Anyone who has access to a computer and an Internet connection can buy a railway ticket online in India.
That wasn’t always the case: in the past, travellers would stand in serpentine queues and tolerate booking clerks who were impatient at best, and rude otherwise.
The man responsible for the change, now a senior executive at travel firm Thomas Cook India’s Mumbai office, is a bordering-on-the-portly, middle-aged bespectacled practitioner of tai chi, Amitabh Pandey.
The one-time economics teacher isn’t the kind of man anybody would associate with the creation of India’s biggest e-commerce site—with tickets worth Rs350 crore being booked on it in 2006-07, irctc.com, the Indian Railways’ online booking site is a shoo-in for that distinction—but it was Pandey who initiated the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corp.’s foray into online ticketing five years ago. That ‘start-up’ has now grown into an organization selling four million tickets a year on average. That’s still a fraction of the six billion people who travel by train in Indian every year, but with the country having a mere 21.1 million Internet users, it is easy to see where the problem lies.
Encouraged by the success of its online sales efforts, last year IRCTC started allowing users to print out their e-tickets. The ease of booking and printing tickets online will encourage more people to do so and “make e-commerce more popular”, says Rohit Verma, the head of the Internet division of Aptech Computer Education. He adds that this is similar to what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Indian Railways moved to computerized reservations: “Railways helped popularize computers in India... as the public saw that the new machine could be trusted.”
The man who played a role in changing how millions of Indians travel was once a lecturer of economics at New Delhi’s Venkateshwara College. In 1983, he gave up teaching and joined the Indian Railways Traffic Service—jobs in the railways were much sought after in those days; they were secure and came with plentiful perks. He served in most divisions in North and East India. And in 2001, he was named group general manager (IT services), IRCTC.
Pandey, who opted out of the railways last year to join Thomas Cook as head of e-business, recalls that around that time Indian Railways had offered its newly created subsidiary IRCTC the catering and ticketing businesses. Pandey says M.N. Chopra, managing director, IRCTC, asked him what he wanted to do.
“Catering was just not my cup of tea and so I said I wanted to focus on ticketing instead. And the Internet boom was visible everywhere and it was obvious that this was a service that had to be offered,” says Pandey. “It was an idea whose time had come.”
IRCTC pitched the online ticketing idea to the Railway Board, and Pandey says some of the members of the board, the top decision-making body in the railways, including R.K. Thoopal, then member, traffic, were enthused by it.
“They were excited with the project and the only thing that they were worried about was bearing liability of any losses in the eventuality of the software going haywire,” he adds. “But once we assured the board that IRCTC would make advance payments to railways for release of tickets to sell online, they were satisfied.”
Pandey says everyone was convinced that allowing people to buy tickets online “would earn railways tremendous goodwill even if there might be no money to be made immediately.”
The Railway Board cleared IRCTC’s proposal for a pilot project within a week.
In many ways, Pandey is an atypical Internet entrepreneur: he isn’t a techie and admits that he belongs to “that generation of people who had to learn computers quite late in life.”
“Even now I cannot operate the computer with the ease with which my son can,” he says.
Still, it was his fascination for computers that played a role in his opting for the Internet project. He was 38 when he first handled one and has been hooked ever since.
IRCTC floated a global tender to identify a technological partner and finally decided on a US firm, Broadvision Inc. The challenge facing the two companies was integrating the existing public reservation system (PRS) with the new module that could be accessed by customers through the Internet.
The PRS had served the railways for well over 20 years and was considered a secure and reliable system. The system has servers in five big cities across the country which can be accessed from clients (or dumb terminals) at reservation centres across India.
When the reservation clerk enters details from the reservation form on to the system, he or she is actually initiating a dialogue between his terminal and the server to ascertain ticket availability. The challenge in taking this online was to ensure that this system would be able to answer any query posed by the Internet-based system.
“This was fairly tedious work as we had to integrate two systems that were built in different eras,” says Pandey.
Bugs were another major problem that took time to resolve. The system was finally launched on 1 January 2002. “Initially people were scared of making online payments as they were not sure that they would be reimbursed if the transaction was to go wrong,” says Pandey. IRCTC instituted a strict reimbursement policy and customers were promptly repaid. “The word slowly spread and more people began to tell others that this online system worked and that they would get back their money for sure if they did not get their ticket,” adds Pandey.
The courier industry in India had matured by then and Pandey says its reliability (tickets are delivered through private couriers) too played a role in ensuring that the project was a success.
Every year since 2002, IRCTC has seen the number of tickets booked online double. And like the perfect start-up, IRCTC relied only on word-of-mouth publicity. “Our marketing budget was almost zero,” says Pandey. Soon all the major banks in the country offered tie-ups by making available a link to their Internet banking system which would allow purchase of railway tickets from IRCTC. A prepaid cash card started by the Zee group, too, has met with some success. It reduces the risk of making payments through credit cards as these special cards have funds only to a limited amount.
“The online system would have reached a critical mass only when it handles at least around 20% of total number of tickets sold by the railways,” says Pandey.
With the online ticketing efforts of IRCTC succeeding, Pandey decided to move on and joined Thomas Cook because he craves the “adrenalin (charge) of running a new project.” His experience at IRCTC has put him among the few successful e-commerce entrepreneurs in India, and Pandey is a veritable treasure trove of insights on how things work online.
The e-commerce universe in India, he says, is male-dominated. When IRCTC conducted a survey of customers who had used the Internet to book tickets, the results showed that more than 90% of the clients were men.
“It is quite natural,” says Pandey trying to explain why there were more male customers. “More men have picked up computer skills than women in India and further more they are usually the decision makers at home,” he adds. That’s the kind of knowledge that will stand him in good stead in his new assignment.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org