On 25th October 2020, officers from the Railway Protection Force (RPF) arrested 32-year-old S Yuvarajaa for allegedly swindling around Rs 20 lakh via two fraudulent mobile apps for IRCTC ticket booking. As per the reports, in 2016, Yuvarajaa developed an app named Super Tatkal and an updated version of the app Super Tatkal Pro in 2019. He gained up to one lakh users during this period and made around Rs 20 lakh using in-app purchases.
Yuvarajaa was arrested under Section 143(2) of the Railway Act under which unauthorized continuation of a business of procuring and supplying of railway tickets is a punishable offense. Any person found using illegal ways to procure tickets or provide services to procure railway tickets without adequate permissions and licenses can be punished as per the law.
Indian Railways, touts and Operation Dhanush
Ticketing touts have been a major issue for Indian Railways. Touts, as a term, refers to a person who tries to persuade people to buy a certain product or services from him, rather than going to the authentic source. Ticketing touts are the private agents who use certain illegal software to book tickets in bulk and then selling them further to the customers at a higher price.
Indian Railways took numerous steps in the last few years to control this menace and put an end to the problem of ticketing touts. In July 2019, Indian Railways issued a press release in which they mentioned that they had arrested 1261 touts in 2017 and 2391 in 2018. A total of 11,500 illegally obtained tickets were recovered in 2017, and 78,001 were recovered in 2018.
As per the press release of March 2020, here are the steps that Railways took to give a fair chance to everyone while booking Tatkal tickets:
- Restriction of only 2 Tatkal tickets per user from 1000 hours to 1200 hours.
- Introduction of Random Security Question for Tatkal ticket bookings.
- Restriction of only one tatkal ticket per day per train to retail service providers (agents).
- Regular checks on user IDs and deactivating those found using malpractices like fast booking of tickets. It has to be noted that Indian Railways blocked 1.26 lakh such user Ids between 1st April 2018 and 31st May 2019.
- Restriction of only one booking in one user login session except for return/onward journey between 0800 and 1200 hours.
- Dynamic CAPTCHA introduced at three places- registration, login and booking page to check fraudulent booking through automation software.
- Checks on the minimum time required to enter passenger details and display of CAPTCHA at the time of e-ticket booking by users.
- Restriction on authorized agents of IRCTC for booking tickets during the first fifteen minutes of opening of Advance Reservation Period (ARP) booking and Tatkal booking.
- RPF is conducting regular drives against persons/agencies found involved in unauthorized carrying on of the business of procuring and supplying of railway tickets. The offenders are booked under section 143 of the Railways Act.
- Use of PRABAL query-based application for verification of IRCTC IDs to detect the cases of illegal E-ticketing with follows up action.
As the steps mentioned state, Indian Railways restricted the use of any application to quickly fill out the user form. Later in October 2019, Indian Railways launched ‘Operation Dhanush’ to further prevent touts from booking tickets. They nabbed 23 agents and seized 287 live tickets worth Rs.9,43,725/- and 1008 journey performed tickets worth Rs.21,18,097/-.
In May 2020, RPF started a nation-wide drive to identify and act against touting activities. In the press release, Indian Railways said, “The IRCTC agents were using personal Ids to corner tickets and then sell them unauthorizedly at a premium. Action has been initiated to get them blacklisted. One tout was found using autofill software called Super Tatkal Pro.” Railways had mentioned in May itself that touts were using the said software to quickly book Tatkal tickets reducing the chance for the general public to get access to the Railways services.
In May, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal warned touts that Railways is taking strict action against agents who use software to book tickets. He also requested the travelers to inform Railway at 138 if anyone approaches them to book tickets.
Railways is taking strict action against agents who use software to book tickets.— Piyush Goyal Office (@PiyushGoyalOffc) May 21, 2020
If an agent approaches a passenger and offers to book tickets, the passenger is requested to complain against the agent using 138 complaint number or write a letter to complain: @PiyushGoyal
Difference between authorized and unauthorized booking agent
There are several schemes under which companies or firms can become authorized agents for IRCTC. There are many regulations [PDF] in place to ensure no fraudulent activities are happening while booking railway tickets. As per the regulations, there is a penalty for any software tempering that may provide an advantage to the vendors’ customers for using their platform over others. Companies like Make My Trip, Paytm, etc. are IRCTC’s authorized agents, among several others. IRCTC regularly updates the list of authorized principal service providers, commonly known as agents [PDF].
These service providers either use IRCTC’s platform or integrate IRCTC services into their platform using APIs. Anyone who indulges in booking tickets for customers and charges them for the services without the license provided by Indian Railways gets subject to punishment as per the law.
The Print’s attempt to whitewash the illegality of the apps
Shekhar Gupta’s The Print has published a report on Yuvrajaa’s arrest calling it India’s policy-makers’ attempt to ‘kill innovation’. In the report, Print stated that while the Indian government talks about ‘fancy technical terms’ like AI, machine learning, and blockchain, in reality, innovators like Yuvarajaa get arrested for creating ‘useful’ apps.
The Print said that the app developed by the IIT-Kharagpur grad only facilitated the customers in buying tickets quickly on IRCTC’s platform. “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,” the report added.
Though The Print got the functionality of the application correctly as it mentioned that the app asked users for in-app purchases to auto-fill the IRCTC form for a quicker transaction, it completely failed to understand the illegality of it.
The reply from Indian Railways
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor quoted the article by Print and called the arrest a “national embarrassment.” Indian Railways has refuted the claims and released a press statement explaining why the application was illegal and against the customers’ interest. It said, IRCTC already had all the features that were listed in the application made by the accused. “However, they were disabled to ensure a level playing field for all the users. There is nothing new in Computer Application made by the said accused,” it further added.
As far as the ‘innovation’ aspect is concerned, Yuvaraja’s App was no ‘innovation’ since the autofill features were already there in IRCTC platform, though they were later disabled to allow a level playing field for the thousands of users who try to book Tatkal tickets in the website.
The software was used illegally to book tkts denying genuine users to book tkts. Use of illegal software is prohibited under Rly act. There is no innovation as autofill features were already available with IRCTC which were disbled to ensure level playing field for all the users. pic.twitter.com/bU1ZSnKLfC— Spokesperson Railways (@SpokespersonIR) November 3, 2020
It said that anyone could book tickets using the IRCTC website or application without using any illegal application. Indian Railways has imposed several measures to prevent the use of illegal software available in the market, such as imposing a time limit to complete the transaction and captchas. Railways regularly monitor the traffic on its servers to check for any fraudulent activities.
It further added that the faster app mentioned in the reports was not, in fact, a faster app. He was illegally facilitating the application users to book e-tickets and was making money in the process. “Jumping the Tatkal queue and denying equal, a fair opportunity to all other travelers is not tenable. By this application, an unfair opportunity was being fraudulently given to those limited few who had access to the application. Any activity that leads to providing an unfair advantage to some and for illegal charges will be against the Railway rules,” it further added.