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Ticket to book

In a Railways ‘reform’,touts have won the battle over agents...

Written by Bibek Debroy |
August 10, 2010 4:21:36 am

Who is an agent?

Someone who acts on behalf of another. And who is a tout? Someone who solicits and that sounds less respectable. Hindi for the former will be “pratinidhi”,but who on earth is going to use that? Hindi for the latter is “dalal”,and everyone will use that,whether for agent or tout. Despite the adverse normative nuance,agents or dalals perform an useful intermediary function. Indian Railways carry 20 million passengers every day. Not all travel long distance,or use reservations. About 1.2 million do (with an estimated peak season figure of 1.4 million) and they often use an electronic passenger reservation system (PRS),first introduced on a pilot basis in 1985 and administered by the Central Railway Information System. Tatkal was introduced in 2000. (This is two days in advance,unlike 60/90 days for general quotas.) Internet booking arrived in 2003 and e-ticketing in 2005.

We rarely travel by rail now. The last time we did,we used the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (IRCTC) website,where there is a web-booking portal and an e-payment gateway. Before that,we used to go to a railway station.

Metro residents are pampered and privileged. There are 3,467 railway stations. Of these,only 1,500 (all metro ones) are connected to the PRS. We tend to forget. But before the PRS,obtaining a railway ticket was a travail. You could only book at the originating station. To obtain a return reservation,a telegram would be sent. With manual reservations,you never knew about availability. There were queues and you had to wait. So you resorted to touts. Touts always got you a ticket. They colluded with booking clerks. You did not mind travelling by a different name,as long as age and gender seemed roughly right. After all,once reservation forms had been filled up,there was no further check for identity. You paid the tout whatever the market demanded,a bit like the black-marketing of cinema tickets. Alternatively,you got in touch with someone who had clout,so that you could get a ticket issued under one of the assorted quotas. The system has changed for some people,but not for everyone. Not everyone has access to the PRS. Not everyone has access to VIPs. Not everyone has access to the Internet. Not everyone has the choice of air travel. For rail travel,we need to think of the poor and uneducated,senior citizens and women. And not everyone can afford the time to spend at booking counters.

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India is still a shortage economy in several sectors,the Railways being one. Especially in peak seasons and on select trains. Recently,one of our servants needed to go to Patna and spent four hours at a railway booking counter. It was peak season and he returned at the end of the day,victory accomplished.

Except that he had paid twice the regular fare,and was travelling under a different name. Shortages have classic characteristics. Prices increase,formally through tatkal,and informally through rents paid to touts and booking clerks. Additionally,there is rationing through quotas — formally through VIP and other quotas (there are 60 different types of quotas),informally through allocation by touts/ booking clerks. We asked,why did you do this? You should have told us. We switched on the computer and showed him the IRCTC website. You don’t necessarily need a credit card to pay,there are other means. Wonder of wonders,the website has a list of recognised agents.

Unlike unregistered and unrecognised touts,agents have prescribed service fees. We plugged in our location in Delhi and the website threw up a list of 23 agents. PRS technology is old. While that may be revamped and also become broad-based,the use of technology to increase choice is desirable. It imparts transparency and makes intermediation by agents efficient. And because these are recognised agents,regulation is more effective,such as on stipulation of service charges. Or on preventing fraudulent travel,since these IRCTC agents use e-ticketing and production of photo IDs is mandatory for e-tickets,unlike tickets bought at counters.

The way the system works is the following. Through PPPs,the IRCTC has around 500 Master Service Providers and they work through 120,000 sub-agents in 5,000 cities and towns. The system must be popular. Why else would one-third of reserved ticketing now be done through the IRCTC network? But who said reforms are good for everyone? Contrary to the cliché,there are no win-win reforms. Vast segments may gain from reforms and choice,but there are vested interests that gain from the status quo. The Railways are generally anti-reform. That’s presumably the reason vested interests have been more successful in rolling back reforms in the Railways.

Thus,we have some recent decisions. First,IRCTC agents (and sub-agents) cannot use tatkal between 8 and 9 am. That slot is critical,because booking counters open at 8 am and most tickets are “sold” within the first 10 minutes. Second,for designated trains (yet to be specified),agents cannot use e-ticketing during that slot.

Third,no new sub-agents can be appointed. Consequently,we retreat from agents to touts.

Inevitably,every such decision cloaks itself under the garb of some rationale,real or imagined. Here are the Railways’ supposed reasons for this retrograde step. First,ordinary passengers cannot get tatkal tickets,with or without IRCTC’s website. True,but that has nothing to do with IRCTC agents. This is symptomatic of a general shortage. Data show IRCTC agents are also able to obtain tatkal tickets only 80 per cent of the time. Second,agents over-charge,beyond the prescribed service fees. Perhaps,but so do touts. At least for agents,there is a regulatory system in place,and prescribed fees. For touts,neither exists. Third,agents book tickets in fictitious names. Unlikely,since photo IDs are required for e-tickets. In any event,so do touts — and IDs are not mandatory there. Fourth,agents don’t refund money for cancellations on time. That’s hypothetically possible. But again,regulation and governance is better for agents than touts. Ditto for issues connected with Ticket Deposit Receipts (TDRs). For both TDRs and cancellations,there are systemic issues that cut across agents and touts.

Stated simply,touts have won the battle over agents. More accurately,there are two types of touts: informal and unrecognised ones and Rail Travel Service Agents (RTSAs) authorised by Indian Railways. Touts and RTSAs,respectively informally and formally recognised by the Railways,have won the battle over agents recognised by IRCTC. Perhaps no more than a turf war is involved. This is the way in which weighty decisions are taken and choice curtailed.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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