Saturday, 2 July, 2022
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India wants innovation, but arrests IIT grad who develops faster Tatkal ticket-booking app

India’s policy-shapers love to talk big on innovation and frequently use words like AI, machine-learning and blockchain. But the lived realities of innovators are very different.

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India’s policy-shapers love to talk big on innovation. From constitutional office-bearers and bureaucrats to think-tankers of assorted political orientation, everyone has a bullish view. Conference keynotes bring up buzzwords like ‘AI’, ‘ML’, ‘blockchain’ with predictable, almost banal, regularity to reinforce the view that India is open to innovation and in lockstep with the bleeding edge of technology.

Yet, the reality from the entrepreneurial trenches does not square against the rhetoric. Innovators regularly face bureaucratic headwinds ranging from procedural hoops and paperwork (for garden variety tasks like raising capital) to flat out industry-wide shadow bans (note the now-estopped notification of the RBI foreclosing banking access to digital asset intermediaries). This is, of course, a familiar situation in the financial sector, where our regulators have always “crossed the river by feeling the stones”, as the Chinese idiom goes. Now, you might argue that given how innovation in that context intersects with financial stability, consumer savings and fiduciary risks, it’s better to be safe than sorry. And while that argument is hardly a winner, it does have plausibility.

It should dismay us, however, that the same heavy-handed attitude prevails in other industries with far lesser regulatory sensitivities than finance. Consider the case of young IIT-Kharagpur alumnus S. Yuvarajaa, a resident of Tamil Nadu, who designed an auto-filling mobile application to make the user experience of booking tickets on Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC)’s website smoother. One might think Indian Railways would be on board with this innovation, especially since the enhanced user experience on the margin likely contributes to greater ticket throughput (and hence greater revenue). Nope, no such luck.


Also read: India’s local economies lie outside innovation zone. Can’t chase Modi’s Atmanirbhar dream


Arresting innovation

The Railway Protection Force of the Southern Railway tracked down Yuvarajaa and arrested him. Yuvarajaa must have been onto something because his app garnered 100,000 users in a short time. Ironically, a bare perusal of Section 143 of the Railways Act, under which Yuvarajaa has been charged, shows that it has no applicability either to the end-use that his two Android apps — ‘SuperTatkal’ and ‘SuperTatkal Pro’ — facilitated, or to the developer, or the consumers using it to make their life easier while booking tickets.

Section 143 lays down the penalty for “unauthorised carrying on of the business of procuring and supplying railway tickets”.

Now, interpreted in its plain literal sense, as statutes are interpreted, the app-developer was not in the business of procuring and supplying railway tickets. The users downloaded the application from Google Play Store against in-app payment and used the software to process their tatkal-related formalities faster. Yuvarajaa was, therefore, simply selling software that made the user journey smoother.

The words, “unauthorised carrying on the business of procuring and supplying tickets for travel”, on the other hand, suggests that it is directed at a person in the business of unauthorised dealing in railway tickets, that is, obtaining them (in bulk, practically speaking) and supplying them further downstream. The section is directed at deterring louts engaged in unauthorised dealing of railway tickets. An app-developer engaged in the business of selling B2C (business-to-consumer) software that auto-fills forms is not the object of the statute.

The railway officials also appeared to rely on a claim that the application enabled the users to ‘front-run’ other travellers that sought to book tickets through the normal IRCTC website, thus denying the latter the chance to buy the ticket. That again seems a spurious suggestion. ‘Front-running’ is only an issue if there is a fiduciary connection between the party front-running and the party who is hurt owing to the front-running. But the necessary condition of trust-based nexus is missing in passengers trying to book at the same time from several different locations. Indeed, they don’t even know of each others’ existence, to say nothing of a trust-based connection between them. Furthermore, the application is available freely for everyone to download from Google Play Store. So, this isn’t the case of selective access either.


Also read: India & China are transforming the global geography of innovation


Innovation rhetoric and lived realities

The unfortunate situation with the developer here brings into sharp relief the gaping divide between the rhetoric driving innovation in India and the lived realities thereof. It would be remiss if I ended this article on a pessimistic note. So, here’s a proposal to mitigate the risks to innovators and developers from bureaucratic heavy-handedness.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY), as the nodal ministry for digital innovation, may create an office of innovation in coordination with other ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Among other things, the Office of Innovation may certify, after due security checks and audits, applications that facilitate consumer interaction with government services including Railways. Borrowing a regulatory innovation from the regulatory sandbox context, the Office of Innovation may also issue “no-action letters” (NALs) that act as immunity shields in favour of these innovators against potential arbitrary actions, of the type we witnessed in Yuvarajaa’s case.

The legal mechanics to install such a general office of innovation and confer upon it the power to issue NALs are not complex; furthermore, the office can draw upon personnel from the MeITY, other relevant ministries and private sector expertise to evaluate applications for NALs. This limited governance innovation would go a long way in bridging the yawning gap between the rhetoric and reality of innovation in India.

Mandar Kagade is an independent financial public policy consultant. Views are personal.

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42 COMMENTS

  1. What kind of journalist is Mandar Kagade? And what kind of editors work for “The Print”, to permit the publication of such articles? This guy was arrested not because of his innovation, but because he pocketed the money generated by his apps – a sum of around Rs. 20 lakhs. In most societies, that would be called theft. But, because he has the benefit of a postgrad. degree from an IIT, he will probably escape being beaten by the police and later with a light prison term. That is because, India worships IIT ians, even if they turn out to be assholes like Arvind Kejriwal and Sameer Gehlaut, thanks to people like Mandar Kagade. If this developer had informed the Railways about his software and managed to sign a contract for their operation, this wouldn’t have happened. And for the record, a much more worse fate befell “innovators” Bernie Madoff, Rajat Gupta, Edward Snowden, Shawn Fanning etc., that too in America, which is known as the land of innovation!

  2. Every time I think of donating to print, they come up with such stupid articles. Looks like other than Mr Singh , Shekar Gupta and Joyti Malhotra there are no sensible correspondent in Print.
    At this rate tommorow if someone is arrested for hacking into a confidential website , these so called journalist will also term such arrests wrong.
    Mr. Gupta needs to do a better job as an editor or such journalist will spoil the good work of the named trio.

  3. .There are reports saying corona virus was spread from a lab. Do u want to appreciate those scientist for their creativity?
    Dude u seem to be out of mind

  4. I think The print’s opinion writers left aside their brains while writing this. What kind of journalism is this. You are justifying illegal not driven Tatkal ticket bookings. Bypassing the rules by using bots for booking tatkal tickets faster is a crime. Please have some sense and intelectual ability to differentiate between crime and innovation.

  5. What kind of journalism is this. You are justifying illegal not driven Tatkal ticket bookings. Bypassing the rules by using bots for booking tatkal tickets faster is a crime. Please have some sense and intelectual ability to differentiate between crime and innovation.

  6. IRCTC has a socialist policy of benefitting Maximum people at Minimum cost. The said software Engineer wanted to make Money in Tatkal Services. This is Not innovation but using IRCTC Services illegally without a Licence and THE PRINT is indulging in Third Rate Vulgar Journalism by twisting & Manipulating Facts.

  7. Hey guys, hold on…

    The author of the article has not given the “whole” news. There is a hole there.

    The innovation is appreciated, but the creator must NOT have bypassed regulations of using an official Government facility which is C O M M E R C I A L !!!
    Please understand that creating an elaborate software such as IRCTC takes years of effort, of which ethics and equality are embedded
    And that is where Yuvarajaa faulted…

  8. If I write an application to crawl and ripoff all your articles and present it in a nicer website, without your permission, will you consider that as innovation or illegal? You don’t have to be a genius to create an application like that. A lot of people don’t do it because it is illegal.

    Just a suggestion, get better people to write articles for you.

  9. I strongly believe that The Print has honest intentions. I am a keen follower of The Print.

    In order to maintain quality of information and reporting, I suggest a bit more caution in choosing Opinion pieces.
    Any and every “opinion” is not opinion!

  10. Mr Ramesh Yadav: Not only do you seem to read the «journalist rag called The Print», you also comment in said « journalist rag called The Print». Hypocrisy ?

  11. What sort of an journalist with peanut sized brain wrote this article?
    Can believe these journalists supporting an illegal and unethical business which is hurting Indian railways….

  12. Irctc site is not working. Last two days I am trying . If you want to book on line ,you have to go through an agent’s site and pay the agent fee

  13. You are trying to brand trickery and thuggery as innovation here. Auto filling forms are not innovation and we have many hackers doing it to book Tatkal tickets in past. If an IIT Grad is doing it it is really a shame. There are many who have done innovation in past like another IIT Grad builiding an algo to predict succesful conversion of a wait list ticket to confirmed ticket based on past data. This is now integrated in the railway booking website as well.

  14. Wow.. You guys are justifying illegal and criminal activities?
    Comeone! The Govt is not as idiot as you think it is.. How so ever brillent the guy doing this may be, a scam, is a scam and will remain scam! Infact the writer of this article shud also be prosecuted for supporting and justfing illegal activities.. We know your publication is anti Modi.. But this is going way too far!

  15. I do concede that the author has the right ethos, which resulted in this articld giving a different perspective. Simultaneously, the article is NOT well researched as it prodoundly lacks the technicalities that need to udnerstaned that matter whetrer the matter is partisian in terms of the author. Cite more evidence and proper descrption of the technalities please,

  16. Terrorist made a grenade better than military and killed more people using a single grenade.

    Military killed the terrorist.

    The Print headline: India wants innovation, but kills an activist who made better bombs.

  17. Tatkal Train booking is already biased in favor of High Internet speed. Those with poor speeds find it very difficult to book tickets. This application could help those on the slower side of the digital divide, specially in Rural areas where connectivity could be lost midway.

  18. I can’t believe people like Prashant Bhusan us using this baseless researchless article to support their theory

  19. Let’s face reality. India is far far behind other countries in terms of technology. India is only ahead in populating the world! Kudos to this guy who showed the way! His only mistake was, he tried to make our lives better without an official certificate!

    • How can you say that . India is going strong in the leadership of Mr.N.D.Modi. Secondly check the population of other countries .People like you can only criticise , nothing else . I hope it helps.

      • Mr Khosla: As a blinkered, blind, Hindutva bigot you bray:

        “.. India is going strong in the leadership of Mr.N.D.Modi ..”

        Well, the fact is that the economy tanked before the COVID virus struck; the informal sector was crippled due to the PM’s foolish demonetisation ideas; GST implementation was botched; NPAs still hang like a Damocles’ sword over banks; Anil Ambani gets lucrative Rafale maintenance contracts despite zero experience in aerospace manufacturing; innocent Muslims get lynched; scarce funds are spent on protecting cows; the Chinese have captured more tha 1000 sq. kilijolsiyar@gmail.com of Indian territory and killed Indian soldiers and brand India continues to suffer under the fascist leadership of a Gujarati with a pogrom under his belt.

        Meanwhile, the M.Khoslas of this world, despite their education, are unable to read the distressing writing on the wall.

        Pathetic Mr Khosla !

  20. Shame on this media. We are not here to listen to your opinion. This guy did something very illegal and that’s the fact. What you’re doing is unethical and a scam

    • Dear Suresh, KINDLY NOTE THAT IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to innovate something which is useful. Now, there could be legalities for anything you do in any country but please keep in mind that again this is government here which is simply not yet equipped with the right kind of mindset.

    • Mr Suresh Murali: And what the hell was illegal in what he did? Made life easier and simpler for thousands of people ? People like you have the DNA of the licence raj and still behave like the brain-dead babus of the Indian bureaucracy. Your pathetic ilk has held the nation back and continues to do so even in 2020.

      Shame on you Mr Suresh Murali !

  21. Thanks for writing about this. I find this ridiculous. These are the very reasons why India will not beat China or prosper as it should. India’s failure to reach its potential are these short sighted uneducated bureaucrats!!! Fire them and send them home all will be good!!!

  22. Don’t know a hack about technology, just start bashing govt everything they do without even knowing the matter completely. Can it be mor biased news site.

  23. The author conveniently left out the fact that the app charged an amount over and above the irctc fare. This was applied for any transaction whatever the outcome confirm waitlisted or rac.
    This extra amount was the creator commission and he is not a licensed agent plus that would not be refunded in case of cancellation as it never went to irctc. This is the true reason for the action, as the app gives undue advantage to certain individuals for a fee. The fact is that the app is good but the intention not so good.

    • So “form filling” cannot be charged for??? So many are deeply hurt because journalist potentially criticized the govt! Fanboism…Some even want to see the code before acknowledging that the app might have some worthwhile value that people were willing to pay for. Some commenting to the tune ” he was charging, so not helping fellow indians”. And the journalist recommends instituting one more cert to be obtained from govt to do business. I thought we are trying to make things simpler and dismantling license raj! With all that coming from the wider society, and the officials coming from same society, it is clear where india is headed in general.

  24. Did this person use the services provided by the Railways legally? Did he for example license the services provided by the Railways to use in his app? If he did, does that licence allow the use in this manner?

    Something being possible does not mean it is legal. Frankly speaking, all the legal ways this can be done legally are not particularly ‘innovative’ as they are everyday matters in the software industry and the really ‘innovative’ ways are most likely illegal.

  25. The Q is whether the App unauthorisedly accessed any data.

    Another Q is whether this was an authorized business.

    More power to real innovators and entrepreneurs .

  26. Don’t fool people railway said that app tried to bypass the security check point.
    which is unfair and should be considered unauthorised access.

  27. As far as I know you user had to recharge the app to get coins for each super fast booking again and again. It’s not like a one time payment for the app.

  28. You are whitewashing a criminal. Irctc servers are to be accessed by registered users or agents (agents are banned during tatkal window I think) using the software provided by I.R/Irctc only. This ensures that everyone has a level playing field. Now this guy creates a software and sells it and only those who bought can book tatkal tickets faster. This will increase the load on irctc servers also. If he had the intentions of benefitting fellow Indians, he should have offered it to Indian railway. Instead, he chose to profit from it.
    And sorry to say this, but I am not going to support such journalism which is whitewashing criminals.

  29. Not surprising at all. It’s a known fact that we as a country, are standing in our own way. It probably comes from the lack of understanding, that rules and regulations are supposed to benefit everyone by making life easy and fair for everyone. I am not saying that beaurocracy is a bad thing. It’s plays an important role in preventing the few with power to misutilize the said power and resources putting the interests of the country first. But when bearucrats themselves are driven by ego and come with an attitude that “I’ll do it because I can”, we have successfully trained the gun at our own feet.

  30. As an Engineer I would like to know how did this person develop a faster app? Was the current app taking too much memory and hence was slow to reacting over the time or did this guy actually made server calls response faster? We are talking engineering here not some socialist idea which can only be sold as a dream. Without technical info. this article seems more prejudiced then well researched.

    • I am an engineer and I also feel same they don’t even researched properly just saw the IITian tag and just started bashing govt

    • Some very valid comments here. I also like to know what APIs he used and how did he get access to those APIs. If he used valid APIs and provided value added services and got paid for it , then its a positive. So Govt. has received money for each ticket purchased.

      However, if he hacked into the system – there are multiple things – 1. System itself is not secure in which case you may want to hire him to fix security issues and reward him! 2. Reprimand him for this behavior but don’t jail him.

      Extent of the actual app behavior is not clear in the article.

  31. The usual India-bashing continues at this third rate apology of a journalistic rag called The Print.

    The moot point is, has this gentleman committed a crime? It has nothing to do how innovative he is or if he is an IIT graduate.

    • From some of the other comments, I got to know that the article omitted parts of the story which make the arrest justified. I didn’t expect any less from this author anyway. I also searched to see those omitted parts and yes he did violate the law by charging money without being a registered agent and bypassing IRCTC system. I am sure we have a lot to improve in terms of creating a conducive environment for innovation and promote innovation by modifying some regulations that can act as hindrance, but this guy suggests having a lawless society. I am sure these same people would praise US law enforcement agencies when they perform similar arrests. These kinds of arrests happen in western countries regularly and they are still great innovators. Also, there are dumb idiots here talking about China as an example, these people won’t have anything to show for if you ask about how much did China actually innovate that’s commendable, other than relying on western innovations or stealing. I hope we go beyond this shit and start being constructive.

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