Even at the age of 10, S Yuvaraaja, a resident of Tamil Nadu's Tirupur district, was aware that he had the knack for solving problems. He enjoyed working on the computer to decode math equations and his passion to learn coding and create solutions for daily issues led him to excel in his academics and become the first engineer from his village to attend Anna University in Chennai. To further pursue this passion, he completed his post graduation at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur and joined an Aeronautical firm in Bengaluru.
He later left his job to start a business on his own in 2014, and tackle problems in the field of logistics. Wherever a problem arose, Yuvaraaja says, he was keen to find an answer. But little did the 32-year-old expect that this passion would on October 23 this year, land him in a Coimbatore jail, reconsidering his entire approach to life.
"I was at home, working on some software, when the Railways police came in and asked if I had developed two mobile applications â€” Super Tatkal and Super Tatkal pro. I said yes and they immediately wanted to arrest me. They said my app was illegal and against the Railways Act," Yuvaraaja tells TNM, close to a month after his arrest. He was let out on bail a week later, after being held under judicial remand.
These two applications were in fact created by the techie, in one of his problem-solving spurs in 2016. They allowed users to save the data that is usually filled in to book tickets on the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation(IRCTC) website, to be filled on the app instead. Users could then transfer the details directly to the website at the time of booking the ticket.
"In short, they were auto-fill apps and I actually first made it for my own use. In 2014, I was married and living in Bengaluru while my family lived in Tiruppur. So I was constantly taking the train to come home. That is when I realised how slow and cumbersome the IRCTC website is," he explains. "So I created this application which is a very basic one and began using it to make the process faster. It was initially full of bugs but I rectified it and shared it with friends for their usage," he adds.
Soon, Yuvaaraja realised that people across the country were facing delays and crashing pages when they attempted to book train tickets via the government's application.
"So I decided to upload the apps on Google Playstore for free. I wasn't charging anyone money to use the app. I was trying to help," he explains. "But when the number of users crossed a lakh, the maintenance cost of servers increased to Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 a month. I tried to ask for a donation, but nobody gave any. So I had to charge users minimally to meet the mounting costs," he adds.
Yuvaraaja asked users to buy a stack of 10 virtual coins for Rs 20. And after the first three bookings, the app charged users five virtual coins per transaction. This amounted to Rs 10 per booking. His user base too increased to over seven lakh people in the last four years.
"My app does not bypass any of the CAPTCHA systems implemented by IRCTC. It also does not bypass any of the intrinsic security systems established by IRCTC. It's only functionality is to autofill the pre-saved passenger details," he argues.
In their press release however, the Railway Police Force (RPF) made strong allegations against the techie. Claiming that a 'Tatkal ticketing fraud had been unearthed', the RPF in its press release alleged that Yuvaraaja was running a scam to amass money through fraudulent means.
"During interrogation, the tout admitted that he had swindled money to the tune of Rs 20 lakh from 2016 to 2020," said the release. "There were approximately one lakh end users who had downloaded the said fake applications. The accused has been arrested and Case has been registered under section 143 (2) of Railways Act. It is disheartening to note that a highly qualified person as Yuvaraaja, who has done BE (Aeronautical) in Anna University and M Tech (Aerospace) from IIT Kharagpur, indulges in such illegal activities," it stated.
For Yuvaaraja and his family, the arrest, the Railways' statement and the media attention that followed was overwhelming. The techie comes from a family of farmers and had been touted as an example of what could be achieved with education in his village.
"As I sat in a prison in Coimbatore, I realised that all my education, my awards, my work and my attempt to help people could not save me from getting arrested," he tells TNM. "All my life, people in my village told their children to work hard and become like me. And in an effort to help others, I had landed in jail. The Railways police chose to arrest me and then hear an explanation instead of even having a chat with me first. They had already assumed I was a criminal," he adds.
Was the app illegal?
As per the Railways Act, 1989, Section 143 referred to â€˜unauthorised carrying on of business of procuring and supplying of railway tickets by persons who are not railway servants or authorised agents.â€™ The punishment extends upto three years, with a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.
â€œUse of any application to fraudulently help few to jump the queue is illegal. Indian Railways encourages innovations all across the zones and fields of work. Illegal means to fraudulently help few travelers with some application and also levy charge for the use of application is surely not fair and hence unacceptable," the Railways stated.
Pranesh Prakash, an affiliated fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project, however points out that the punishment in this scenario was not justified for the scale of crime.
"Based on what IRCTC has put out and what is available publicly, I don't see how the app developer could be said to have broken any law. The app seems to make the process of booking tickets faster and less error-prone in a manner similar to features like "auto fill" that are already available in browsers," he said.
"That the developer sought to make money from this app is irrelevant as making money isn't a crime, nor does asking people to pay money for an app make him a ticketing agent when he is not booking the tickets on behalf of users, but only enabling users to more quickly book tickets using their own username and password," he added.
Stating that what the IRCTC and the police have done is 'atrocious', Pranesh adds, "I hope the courts compensate Yuvaraaja for the trouble he's been put through and ensure that IRCTC does not harass software developers in such a manner again."
Yuvaraaja meanwhile admits that he overlooked the possibility of legal issues when he uploaded the app but says that a simple warning from the Railways would have been enough to ensure he pulled down the services.
"During the enquiry in Coimbatore, officials explained that what I did was illegal because I was not registered as an agent. They had been investigating the matter for a month before they actually made the arrest," he says. "But I didn't get any intimation by mail or phone call, asking about the app. I explained the process and gave them source code for what I did. I made it clear that there was no malintention. No harm befell the customers or Railways due to the app," he adds.
The RPF claims that Yuvaraaja swindled money, but the payment meant to reach Railways was never affected in any manner, explains the techie.
"I am an honest man and I have a business which I rely on for a living. This app was never meant to make money. The allegations made against me are shocking and hurtful for my family," he says. "My wife and mother were distraught when I was arrested and we haven't even told my daughter what happened. The kind of words used to describe my motives are shocking," he adds.
Yuvaraaja is now fighting a legal case and says that the last month saw even relatives treating him differently. "While friends understood my intention, relatives were readily assuming I was in the wrong," he says. But the hardships have not stripped him off his passion to solve problems.
"If the Railways is interested, I am willing to share my ideas to improve their current booking system so that it provides a seamless booking experience for end users," he offers.