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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Railways discourages online reservation

There has been a flurry of activities ever since Mr. Suresh Prabhu has become the Railway Minister, mostly positive. But there are things being done which are so stupid and idiotic that one wonders what is going on in the Ministry. The latest stupidity is a new rule which says that one can book at most 6 tickets online in a month. (Media reports: The Hindu, Hindustan Times, and Business Standard.)

While Prime Minister Modi keeps talking about Digital India and Ease of doing business, Railways Ministry is living in a time warp, and is coming up with newer schemes to encourage paper tickets at the PRS counters, making it difficult for travelers. Of course, travelers are smart people too. And they try to bypass these difficulties by doing things, which Railways consider illegal (like having multiple IDs on IRCTC portal), and then Railways start claiming that since there is so much of illegal activity happening, they will put even more restrictions and make it even more difficult for genuine passengers.

There was a time when one could book 10 tickets in a month, not counting the tickets that were canceled. This posed a bit of difficulty for people like me. I was, in those days, traveling every weekend to meet the family, and sometimes needed to book alternate reservation, if the preferred train was giving me waitlisted ticket only. Sometimes, the travel would need to be changed from Friday evening to Saturday evening, and I would not have any means of booking it online since I would have exhausted the quota of 10 tickets. For me, the quota of 10 tickets was a serious problem, since one weekend visit required three tickets - Jaipur to New Delhi, New Delhi to Kanpur, and then Kanpur to Jaipur. So at times, I will take the overnight Volvo sleeper bus, and sometimes I will take flights. These were easier options than to go to the station to buy a paper ticket.

They made it much worse about 6 years ago when they started counting canceled tickets also within the limit of 10 tickets. Now, one had to be really careful, particularly for such weekend travelers and particularly in those months where there are 5 weekends. Even otherwise, there have been several months when I have had to undertake more than 10 rail journeys for official purposes and/or family emergencies like death in the family.

The argument of the Railways is that only 10% of the users book more than 6 tickets. But 10% of the users is a LARGE number. Is there any business in the world which will work really hard to find ways to make it inconvenient for its most loyal customers. Indian Railways is doing exactly that. Those who are booking more than 6 tickets a month are the most loyal customers, and only a small fraction of them are touts. And this restriction only means that professional touts need more SIM cards. First they stopped Frequent Railway Travel Card. Then they started restrictions on number of tickets in various time slots, number of Tatkal tickets in a day, number of connections from an IP address, and so on. And now this.

Everything that Railways does these days is keeping in view that touts are a huge problem, and apparently, there are only touts in the system, and all passengers go to touts only. It is like in my sector (higher education), all policies are made with the assumption that only coaching classes exist in the country and there are no genuine students outside those classes. Of course, it is possible that the real issue may not be touts, but the pressure from unions. IRCTC is continuing to increase its market share, and PRS counters are not seeing as many foot falls. I am sure the unions are worried about such a situation and would like to put pressure on the Ministry to do something, anything, to ensure that more people come to PRS counters. Otherwise, their numbers will go down over a period of time. And no union would like reduction in work of its members

Railways is just making a joke out of Digital India and Ease of doing business, and in that sense I see a conflict between PMO and Rail Bhavan. I hope someone in PMO points this out to Rail Bhavan. Ideally, they should put an extra charge for paper ticket instead of an extra charge for online ticket, and over a period of time, keep moving towards more and more e-tickets. Issuing paper tickets cost much more than issuing electronic tickets and therefore, all transporters in the world are moving to e-tickets.

There is another possibility as to why Railways is doing this. The basic problem that Railways has faced for decades is that the demand is more than supply. This has been handled by following the policy of First-come-first-served for all these years, with, of course, VIP quotas for those connected. For the last decade or so, the policy has shifted to having 80% capacity sold on first-come-first-served basis, and 20% capacity sold at a higher price, even dynamic price. The higher price ensures that the demand reduces as many people find it worthwhile to travel by car/buses/airlines. And this generates more revenue for Railways which will be helpful in increasing the supply in the longer term. However, the demand continues to outstrip supplies, and the policy to reduce demand by increasing the price has not been liked by people used to subsidy even in AC1 class. So how do they reduce demand. Well, make traveling in Railways so painful that people will voluntarily move to other modes of transport, and we can match demand and supply.  Everyone can live happily ever after. The airlines are happy. The bus transporters are happy. The taxi drivers are happy. Only the railfans like us are unhappy. But who cares for this breed anyway.

I hope Railways Minister will try to identify officers who are working to derail his initiatives by doing such mischief and transfer them to places where they will be harmless.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Odd is Odd and the Even is Even, the Twain shall never meet

Moving into Delhi a few months ago is definitely making me a political animal. Never bothered about things other than education and railways, but with Delhi High Court declaring that we all live in a gas chamber, it is difficult not to comment on the most pressing problem of the day.

So the government comes out with this plan of Odd numbered vehicles running on some days and Even numbered vehicles running on some other days, claiming that it would reduce the number of vehicles on the road by 50 percent. This really shook me. I have always believed that a ten year old is better at making policies than the activists or bureaucrats. He knows how to count.

The initial media coverage mentioned that this would apply to only personal vehicles and not commercial vehicles. The reason for exempting commercial vehicles was obvious. You can tell a person to walk or take a Metro. But you can't tell a taxi driver to go hungry every alternate day. If half the buses can not run, then there is an obvious problem with the scheme. And if commercial vehicles are reduced by half, would we get all the supplies that we need in the city. Lately the media is silent on this, but is pointing out the resolve to include government vehicles in the odd-even system.

If we assume that commercial vehicles will be allowed every day at all times, then would we really have fifty percent less vehicles on the road. Of course, no one has reasonable quality data, but the perceptions are that commercial vehicles make 10-12 trips per day, while the private vehicles make less than 2 trips per day on an average. By curbing private vehicles on 3 days a week, the reduction in traffic would be substantially less than 50 percent. (A ten year old can figure this out. Our activists can not.)

Some people have more than one vehicles. They will now have to remember to take out the right vehicle in the morning. If they aren't careful about the date, they will make the Government richer. Some other will buy new vehicles. In fact, the primary beneficiary of this odd-even game will be Tata Nano. As a second car, this is a great value for money. We are also hearing about exemptions - single women, for example, may be allowed to use the cars of both numbers at all times. Makes it easier for many couples. The husband take the "right" car for the day, while the wife drives the "wrong" car. We are relaxing it in the early morning and late evening. So I can drop my kids to school in the morning every day, but can only pick them up on alternate days. And I am not even talking about the medical emergencies. Of course, I can see that if such a plan is implemented, then people like us, who do use public transport on a lot of occasions, will certainly not use public transport on the days that our car is allowed. It is already bad and just a few percentage more traffic on public transport will make it too bad for us.

So the following is likely to happen:
1. People with multiple cars just take out the right car for the day.
2. People buy another vehicle.
3. Some trips are replaced by taxi trips.
4. Some trips are advanced to early morning, or late evening.
5. Some work gets pushed to Sundays when all vehicles are allowed.

My guess would be that the reduction in traffic due to people shifting to public transport or due to car pooling would be no more than 10-15%, and some of this traffic would have shifted to low pollution vehicle to high pollution vehicle. So the major pollution control comes not from less miles covered by cars, but because of reduced congestion on the road and smooth traffic. (Again, unfortunately, no quality data exists in public domain. It makes it difficult to evaluate the policy options.)

But, as the supporters are arguing - we are in an emergency situation, and we need quick solutions. Can not wait for studies, data collection, and so on. Of course, we don't even need to know the obvious facts. When this was announced, some elated activists pointed out that this was working well in Beijing, our closest foreign competition. (We have good "Made in India" competition - 13 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world are in India. But the foreign craze means that we look for our foreign competitors only.) And it so happened that as I write this blog article, Beijing indeed has enforced the odd-even rule for THREE days. The activists forgot to tell us that this is only an emergency measure that has been enforced only five times in the last 8 years. They also forget to tell us that when such severe restrictions on commuting are put in place, they also close schools, factories, construction sites, and so on. As a result, people who want to go to offices and open their businesses don't find public transport too crowded. And they also forgot to tell us that the public transport system in Beijing is much better than than what Delhi has to offer. And Beijing has much better medical emergency plan (the ambulance will reach you in much smaller time frame than in Delhi).

So go for odd-even. But if the situation is really an emergency situation, please close schools, colleges, factories and construction sites as well. Give every one an incentive to go out of Delhi, the traffic will come down and the pollution will come down.

The activists also don't tell us that a similar program attempted in Mexico City about 10 years ago resulted in no improvement in pollution levels at times when the restrictions were in place, and a significant increase in pollution during the time when the restrictions were not in place. Emergency situations certainly don't need emergency responses which may make situation worse.

We are so concerned about the taxi drivers and want them to continue their jobs every day. But how about a large number of poor people employed as drivers of personal vehicles. I can see two neighbors coming together and telling a driver that he should work for them on alternate dates, and firing the other driver.

Should nothing be done and let everyone catch pollution related diseases. Of course, not. I too agree that it is an emergency situation and we must act. If we really look at the restrictions being considered, the goal is two-fold: The number of kilometers driver by vehicles in a day is likely to reduce and that should cause reduction in pollution. We don't have data but I suspect that this number will not be significant. The bigger savings will come from the fact that even a 10% reduction in vehicles will cause the traffic to be much more smooth. Cars waiting in the traffic are very big polluters. And essentially we need to find ways that we can reduce car driving and we need to find ways that the traffic can be made smoother.

So here are the suggestions:

1. Can we ensure that DTC buses stop in the left most lane only at the stops. Buses stop in the second and sometimes even third lane and this causes huge traffic jams and thus pollution.
2. Can we ensure that autos park near Metro stations in one single file. Stopping and parking of autos haphazardly near places like Metro Stations is another big cause of traffic jams and pollution.
3. Can we have a system than any vehicle parked wrongly will be towed away, heavily fined. Will make the traffic smooth without having to restrict driving.
4. No marriage processions on busy roads. (Preferably, no religious processions either, at least on the emergency days.)
5. Control encroachments on the roads, including by polluting businesses on main roads.
6. Control the number of hawkers in busy areas.

If we can't enforce these, do I really believe that we can enforce odd-even rule?
This itself would reduce vehicular pollution very significantly, without having to restrict driving. And those of you who are old enough to remember Asian Games, 1982 would know that if Delhi Police wants to do all of the above, they can actually do it.

Any way, we also need to reduce the number of kilometers driven by people. So more suggestions:

1. Can we make it somewhat more expensive to drive to shift more people towards public transport. Increase the road tax, registration, driving license charges, pollution tax on diesel and petrol, increase the parking charges and so on. And the extra resources thus generated can be given to Delhi Metro and DTC to buy more coaches and buses. In particular, in my limited stay in Delhi, I find parking charges to be ridiculously low in most places. I understand that the charges are low, since I have an option to park anywhere without the fear of my car being towed away.

2. Can we declare that vehicles who do not follow even Bharat Stage II norms have to be junked. So don't just make plans for introducing Bharat Stage V, VI, etc., but also plan to ensure that vehicles who do not follow even older norms for pollution control are removed from the roads (instead of the blanket age-wise restrictions that have been talked about in the media - remove all 10-year old diesel vehicles, or 15-year old petrol vehicles).

3. Can we declare a few busy roads out of bound for single occupancy vehicle, not the whole of Delhi. If we insist on a minimum of two occupants in some areas, others who are driving alone too can drive to their destinations, but only will have to avoid some roads. So a small time penalty. Of course, rich may circumvent it by hiring drivers - but then increasing employment is always good.

4. Work with Ola and Uder type of operators and not ban them. They have the potential to make it smooth for the commuters. They can be encouraged to push car sharing and car pooling apps, as well as the bus trips. Make such technology based companies your partners in fighting pollution rather than adversaries. I will be happy to leave my car behind on all days if I can get reasonably priced taxi service within a few minutes of my need. So at least the parking on the roads will reduce and traffic will become smooth.

I am only focusing on traffic related things that can be done, since it is in the context of Odd-Even rule. Surely there are other contributors to pollution, and they need to be handled as well.

Of course, I realize that I too am guilty of making suggestions without seeing any data, the same thing that the activists are doing. To ensure that we don't get into an emergency situation again with very little data, we must invest in more monitoring stations, more data collection, which is available to anyone easily, for research.

And, finally this in the lighter vein. We just had 20,000 weddings on 7th, making sure that there are 50-60 lakh people on the road. Can we encourage electronic weddings. The gifts can be ordered on flipkart and delivered on the day of the wedding. The hosts can order food on foodpanda and get them to deliver the food at every guest's home. The couple on the red chairs can have 30 seconds of togetherness with each guest on skype and a photo can be created using photoshop. Just imagine 50 lakh less people on the road, less pollution.

And a business idea for a start-up. Can we have a marketplace for car sharing. I would be happy to lend my car on two of the 15 days that it is allowed to be on the road, and in exchange I want a car on two of the other 15 days that I am not allowed to drive my own car.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Committee to Examine the JEE System

Yet another committee, and yet another report. However, for a change, here is one report with a difference. The only way to describe this report - it is music to my ears.

First, the background. The committee was set up in October, 2015, after a couple of committees had recommended that the board marks be not used for ranking even for admissions to NITs, IIITs, etc. The normalization was a big problem, and there were far too many administrative challenges in implementing it. Besides, a study by Joint Admissions Board had found that none of the expected benefits - more women in engineering, more rural folks in engineering, less coaching, etc., had been achieved in the three years that the system was in operation. It was decided that instead of just dropping the board marks from ranking, could we take this opportunity to clean things up a bit more, and hence a committee chaired by Prof. Ashok Misra, ex-Director of IIT Bombay, and Chairman of Joint Admissions Board (JAB) was set up.

Let us now look at the major recommendations and opine on them.

1. All Centrally Funded Technical Institutes (CFTIs) to admit students from the same exam, the JEE Advanced. This is very positive. Considering the board marks was a pain for all stake holders, and once that was gone, there was really no reason for some CFTIs to admit through JEE Mains and some through JEE Advanced. Of course, on philosophical grounds, I would prefer a system where each Institute can decide a different way of admitting students, for example, some may decide to admit based on just Physics and Maths marks in JEE. And the common counseling portal developed this year has the capability to allow such variations. But as long as the admission process is going to be dictated from the top, it is better that the top dictates a common exam than two separate exams.

2. The shortlisting for JEE Advanced to be done through an aptitude test. The committee has suggested that we should set up a National Testing Service which should conduct an aptitude test. This may take 1-2 years, and hence in the interim, we can continue with JEE Mains being the filtering test. This too is a very positive suggestion. This is certainly not going to be easy. To design an aptitude test which would be free of any cultural and other sorts of biases is not easy. On top of that, we want to offer that test in multiple languages, and we need to make sure that the test in each language is of similar difficulty level. Further that test will be offered several times in a year and hence we will need to have some normalization across different offerings. This may not be possible to do even by 2017, but a beginning has to be made sometime, and I am glad that this committee has recommended strongly that we don't wait any further to make that beginning. Of course, the committee has shown what a bunch of intelligent people can do - come up with solutions to serious problems. It is proposed that the aptitude test is used to filter 4-5 lakh students for JEE Advanced. This will make sure that those on the borderline or those who don't make it will not feel very disturbed and cheated, since they would most probably not have any hopes of getting into the top 35000 eventually anyway. So even if the normalization is less than perfect and some bias remains in the test, it won't materially impact the admissions at IITs, NITs, etc.

3. A suggestion to the government that the level of NITs and other CFTIs be raised and the gap between them and IITs be reduced. This is really an excellent suggestion, and I do hope MHRD will find ways to strengthen the tier 2. I have been repeatedly saying on this blog and on my facebook that the real reason for stress is that a few marks in JEE can take you from excellent institute to one you don't like as much. And unless this issue is resolved by reducing the gap between successive institutes, there is no hope of reducing stress. Of course, this would invariably mean giving more money (where is the money?) and giving more autonomy (which is very difficult for those who currently hold the levers of power, just compare the new NIT statutes with IIT statutes). But there is always hope.

4. Suggestion that somehow boards should improve. A motherhood statement really, but we must keep making such statements. Even if it encourages a few people somewhere, it can only have positive impact. In particular, they have mentioned the examination system of the boards be looked into. None of the boards in the country has a distribution of marks that you would expect from a large public exam in any other part of the world, and the results are completely inconsistent with the quality that we perceive of the schools around us.

5. IITs should create a large question bank and develop some system for mock JEE examinations. May be there can be lessons through MOOCs. I think IITs can really offer subject training in 12th class science subjects. Already, there are IIT professors like Harish Verma whose school level books are like bibles for 12th class students. We should be able to tap into such resources and come up with online courses in all three subjects which are available to anyone freely. If our school students have access to high quality courses to learn for JEE Advanced, the coaching culture will reduce anyway.

6. In the interim period (while the country plans an aptitude test), the JEE Mains will become a 6-hour exam and 2 lakh students to be filtered instead of 1.5 lakhs for the JEE Advanced. I have no comments on this, as I fail to see the benefits, but there is no harm either.

The only issue I have with the report (and all such discussions at the Ministry level) is that we are focusing too much on coaching. I think that if we ignore coaching and just do the right things - better admission strategies, better schools, better colleges, and so on, the coaching will either go away or will contribute to the educational efforts of the country.