Politics Now

Digital India and Indian Railways

Representative image.

One of the flagship projects of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been a marked shift onto the route of digitalisation. The Indian Railways is the single-largest State-owned commercial entity in the entire world, and adaptability is pivotal to its survival in contemporary times. Over the past couple of years, a number of schemes have been initiated, all of which take a step forward to riding the Digital Wave. It is indeed commendable to witness the progress that the Indian Railways has made over the course of the yesteryears, mutating from issuing manual tickets to being a pioneer in the era of paperless tickets, from having the quintessential pantry cars in the long-haul trains to e-catering services seeing the light of the day, a plethora of such success stories have cropped up. An effective analysis of how Indian Railways has transfigured itself as per the changing demands of the passing years is surprisingly remarkable.

To fully comprehend the present, knowing the past is of vital significance. The stride to the journey towards modernisation of the Railways transpired in the early eighties, when in 1982, the railways set up a central organisation named COFOIS (Central Organisation for Freight Operations Information System), to look after the increasing volume of freight operations. Till 1985, all tickets were issued manually. This led to the process being cumbersome and time-consuming, leaving behind a probable scope for errors to creep in. Stand Alone Computerized Ticketing and Reservation System was then rolled out, albeit phase-wise, starting in 1985 as a pilot project in New Delhi and concluding in 1989 with computerized ticketing system being initiated in Secunderabad. Fast forward to today, and there be no more manual tickets in sight.

The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), a subsidiary arm of the Indian Railways, has under the present government taken on itself the primary responsibility of ensuring the process of digitalisation of the Railways- a far cry ahead from the days of mere computerization of reservation systems. Today, one can sit back in the comfort of his home and yet reserve tickets from the IRCTC portal. While travelling in train and en-route to some destination, a passenger may opt to purchase meals from the next station halt, via the process of e-catering that has been recently facilitated by the IRCTC. From its inception in 2002, the IRCTC has come a long way ahead: from twenty nine tickets booked in a day to thirteen lakh tickets booked in a single day. In 2016, tickets worth rupees 24,022 crores were purchased via the online platform. All these amenities have been made possible due to the untiring efforts of the Railway Board and the Ministry of Railways, which has continually strived to provide the best-in-class service to the passengers that, in all respects, remain unparalleled.
This razzmatazz around the keyword of digitalisation has proven useful on many counts. Industry major Google, in a bid to tap into the millions who commute by the Railways on a daily basis, had partnered with RailTel to provide free Wi-Fi services at a targeted four hundred stations. Such collaborations have given the Digital India campaign a solid momentum and have been a model example to further the Public-Private partnerships that are equitable for both parties involved. At present, this partnership has materialised brilliantly, with over a hundred stations being connected to the network. This joint effort has been christened the title “Project Nilgiri”. As per latest statistics made available by Google, over ten million Indians now have access to high-speed internet, with an average estimate of around fifteen thousand people connecting to the free networks for the first time every day. Internet penetration in India has thus been effectively catalysed by the Indian Railways, providing the platform for private ventures to provide internet access to millions of Indians.
One significant domain where the Railways have latched onto, is harnessing the power of social media. The Railways have developed an in-house analytics tool that processes complaints and suggestions on a real-time basis. The Indian Railways receives seven thousand tweets on a daily basis, out of which around a thousand are actionable. Through Facebook, it is said to receive around two hundred complaints per day. Honourable Railway Minister, Shri Suresh Prabhu, had recently highlighted the fact that the response time to complaints of actionable nature had been reduced to thirty minutes. Such prompt responses to suggestions, and/or feedback by the passengers, have ensured a substantial and appreciable increase in passenger satisfaction. In a recent survey that was launched by the government to let the people rate the services rendered by the government, the results of quick response and follow-up on individual complaints was understandably evident: the Railways had secured the highest possible five-star rating from 74% (seventy-four percent) of the people who participated in the survey.

To build on the noble initiative of Digital India, the Railways have not left any chord untouched. Continuous innovations and development, fuelled by imagination and an acute understanding of the demands of the day, have propelled the Indian Railways into bringing out several applications and services that can be accessed by having a phone. The launch of the UTS App- Unreserved Ticketing System has been a formidable success. On 10th of February, 2016, Shri Suresh Prabhu launched hand-held terminals for Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTEs), which relays information from a running train to the next immediate station. A facility for online booking of disposable linens on trains has also been established.

This expedition towards digitalisation has an inherent positive effect on the finances and economy of the Indian Railways. Digitalisation of essential services would reduce manual operational costs, and thus help to bring down the total expenses. Moreover, facilities such as online booking of tickets and related services have convenience surcharges attached to them that helps bring in additional revenue. Revenue earned through service charges doubled from Rs. 256.34 crore to Rs. 551.49 crore in fiscal 2016. This forms one-third of the entire revenue generated by the IRCTC, as per reports published by the Economic Times. Another matchless example of the unending benefits of digitalisation for the Railways was made clear during the e-auction of scrap materials. More than fifteen thousand wagons, twelve hundred coaches, and around a hundred locomotives are auctioned by the Railway every year. The mandatory e-auction helped to generate around Rs. 3000 crores in 2014-2015. In more ways than one, liberalisation of the Railway finances to accommodate online services will eventually help the Railway resuscitate from its financial woes at present.

This paradigm shift in adopting the digital and cashless as the preferred mode of transactions and services has improved transparency and accountability on the part of the Railways. This has, in turn, has had a chain effect on the common man’s image of the Railways. If passenger satisfaction is ensured, it would immediately convert into rising revenues and better service reviews, with fewer complaints and Grievance Redressal Workload.
As the largest commercial organisation in India, the Railways shoulder colossal social responsibilities. It is indeed heartening to learn that under the able guidance of the Minister of Railways, Shri Suresh Prabhu and the Railway Board, the gargantuan organisation is striving to its last breath to ensure the common man takes the jump towards digitalisation. The Railways is one of the pioneers of change; it wonderfully metamorphoses itself to acclimatise to the dynamic requirements. In this era of globalisation and technological advancement, the Digital Indian campaign has only reinforced the roots of this sesquicentennial organisation: making it better, secure, and ready for the leap towards greater heights of success in the upcoming years.

Illusory Nationalism and its woes

The year 2016 has almost neared its grave, with just a month left to start afresh another new year, bringing in new hopes and possibilities. Politics though would remain as taut as ever: the dynamics of change hardly affect its routine rhetoric. If there is anything that defined the sphere of Indian politics this year, it would undeniably and unquestionably be the contentious issue of patriotism and nationalism.

When ministers from India’s saffron brigade extort money from producers for casting Pakistani actors, it can be branded an act of pretentious nationalism. When innocent Muslims and people from oppressed classes become victims of merciless torture in the name of religion and Bharat Mata, that is deceptive nationalism. When politicians hail the Security Forces on the border for doing a commendable job but engage in nefarious activities behind the public eye, that is pseudo-nationalism. The question is, why should I (and the common man) spare a second for terms that sound intellectual from the very start? The answer is unambiguous and straightforward: the menace of playing with jingoistic sentiments have started producing evident cracks in the societal fabric, and this is serious enough a matter that we need to take up on an individual level.

When Modi was elected in the 2014 General Elections, a ripple of patriotic fervour ran across the length and breadth of the nation. Popularly termed the “Modi wave”, it had its own charisma. Modi was the perfect ambassador of nationalism, blending it with the diktats of the Rashtriya Syamsevak Sangh: strong, firm, intimidating and unrelenting. Right in the first year of his office, the PMO was challenged with the task of responding to inter-religion conflicts that spiralled exponentially everywhere in India. There even were incidents of violence against the Christians, when the holy altars were vandalised in churches, and the PM had to explicitly voice his cajoling message to the community to reassure them. In the wake of the Dadri lynching, Manohar Lal Khattar, a senior BJP member and the Haryana CM, remarked that Muslims would have to give up beef if they were to remain in India. Despite promises, not much has been achieved, and such happenings are becoming even more common by the day.

The government has found an effective weapon in the form of the archaic and demonic sedition law that still finds a mention in the Constitution of the world’s largest democracy. During the Raj, the sedition law was used to bring to book any person suspected of having links with revolutionary movements. Under Modi, section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code breathes its life once again. It bluntly states:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government estab­lished by law in 103 [India], shall be punished with 104 [im­prisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with impris­onment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Sedition charges are now being slapped at will without due consideration of the serious nature it beholds. People get labelled with a sedition charge for supporting a rival cricket team, inadvertently liking Facebook posts, and sketching cartoons. The very malice that our founding fathers tried to do away with has struck chords with the government. This provision has now metamorphosed into a tool of vendetta politics more than anything else. Sedition law is one such draconian law from the past that needs to be crushed into the garbage bin of legal archives.

The Supreme Court is considered the apex judicial body for more reasons than one. Over the course of years, it has earned the trust and acclaim of the general populace: some of its judgements have drastically changed India. From granting a clean chit to Narendra Modi over the 2002 Gujarat communal riots to formalising the entry of NOTA (None of the Above) in electoral machines, decisions made by the Supreme Court have mostly been revered. With all due respect to the Supreme Court, I express my sincerest concerns over an order passed by the SC bench yesterday that is outright unjustifiable and appears irrational: a mandatory fifty-two seconds worth of national anthem needs to be played before a movie starts in the theatres. I wonder why all of the “anti-nationals” and alleged traitors from the JNU campus were not subject to such devices of instilling patriotism before? Although I have my highest admiration reserved for the Supreme Court, this is something I cannot comprehend, or rather believe, to be coming from the highest Court of the land. How much of chauvinistic passions can we embed in a person by making him mandatorily sing the National Anthem? Pardon me for this sardonic contrast, but I cannot resist myself from asking how odd it would be to sing the National Anthem moments before a film like Mastizaade or Grand Masti, cheap as they are, starts playing.

Why is Bharat Mata Ki Jai such an important catchphrase for all right-wing elements in the nation? It can be easily deduced that this phrase gives the fustian, pompous ‘nationalistic’ people yet another excuse to justify their otherwise illogical arguments and actions. People who believe themselves as crusaders of “Indian-ness” need to re-evaluate their beliefs. India is an independent entity of 1.2 billion people, diversified by languages, culture, and practices, but united by a common identity of citizenship. The success recipe to great democracies lies in participatory politics and not repressive ones, engaging the masses and walking towards a common goal. There will always be disagreements, but that is a part and parcel of administration work.

To all those people who believe themselves to be agents of propagation of Indian culture and traditionalism, I play your card on your face: We have our security forces manning the borders, defending India with their zeal and vigour. We do not need you to define nationalism for us.