A Passage to Palani
Information Superhighway or Information-Scuppered-Highway?
On a visit to Madras/Chennai, eyes glazed over with ads for computer courses, cellphones and broadband connections at every turn, I was further floored by the quick installation of a fast internet link within a couple of days of reaching Madras. Thus it was that I waved aside my mother's anxious enquiries about getting tickets for our forthcoming trip. We were planning to go to Palani, home of the ancestral deity, and to visit our village and a couple of other places, all within the same area.
Piece of cake, I told myself and her. We'll plan out the whole thing in no time via the internet. With that, and with my newly-acquired cell phone.
Famous last words, unfortunately, and spoken far too soon.
After spending a whole day hunched over my computer riding my broadband connection, I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to Information Technology (IT), India itself (Tamilnadu, anyway, and I suspect the story is not too different elsewhere) is rather like the poor laborers from Rajasthan I used to see growing up in Delhi, building palatial homes for the rich while living in hovels themselves.
But the facts first.
I want to chart out a schedule for a one day visit to Palani and some places nearby. I start out by seeking a map of Tamilnadu on the internet, one that would show the various places we intend to visit. I discover that there are none that combine information, quality and detail. I finally settle for a passable version, but it has taken me two hours already.
A spanking new Mofussil bus terminus at Koyambedu was opened a few years back, not far from where we live in Madras. Everyone I've met has waxed lyrical about the merits of the bus service, so I ask the scooterwallah to swing by the Terminal so I can pick up a bus time table for Tamilnadu.
The people at the reservation counter outside look at me like I was Oliver Twist. There's no such thing, they tell me. Finally they give their standard answer: "Ask inside", they say, vaguely, pointing to the cavernous structure of the terminal. I go in. There is an Enquiry Counter, vacant in the middle of the day. There is a cop sitting opposite at another counter. He assures me a bus time table for Tamilnadu does not exist. I notice that there's a website listed outside the Reservation Counter. This I quickly jot down on my PDA, convinced that they must have all the timings and routes listed there.
I come home and visit the site (http://www.setctn.com), the web presence of the State Express Transport Corporation. The initial impression is good. But there is no mention of "Schedule" or "Bus Timings", which is the first thing one would expect of such a site. I plough on and discover a philosophical-sounding link: "Availability of Buses". Sure enough, the page asks you to select a destination and brings up a list of buses to the city you select. I rub my hands in glee. I now know what bus to take to Palani. From there to our village? Instinctively I try selecting Palani for the origin, but discover I can't -- the only place of origin available on the website is Chennai!
So the site tells me all the buses from Chennai, but from nowhere else! Forget going to other places, how do I even figure out getting back from Palani to Chennai? The website offers no clue. I have also noted down, from the reservation counter, the Tamilnadu Government's transport department site (www.tn.gov.in/transport). I go there. It lists a number of other websites, one for each district, the few I check are all equally silent about schedules. They list the names and phone numbers (including residence) of sundry officials, and proclaim that they carry so many lakh passengers each day, all doubtless of frightful interest to bus travelers. But on the matter of schedules, to recall Wodehouse, they are vague and evasive.
I call the Koyambedu terminal, using the number listed on the State Express website. A few tries later, I get through, and ask them about buses from Palani to Chennai. The question strikes them as idiotic. "Please ask them when you get to Palani", is the answer. "Do you have a phone number for the Palani bus station?", I venture. You've got to be joking, the tone says, as the official at the other end disavows all knowledge.
I reach a random official in Coimbatore or Palani (number obtained from the Tamilnadu Transport Department website). A helpful soul, he suggests I try the private bus service, suggesting KPN Travels of T. Nagar. Visions of the glories of private enterprise in India float around in my head as I google for KPN Travels. They have a website (http://www.kpntravel.in). I go there, and Hey Presto, a sophisticated flash website! Except it is impregnable. The animated first page has no links, you can't proceed beyond it, and it has no information, not even a phone number. I dig up the phone number elsewhere on Google, and give the fellows a call. "Palani", barks the official, "There is one at 9:15 from Koyambedu". About buses back from Palani? "No idea", he says and slams the phone down.
I have long given up on my grandiose scheme for mapping out a travel plan for doing the entire journey by bus, resigned to hiring a taxi once we get to Palani. But I do want to make sure there's a late enough bus from Palani to Madras, giving us sufficient time for our local peregrinations.
I suddenly have a brain wave: Why not call up some hotel or lodge in Palani to find out? I now look for websites with information on lodges in Palani. Several of them list some lodges lackadaisically, but with no phone numbers. Finally I reach a good website (http://www.palanicity.com) which has a nice list of not only lodges but other institutions (except there is no mention of transportation). The first three or four numbers I call elicit a "this number does not exist" response before I realize that the website has not been updated and does not have the '2' in front of each number.
Mystery solved, I call up one of the lodges and, knowing we would need a room to rest and freshen up after the night journey, ask for the room rates. "Where are you calling from?" comes the response. Perhaps I have spent too long in America. "Why does that have anything to do with your room rates?" I find myself asking. "Unless you tell me where you are calling from how can I give you an answer? You may be an anonymous caller also...". If I had not had four hours of frustration leading up to this, I should have chuckled. "Are your room rates different for people from different places?" I still manage. "First learn how to speak", this denizen of the Mother of all Call Centers snaps. "I'll take lessons from you when I come there", I counter. That breaks the ice, and we are as brothers thereafter. Mr. A tells me there are buses, but doesn't know the time, nor does he have a phone number for the bus station.
The train to Dindigul (an hour-and-a-half bus journey from Palani) is growing in attraction. The mere fact that the Indian Railways have a printed timetable (have had one forever) shines in contrast to a bus service which has not even heard of one, and I turn my hand at their vaunted online reservation system. It is far better than the bus website, but it is still punishing on the user. For example, there is no way I can give my origin and destination, date of travel and number of passengers, and sit back to get a summary of all my options, including the the "Buy" link. Instead, I have to plod through a list of possible trains, trying each one, with each quota (General, Tatkal, etc.) to see whether there are seats available. There aren't, so I am back to the bus option!
By the time I am done with all this, night has fallen. I call the Koyambedu stand just as they are closing, and the gentleman advises me to show up at the ticket counter first thing in the morning. I do, and am first in line, a half hour before opening time. When the counter opens and I am talking to the clerk, a guy pokes his head around me. When I point out to him that I am ahead in the queue, he gives me a pained look, saying, "It was only a question". On his heels is another individual who has, meanwhile, reached around me and handed the clerk a one-rupee coin. She gives him a form in return. When I ask him to wait in line, he says to me, "I have to get this form. Do you think I should wait just to get a form?" He shouldn't have to, but that's the way the system is set up. The same counter dispenses forms (which you need to fill to buy a ticket) and issues tickets too. There is only one counter. First you fill the form by hand, and hand it to the clerk, who then enters the form into her computer. Why not have her enter the information directly?
Which leads back to my original point. Information technology, to paraphrase Edgser Dijkstra, is not the art and science of diddling bits in a computer, any more than astronomy is swinging telescopes about. Information technology is about having information available in a convenient and usable form, in friendly and timely fashion. Nothing I have described here requires a customer to have a computer or an internet connection. A simple phone would do just fine.
My greatest amazement is that in a milieu where almost everyone is convinced that India is the information superpower-in-waiting, with the remainder in no doubt that we are already there, no one seems to think anything amiss when a clerk tells you, Abhimanyu-like, that she knows the timings for the bus from Chennai to Palani but not that from Palani to Chennai. Or that no one is surprised when an official says he can't tell you something over the phone, you'll have to come over to get the same information. Or that there is no outrage when a state transport website has information for one city and not for any others.
Long before computers were common, the Ma Bell phrase, "let your fingers do the walking" was taken to heart in America. We have copied the symbol quickly enough, but forgotten its import. People travel from place to place for things that could -- and should, in a country deficient in petroleum and casting about for energy supplies in every part of the world -- be done over the phone and the computer. Making useful information available easily to the people -- now that would be a goal worthy of a true IT superpower and information innovator.
The author is a software professional living in the United States. This article also appeared in Countercurrents.org.