Editor’s note: IRCTC’s response on Twitter has been added to the story.
Kozhikode, KERALA — On the afternoon of October 23, S. Yuvarajaa was at his home in Tirupur, writing software, when the Railway Police Force came knocking on his door.
“Did you develop this app?” the policemen asked, pointing to a phone screen displaying Super Tatkal, a phone app developed by Yuvarajaa that books tatkal rail tickets much faster than Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), the Indian Railways’ famously cumbersome website.
When he said ‘yes’, Yuvarajaa, a 32-year-old alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur, was arrested under the Indian Railways Act 1989 for the “unauthorized business of procuring and supplying railway tickets”.
Soon after his arrest, the railway authorities deactivated Super Tatkal and Super Tatkal Pro, which were available on Google Playstore until then. Yuvarajaa spent about a week in jail.
Now out on bail and faced with mounting legal fees, Yuvarajaa says he just wants the railways to understand that far from “swindling” users — as the railways have alleged — he just wanted to help rail passengers book their tickets with ease.
“I want them to talk to me and find out how the apps can help IRCTC’s ticket-booking operations. I might have been naïve and unaware of consequences when I developed the apps but I had the best of intentions,” Yuvarajaa told HuffPost India. “I have a solution that can effectively address the current issues on the IRCTC website. I would like to help them make their website better so that end users, the passengers, can book tickets easily.”
For now, Yuvarajaa and Super Tatkal have become unfortunate case studies of what happens when the software industry’s ethos of digital disruption crashes into India’s famously prickly bureaucracy as epitomised by the 167-year-old Indian Railways.
A young coder from a small town who gave up a comfortable job in an aeronautics firm to set up his own business, Yuvarajaa is a poster child for the Indian government’s mission to support digital entrepreneurs of the sort that Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorts to “take risks” and embark on adventures.
Yet, as Yuvarajaa’s arrest shows, the biggest impediment to innovation are his government’s many departments. Yuvarajaa saw himself as an entrepreneur’ but the Railways press release announcing his arrest described him as a “tout”.
“Regulatory frameworks, be that of IRCTC or that of any other government institution, should not be bypassed,” said S. Arunachalam, Academic Director of Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Indian School of Business. “But I think that he should have been warned first to reach an amicable solution.”
IRCTC responded to HuffPost India on Twitter, saying that the use of “illegal software” is prohibited under the Railways Act.
The software developed was used illegally to book tkts through the tickets denying genuine users.Use of illegal software is prohibited under Rly act. No faster app as these features were available with IRCTC which were disabled to ensure level playing field .
— IRCTC (@IRCTCofficial) November 17, 2020
From Tirupur to Super Tatkal
The story of Super Tatkal has its roots in Yuvarajaa’s journey from a small town in Tamil Nadu to Bengaluru, India’s self-described Silicon Valley.
Yuvarajaa comes from a family of farmers— his father worked as one until he died in 2008 and his mother, Eswari, still cultivates the family’s 30 acres of land.
Yuvarajaa recalls that he first started programming in BASIC as an 11-year-old. Soon, he developed a love for coding and started considering engineering as a career option when he was introduced to Java in Class XI.
In 2007, Yuvarajaa signed up for an aeronautical engineering degree at the Madras Institute of Technology, Tamil Nadu’s premier tech school. Since he had topped Class XII in his district, he had a three-year scholarship of Rs 3,000 per month from the Indian government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
At MIT-Chennai, Yuvarajaa met others like him who loved coding.
“We were a group of people who liked programming. When some of us went on to take up jobs, Yuvarajaa went for higher studies as he was passionate about engineering,” said Akilan, a friend and fellow aeronautical engineer who is currently working in New Jersey.
After graduating in 2010 from MIT Chennai, Yuvarajaa joined IIT-Kharagpur for an M. Tech in aeronautical engineering. Again, he had a scholarship, this time for topping the GATE (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering).
Once he finished his IIT course, he joined a firm in Bengaluru.
“In aeronautical engineering there are very few private firms which offer jobs. But he got one of the good jobs available in India,” Akilan said.
While working in Bengaluru, Yuvarajaa frequently booked tickets to travel home to Tirupur.
“It was then that I realised that the IRCTC app is terribly slow. Besides, I always wanted to develop apps and this felt like the right time,” Yuvarajaa told HuffPost India. “So Super Tatkal took shape.”
Super Tatkal, launched in 2016, allowed users to prefill their journey details and paste these onto the IRCTC website. This sped up the booking process by about five times the usual time it takes to book tickets on IRCTC website, said Yuvarajaa.
The app was buggy at first, he said, but a steady group of users kept sharing their experience.
“I went about correcting the bugs and realised that the app was gaining traction,” he said.
Super Tatkal was free for the first year. Later, as the maintenance cost of servers increased to Rs 10,000 per month, Yuvarajaa asked for user contributions — but this didn’t help much. He then decided to finance the app through in-app purchases where users were asked to buy a stack of 10 virtual coins for Rs 20. After the first three free bookings, the app charged five coins per transaction — ie, a nominal fee of Rs 10 per booking.
The Railway Police claims Yuvarajaa earned Rs 20 lakh through Super Tatkal between 2016 and 2020. This may sound like a big number, but it works out to about Rs 40,000 per month.
Yuvarajaa said all his users were aware of the payment model and that he had not cheated anyone into paying.
‘Didn’t take permission’
While Super Tatkal was taking off, Yuvarajaa soon became comfortable in the startup bubble. He quit his job in 2017 and started a truck aggregator app, Speedbird trucks, along with two of his friends.
“It was like an Ola or Uber for trucks. It took off well in the beginning,” Yuvarajaa said. But before the app could get traction, trouble started. It was difficult to convince people to use the trucks available on the app because existing contracts from known services seemed simpler for users.
“We took on lease two trucks to run the app but that ended in losses,” said Yuvarajaa. The company was built on the life savings of the three young men and it lacked a business model.
“To arrive at the business model one has to experiment with various models and this costs money,” said Yuvarajaa. The company also lacked a mentor, an industry insider, who could have offered steady advice and feedback.
“It is difficult to network and find help when you are a beginner,” he said.
It also didn’t have an investor. “We were at the experimental stage and could not win the confidence of an investor,” he said. In the experimental stage, startups built on little resources are mostly on their own and can only dream of reaching the patent filing stage which gets support from the Union government.
Meanwhile, Super Tatkal was doing relatively well. “The users kept growing and I launched a second app—Super Tatkal Pro—which allowed booking on IRCTC’s rail connect app in 2019,” he said.
To keep his startup alive and to support his family, Yuvarajaa also worked as a freelance programmer. The income was small but steady. However, unbeknownst to Yuvarajaa, his app was on the Railway police’s radar.
“RPF Cyber Cell at Southern Railway Headquarters Chennai had played a key role in analysis of data and identification of the fake app developer’s location and also collected digital evidences i.e server source code, application source code, end-users list and bank statements of the offender,” the Railway police said in their press release.
Yuvarajaa’s mistake, an officer at the security command centre of RPF told HuffPost India, was that “he did not obtain the needed permission from IRCTC and was working like a ticketing agent”.
Under the Railways Act, all those who help passengers with ticketing are expected to register with the IRCTC as an agent. Does this apply for app creators? The officer reserved his comment.
Yuvarajaa, however, said that he was “trying to create something of value for people” and that he “was not aware that the app would be considered illegal”. IRCTC could have sent him a warning or a cease-and-desist order before swooping in, he rued.
Arunachalam, of the Indian School of Business, said Yuvarajaa’s case points to the need for more mentorship in India’s start-up space.
“He does not seem to have understood the process well,” Arunachalam said.
Back in Tirupur, Yuvarajaa said that he hopes to work with the Railways once his legal troubles end.
Will he revive his apps if he gets the required permission from IRCTC?
“I would like to,” he said.
This story was corrected to say that Yuvarajaa was arrested on October 23 and spent about a week in jail, not a month-and-a-half.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.