Fastags could be the next big thing

Ra­dio­fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tags can solve many of the ve­hic­u­lar prob­lems we’re fac­ing now

Hindustan Times (Delhi) - - COMMENT - Nandan Nilekani is chair­man, In­fosys Ltd, and for­mer chair­man, UIDAI The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

Delhi has a huge prob­lem. Ev­ery win­ter, peo­ple re­alise they are breath­ing the equiv­a­lent of 50 cig­a­rettes a day. How­ever, as soon as the smog clears, so does the is­sue. Ev­ery year pol­icy-mak­ers find and an­nounce quick fixes that demon­strate the gov­ern­ment’s re­solve to do some­thing about pol­lu­tion. Since crop burn­ing and dust storms are not im­me­di­ately ad­dress­able, all the fo­cus turns to ve­hic­u­lar pol­lu­tion. This year, the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal is or­der­ing mea­sures such as ban­ning road­side park­ing and re­tir­ing old cars. Odd-even was sug­gested, di­luted with ex­cep­tions and then scrapped.

Such quick fixes may even be ef­fec­tive, but will only re­main un­der the glare of the me­dia. They are not sus­tain­able. Re­cently, I wrote about ‘pol­icy win­dows’, and how de­mon­eti­sa­tion led to the per­ma­nent un­block­ing of reg­u­la­tory hur­dles to a less cash econ­omy. Even though we have a sim­i­lar cri­sis at hand, those in charge are un­able to find a way to move the nee­dle for­ward sig­nif­i­cantly. This is sur­pris­ing, be­cause the in­fra­struc­ture to do this al­ready ex­ists.

The Fastag, launched by the In­dian High­ways Man­age­ment Com­pany Lim­ited (IHMCL) in 2014, is a way to col­lect tolls elec­tron­i­cally. Each car gets a Ra­dio-fre­quency Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (RFID) tag that is based on an open stan­dard. This means the RFID read­ers are cheap, in­ter­op­er­a­ble and not locked in to any par­tic­u­lar ven­dor. The trans­ac­tion switch is man­aged by the Na­tional Pay­ments Cor­po­ra­tion of In­dia (NPCI). When fully im­ple­mented, we will be the only coun­try with a na­tion-wide in­ter­op­er­a­ble Elec­tronic Toll Col­lec­tion (ETC) sys­tem. The Min­istry of Road, Trans­port & High­ways and NHAI have been do­ing a great job of in­stalling RFID tags with­out much fan­fare since 2014. Of the four mil­lion ve­hi­cles on the high­ways daily, 600,000 have RFID tags. From De­cem­ber 1, ev­ery new car will come pre-in­stalled with a Fastag.

At first glance, Fastag may seem use­ful only for au­tomat­ing toll col­lec­tion. In re­al­ity, the ar­chi­tec­ture of the Fastag is very ver­sa­tile. Each car gets a unique ID, and is linked to a bank ac­count/wal­let. Money is de­ducted based on the event that has hap­pened, like pass­ing a toll booth.

There are at least five ways in which the Fastag plat­form can help Delhi’s ve­hic­u­lar prob­lem.

First, Fastags can im­ple­ment con­ges­tion pric­ing. This is a model per­fected by Lon­don and Sin­ga­pore. Delhi, with the sub­con­ti­nent’s most ex­ten­sive metro net­work, and yet the 3rd high­est den­sity of cars (424 cars per 1,000 peo­ple), needs con­ges­tion pric­ing. The pric­ing it­self can be dy­namic to af­fect de­mand.

Sec­ond, the same Fastags can en­able the gov­ern­ment to have lower con­ges­tion pric­ing for those who are pool­ing to work. The gov­ern­ment does not even have to cre­ate its own rideshar­ing app, it has to sim­ply pro­vide ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gram­matic in­ter­faces (APIS) to le­git­i­mate ride-shar­ing app providers.

Third, these tags can reg­u­late park­ing, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously creat­ing a rev­enue op­por­tu­nity for cities. Fastags can en­sure that a no-park­ing sign is not just a warn­ing, but a se­ri­ous penalty for those look­ing to park il­le­gally. In­di­vid­u­als and busi­nesses can ‘switch on’ tem­po­rary park­ing spa­ces dur­ing peak hours.

Fourth, the Fastag read­ers can also be used to im­ple­ment many of the pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions of the NGT that are oth­er­wise dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment. Pol­lu­tion Un­der Con­trol Cer­tifi­cates (PUC) can be linked to the Fastag ac­counts, and a tag with­out a valid PUC can be fined au­to­mat­i­cally when it crosses a reader. The gov­ern­ment can run ex­per­i­ments like it did with Odd-even last year and then quickly scale them up if needed in an au­to­mated way.

Fifth, and the most im­por­tant, all of these prob­lems are dif­fi­cult to solve be­cause the gov­ern­ment lacks gran­u­lar traf­fic data needed to make bet­ter de­ci­sions. From the width of the fly­over, to the tim­ing be­tween red lights we need bet­ter qual­ity data.

Com­pa­nies like Uber and Google, are able to fig­ure it out by track­ing which cell tower your phone con­nects to and track­ing your phone’s GPS. Right now, an en­gi­neer in San Fran­cisco has a much bet­ter idea of traf­fic move­ment in Delhi, than the of­fi­cials whose job it is to de­sign roads.

With a trusted im­ple­men­ta­tion of Fastag read­ers, the gov­ern­ment can get such anonymised data di­rectly from the ground. Ba­si­cally, an in­vis­i­ble toll booth that doesn’t col­lect a toll, but cap­tures ev­ery time any car crosses it. This data can be im­mensely pow­er­ful when used cor­rectly.

To­mor­row our smart cities can have smart traf­fic lights that don’t stay red a sec­ond longer than is op­ti­mal. The pos­si­bil­i­ties of this sys­tem are end­less, but we need to push col­lec­tively. Pol­icy-mak­ers need to act now, be­fore the pol­icy win­dow closes. Be­cause when the smog fi­nally dis­si­pates, so will the po­lit­i­cal will to solve the is­sue, but the prob­lem will still hang in the air. Till next win­ter.


Quick fixes to the pol­lu­tion prob­lem may be ef­fec­tive, but are not sus­tain­able

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