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Published on: Aug. 26, 2022, 12:46 p.m.
IRCTC's monetisation plan goes awry
  • Indian Railways: ready to monetise a load of passenger information?

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

A recent move by the Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), the Indian Railways ticket booking arm, has kicked up a controversy. It was planning to monetise its passengers' data to generate additional revenue that would enable the company to improve its margins, but, the government ended up with egg on its face. 

IRCTC has a number of businesses like rail ticketing, hotel booking, catering service, air ticketing, bus booking and retiring room booking on its own platform. The controversy has its origins in the public sector undertaking hiring a consultant to assist with the monetisation process, through which it had planned to raise Rs1,000 crore.

IRCTC had identified sectors such as hospitality, health, energy and infrastructure as potential customers for the passenger data in its tender document for hiring the consultant. 

The Indian Railways has now put the plan on hold, after the news generated apprehension among millions of users of IRCTC, the country’s largest e-commerce website, as India still does not have a data protection law. To make matters worse, the Modi government recently withdrew the contentious Personal Data Protection Bill 2019, which aimed to regulate how companies and the government could use the digital data of citizens. And, it is yet not known when the new version of the law would see the light of the day.

Freedom advocacy and social media groups raised a ruckus when IRCTC had floated a tender for appointing a consultant for digital data monetisation to leverage its more than 100 million registered users data. As per the tender document, the customer's data that will be studied by the consultant includes name, age, mobile number, gender, address, email-id, no. of passengers, class of journey, payment mode, login/password. 

Concerns raised

Internet Freedom Foundation, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation advocating digital rights and liberties, expressed concerns over the tender and outlined its pitfalls in a series of tweets. “Hey, train travellers, your data will soon be monetised by the government, and that too, in the absence of data protection legislation! ...A profit maximisation goal will result in greater incentives for data collection, violating principles of data minimisation & purpose limitation. Past experiences from the misuse of Vahan database amplify fears of mass surveillance & security risks," it said.

"IRCTC, a government-controlled monopoly, must not prioritise perverse commercial interests over the rights and interests of citizens,” the NGO added. “And, given the recent withdrawal of the Data Protection Bill, 2021, such monetisation becomes even more concerning".

  • IRCTC, a government-controlled monopoly, must not prioritise perverse commercial interests over the rights and interests of citizens

Earlier, the tender document titled The scope of work for project A: for study of monetisation of digital data of Indian Railways (IR) said that the consultant will also study the data of passenger, freight, and parcel businesses of the Indian Railways such as PRS, NGeT, NTES, UTS, Rail Madad, FOIS, TMS, e-CRM and PMS, as well as vendor-related data from applications like IREPS, VMS and IPAS.

The consultant would also be provided access to the digital data systems, which generate behavioural data, such as flow of passengers, class of journey, frequency of journey, travel time, booking time, age group and gender, payment mode, number of destinations, and booking modes.

The document also said that the consultant will study various acts or laws, including the IT Act, 2000 and its amendments, user data privacy laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation and the current 'Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018', and accordingly, propose the business models for monetisation of digital assets.

The consultant would also prepare a roadmap for data monetisation of the digital data collected at various customer-facing and vendor-related applications, which include zonal railways, divisions, and other units like CRIS, and PSUs like IRCTC, Railtel, etc.

However, it is now clear that the adverse reaction to the reports has made the government wary. Shares of IRCTC fell, even as senior officials claimed that the corporation does not sell customers' financial information and has no intention of doing so. The railway stock had gained in the recent sessions and had increased investors’ wealth by 18 per cent in the past month, as against the benchmark Sensex, which has risen close to 6 per cent. 

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