In India, the Road Transport and Highways Minister, Nitin Gadkari, had announced that toll fee by all vehicles would be mandatory to be paid electronically from 15 January 2020 (previously announced 15 December 2019) using something called as #FASTag. As per The Economic Times report, vehicles without FASTag will have to pay up twice the normal rate at toll gates across the country.
Electronic toll collection using FASTag in India will make road travel friction-less, time-efficient, and is bound to make the process transparent and bring in accountability. This will be great for the country. Reportedly, toll income has also increased in the past few days of deploying FASTag, as expected. As per a media report, at places where government previously collected Rs. 7 crore (US $1 million) as toll fee, they are now collecting Rs. 85 crore ( $12 million), over 12-times more.
So far so good.
But, a recent experience in acquiring a tag for my car has revealed a plethora of issues from weak processes, ineffective use of technology, lack of checks and balances, compromised data integrity, lack of security in data handling, loopholes and ample scope for human errors. These, I believe, will not only add FASTag project to the list of well-intended-but-poorly-executed projects of present government, but will also hamper the customer experience and eventually be a nightmare for the authorities to fix.
While my experience has been in the context of one issuer, which is one of the 22 appointed issuers of FASTag, if the lacunae in process mandated by National Electronic Toll Collection (NETC) exist with one, or lack of their control over it thereof, so would the problems be with other issuers too. Based on how this has gone about, I do not believe this would be a one-off case. I also believe that issues, if caught when small, can prevent a lot of pain later.
So, how did it start for me?
I started uncovering issues when I placed an order for a FASTag from #Paytm, for our car, but received a FASTag meant for a car bearing a different registration number.
Paytm is a Softbank-invested retail player and a digital bank license holder in India that clocks an yearly revenue of US$ half-a-billion. Paytm has reportedly issued over 3 million FASTags so far.
But due to some of the issues noted in this article, even this behemoth has been unable to rectify the problem and send the correct FASTag even after over a month and a half of reporting the issue.
Lets look at the issues.
Non-existent customer support of Paytm for FASTag
NETC mandates every FASTag issuer to have a helpline number setup. Paytm too has setup a toll-free number 1800-102-6480. However, the issue is when one calls this number, it doesn’t get answered, even after being on hold for an hour. I tried over a period of a week. There is no email id to write to. If in the event a wrong FASTag is issued, there is no way to report if the helpline number does not get answered.
One would think, reporting such a matter to their official handles on Twitter and Facebook would garner a response. But, to one’s dismay, Paytm’s social channels yield only canned responses – that just seem human-like. It took me a while to gather that it is just a chat bot giving canned responses. The icing on top was the last message.
Apathy of bodies involved that will lead to a domino effect
Escalation channels are put in place to prevent a domino effect. It is clear that Paytm has failed to provide the mandatory customer support, or any escalation hierarchy. But, so have #NETC, #NHAI or even the Road Transport & Highways ministry, because when I reported the matter to them, NETC simply pushed me back to #Paytm without any sensitivity towards the security loophole that I had reported. Perhaps another bot reply.
Propensity for using cheap labor instead of technology
We constantly hear that labor is cheap in India. However, there are a few tasks that are carried out better by machine rather than humans. Printing, instead of hand-writing with scope for human errors, is one of them. Shared below is the envelope in which Paytm shipped the FASTag with the wrong registration number (masked) of the car.
Perhaps Paytm should use humans for customer support and machines for printing. They seem to be doing the exact opposite.
Lack of banking hygiene by banking license holder
As one can imagine, FASTag is electronically connected to a digital wallet or your bank account. It is not meant to be exchangeable, hence, should not be used across different cars. Much like how a credit or a debit card is meant to be used by the card holder. It is also an RFID-based tag which the gantry at toll plazas will use to record details of passing vehicles. Receiving a wrong tag, as in my case, means a compromised bank account and also lead to data integrity issues including wrong vehicle tracking data and all the inferences the ministry and FASTag agencies might draw based on this compromised data. It may get accentuated depending on the scale and size of this error. Currently I am not sure if this is an intentional or unintentional error.
Do share your experiences and thoughts on FASTag and how it could have been implemented better. In the process, I hope, someone responsible in the ministry or NETC or NHAI will pay heed to some of the lacunae and fix them at the root right from the beginning before the problem gets out of hand.
(Founder – Crux Labs and Start-up Mentor)