffer.

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