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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Premium Tatkal: Another wonderful step by Railways

I have been through this blog writing about dynamic pricing in Indian Railways. My logic is simple. Someone who can plan a journey 60 days in advance and someone who needs to travel on an urgent basis - both have a right to travel on Indian Railways. To have a transportation system in the country which says that you can use it only if you can plan 60 days in advance is downright rotten. Further, that those who can plan 60 days in advance should be given so much subsidy to thank them for their ability to plan that there is no money left to expand the transportation system is absolutely regressive. We then build a system wherein the benefit of this subsidy often goes to touts and other middlemen, and not to the traveling public.

Furthermore, while one can perhaps argue in favor of subsidy in non-AC classes of travel on the basis that they are used a lot by the poor (though this can be argued only if you define 98% of Indians as poor), no such argument is possible for AC classes. (We still argue any way claiming that 99.9% of Indians are poor and we must not discriminate against the poor's desire to travel in AC first class. Notwithstanding that cross subsidy through freight hurts all poor significantly, even those who did not travel and did not enjoy that cross-subsidy.)

So I was very happy when Railways finally introduced dynamic pricing last December and I wrote a blog about it. The budget brought many more special trains with dynamic pricing. However, most trains ran only on specific days, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute. Sometimes their timing would not be comfortable and so on. We needed dynamic pricing on our favorite trains, and the recent decision of splitting the tatkal quota into two and making available half of tatkal under dynamic pricing is a great step.

Of course, this is available only on a few trains, but I am hoping that at least on those trains I will be able to book a ticket after the mad rush of Tatkal is over and the IRCTC site start responding to your clicks. Yesterday morning, I checked for AC-2T berths on Shramshakti for the same evening, and I was pleased to see that 3 of them were still available. I suspect that it was because not many people are aware of this new scheme, since at 1850 Rupees, they were still a steal compared to the alternative of taking a taxi to Lucknow airport and buying an air ticket.

So my reaction to this is, a very positive step forward, but a very small step. We must do more. To have about 5% of all seats on Indian Railways on dynamic pricing is too little. I can see that within a few weeks, the scheme will be known to all, and then this quota will also last for a small time, and my desire that a last day ticket be available with high probability will not be met by this step.

As I have argued multiple times, there is really no need for subsidy in AC classes. And hence not just 5% of AC seats but at least 50% (if not 100%) of AC seats should be under dynamic fares. If the political class wants to continue heavy subsidies in non-AC class and have only 5% of seats under dynamic fares, it is ok with me. We need politicians to sell the scheme to masses.

By having 50% or more seats under dynamic fares would mean that it is not just Tatkal seats which are under dynamic fares but all seats. So I can buy a ticket any time. The current system forces me to buy the ticket either 60 days in advance or one day in advance. The new scheme has improved my chances of getting the ticket one day in advance. But I would want a system where I can buy a ticket 7 days in advance as well. So give some AC seats at subsidized prices to those who can plan well, but other AC seats should be given to those who are willing to pay the real cost and some profit to Indian Railways.

In fact, if we implement dynamic fares for a large number of seats, there will be no need for Tatkal at all. Seats will be available at a price even at short notice. But if Government wants to give away 5% of seats at lower price one day before the train journey, that is irrelevant to the whole transportation issue. (But a better system would be a lottery where everyone can participate equally, for example, register your demand the day before, rather than a lottery based on who gets through the IRCTC.)

Indeed, if we have dynamic fares for a large number of seats, it would be possible to get rid of most quotas as well. Most passengers, including the influential persons like MPs, would prefer a guaranteed seat at the time of their choice than face the possibility of not getting any seat through the Emergency or VIP quota and coming to know of it only at the last minute. (Have you heard of quotas at the airlines?)

Further, even AC 1st should be brought under dynamic fares. It is very strange to see AC-1st fare to be lower than dynamic fare of AC-2nd in the same train on the same day. (Or at least ensure that the IRCTC site offers a higher class with lower fare when one asks for premium tatkal ticket.)

So a great step forward, but many more steps needed in this direction.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Affiliation on a publication

Here is an interesting question. If an employee of an organization (OrgA) is on a long-term (several years) leave without any pay and benefits and working for another organization (OrgB), and publishes a paper, what affiliation should be mentioned on that paper.

I tried searching on the net and found a whole lot of opinions, but there does not seem to be a consensus on the issue. From reading those views, it seemed to me that the following would be a reasonable algorithm:

1. If either of the two employers have a specific policy on it, follow that. If the policy of the two employers are in conflict, and can not be accommodated simultaneously, ask the legal cell of the two employers to work something out.

2. If the organizations have no official policies on this, then ask the publisher if they have a default policy. If yes, follow that.

3. If publisher too does not have a policy, then what is the convention in your discipline.

4. If there is no strong convention of the discipline, then of course, it is up to the authors.

So how should an author decide.

Some argue that affiliation is primarily to get in touch with the author, and hence the current affiliation should be used. Some argue the same point (about affiliation being primarily a way to get in touch) but they lead to the conclusion the "permanent" affiliation should be used since the contact may happen much later than the time of submitting the article. Of course, in the age of Google Search, it does not seem convincing that affiliation should primarily be a way to get in touch with the authors. Who writes letters these days?

The other set of arguments are based on the credit to the organization for supporting research. So if the work was completely or mostly done when the researcher was at OrgB, then only OrgB affiliation should be used. On the other hand, if the work was mostly done when the researcher was still at OrgA, then OrgA affiliation should be used. And if the two institutions contributed significantly to the research, then show both affiliations. Seems simple, but if support is the primary parameter, then what about the funding agency. It seems to me that Department of Science and Technology should make all it grantees adjunct scientists in DST, and then insist that they write the affiliation of DST in all the papers where DST grant was a significant component of the research support.

I don't have an answer, but I want to raise an issue here. Many universities have started to have a policy that insists that anyone who maintains a lien with them must use their affiliation in all scientific publications. Does it make sense. If someone is on long leave, and the other place is not just providing the salary/benefits, but also the entire research support, why should the previous organization name be listed in affiliation. At best, there can be acknowledgement somewhere that the person continues to maintain its lien with the previous university. (And this is how it used to be.)

What has changed are the rankings of the universities and how rankings are decided. Most rankings would check the number of papers published by the researchers of a university and they of course, check only the formal affiliation and not what is written on a footnote or an acknowledgement. So a university wants to get credit for a paper for which it has made not an iota of contribution. Just because they promise to hire you back when you come back.

To me, it seems very similar to "if you use any facility in my lab, you must put my name as a co-author in any publication, it does not matter if I have made any intellectual contribution to the paper or not." So for a large lab, the lab director may have even one paper per week. This is quite rampant in academia, but the good thing is that most people who are not lab directors dislike the system. And I am hoping that most faculty members would find out their university policy and if indeed it is trying to garner credit for research done elsewhere, they will actively oppose such policies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

IIT Admissions: 80 percentile diluted

If newspaper reports (one here) are to be believed, the IIT Council has decided to dilute the requirement of 12th class performance to get admission in IITs. Instead of 80 percentile as of now, it will be lower of 80 percentile and 75 percentage from the next year.

Apparently, the Directors and Ministry are very concerned that about 2 percent students are denied admission to IITs even after passing the JEE Advanced.

This is very interesting, to say the least. When this system of 80 percentile was introduced in 2012 (from JEE 2013 onwards), it was stated that the criteria for school marks should be such that a couple of percent of students are denied admission to IITs. This was supposed to put pressure on all JEE candidates to take 12th class seriously. And the policy achieved exactly what was predicted - about 2 percent of students were denied admission to IITs. So when the policy achieves what was predicted to be achieved, shouldn't we call this a successful policy and the Directors and MHRD should pat themselves on their respective backs. So what went wrong?

There was another problem that people like me had pointed out. It was pointed out that in many boards, the grading is totally arbitrary, and there can be wide variation in marks depending on who grades the paper, and this wide variation in marks can result in significant variation in percentiles, and hence a high percentile in boards can be a matter of lottery and not a matter of academic performance. This was particularly true of boards which have extremely liberal marking.

If the marking is consistent, and the luck can only cause a difference of couple of percentiles, then a steep cutoff to encourage focus on school education can be justified. Someone with 79 percentile cannot claim that in a fairer grading s/he could have got 80 percentile. Well, you should have focused more on 12th class exams and tried for 85 percentile. But if someone with 79 percentile can claim that in a fairer grading system, s/he could have got 90 percentile, then the argument is that much stronger for not having the 80 percentile cutoff. Unfortunately, some students could actually point to such arbitrary grading in some of the boards.

Just two years ago, MHRD and Directors had argued that once we start focusing on the 12th class performance, the boards will be under pressure to reform. They will start having better question papers, more consistent grading, and so on. So it was just a matter of time, when everything in this country will improve and we can all live happily ever after.

Yesterday's decision of the Council is essentially admitting defeat. It is an acceptance of reality that MHRD and Directors have no control over the boards. That the boards in the last two years, instead of improving the exams and grading, have actually made it more random, more liberal. The 80 percentile cutoff in 2014 was higher than 80 percentile cutoff in 2013 in many large boards. And hence there is no evidence that boards will improve in future. I stand vindicated.

But there is an interesting side effect of this. If MHRD and IIT Directors  have started believing that the boards will not improve and that the grading is quite random to the extent that different people grading the same exam copy can result in wide variation in percentiles, should the use of 12th class marks be not stopped even for NITs and other engineering colleges.

You can't argue that boards have arbitrary grading and hence we need to dilute the 12th class marks requirement to an extent that it becomes a mere formality for IIT admission, but the same arbitrary grading can be considered for admission to all other engineering colleges.

But then consistency has never been the strength of Indian academic leadership, regulators and administrators.