Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Alternative for native soldiers: become nawabs!

There is a serious alternative for the much maligned (in this blog) well trained young men and women of India other than being soldiers of Indian or multinational armies. In fact the smartest of them start out as being soldiers, quickly learn the art of war and conquest and very soon set out to establish territories of their own and proclaim themselves as worthy Nawabs or Queens. There are some who are well known and others not so well known. From my perspective in this blog, several of these soldiers turned Nawabs are changing the way ICT impacts our own society. Let me illustrate with the story of QunatumAeon, a Bangalore based
product company.

Quantum has been started and run by Brindavan Balaji and Naveen Mukundan for about ten years now. Both Balaji and Naveen were soldiers turned commanders in an India army (ADS, a company specialising in embedded systems), before deciding to strike out on their own.

Today Aeon directly and positively impacts on the lives of the much talked about common man.

Travel by any of the KSRTC (Karnataka State Road transport corporation) and you will find the conductor using a handheld device to print out a ticket for you. At the end of the day, the conductor uploads the day's data, gets a summary trip sheet and hands over the cash and leaves.

There are two categories of common-man involved in the above scenario: the bus passenger and the bus conductor. For the passenger, there is the novelty of a printed ticket and the confidence that a 'computer' and not the conductor is calculating and issuing a ticket. To understand why this is important, those of us who have not traveled recently in such a bus need some background: Passengers can get on a KSRTC bus at many stages. Depending on the stage and the destination, depending on whether there is any toll bridge/road on the route, depending on the value of the ticket, the conductor has to tear of leaves from several ticket books. For example, for a ticket of Rs. 76, there needs to be a fifty rupee slip, two ten rupee slips, a five rupee slip and a one rupee slip. In addition, if there is toll involved, an additional one rupee slip has to be issued.

If there are five passengers in a group, this has to be repeated five times and a total of 30 individual ticket slips had to be issued. Then the total money to be collected, the change to be given back are to be computed. The smarter ones do it in their head and the others use a small pocket calculator.

All of this is now replaced with a few punches of keys and out comes a single ticket, with all the details printed. Thus the passengers get their ticket quickly. The change for the conductors is much more powerful: all the above complications are removed and the issue of tickets no longer involve fairly complex understanding of routes and tariffs, and manipulation of multiple ticket books, but just a few simple key operations.

Add to this another powerful positive. To keep the conductors honest in terms of issuing the correct tickets and depositing the collection to the corporation, rather than keeping it to themselves, a standard fixture in every bus corporation in India are the traveling bus ticket inspectors, who randomly check passengers to see if they have been issued tickets, but more carefully inspect the ticket slips of the conductor to see if tickets have been issued properly based on the above details. A complex process like the above, even with the best intentions can go wrong and the conductor will then have to deal with the ticket inspector. Now
the complete details are available on the handheld terminal and the ticket inspector is no longer a major factor in the life of the conductor.
At the end of the day, instead of a long process of reconciliation of all the tickets olsd and the money collected, it is a few minutes of upload on to the back end machine, a printed travel sheet with total amount to be deposited, and the conductor is ready to go home. No wonder that the KSRTC is now using about 11,000 ticketing handhelds and is expected to scale up to about 15,000 in the next few months.

For the corporation, the cost savings on just the stationary is expected to pay back the cost of the new technology in one year! And the cost of training a new conductor on the handheld devices is much lower than on traditional methods, since the complexity of the stages and routes and the ticketing required lot of practice and on-the-bus training. A new conductor can be up and ticketing after a two-day training. With such improved efficiencies come long-term benefits to the passengers in terms of improved service at reduced costs and improved travel comforts. A multi-faceted win-win scenario!

Balaji and Naveen had to struggle for several years to make the current situation a reality. Theirs is far from a mega-success story. But their territory is well established, has the respect of the consumers and the competition, and brings to them the satisfaction of taking their technology training directly to the service of thousands of fellow-citizens.

The key to their success is their ability to understand the local market, the requirements, the stringent operating environments, both in terms of technology and human factors and the complex interrelationships and to innovate to meet the requirements.

In India today, there are many such kingdoms waiting to be established! And unlike the kings in the bygone past, the survival and growth of one king need not always have to come from the vanquishing of others. Many kings and nawabs can coexist in the same domain, and in fact, thrive if they cooperate. But that is a different story.

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