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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.



Saturday, May 27, 2006

Flying low cost: Think again

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I had a businessman style whirlwind return trip of Mumbai yesterday. It has been almost two years since I had travel out of the major airports at Delhi and Mumbai. While I have been exploring the Uttaranchal driving my car, Indian skies had witnessed a revolution. In these two years new private airlines such as Spicejet, Kingfisher and Go Air had joined the ranks of the Jet Airways, Air Sahara and Air Deccan. The low fare schemes had Apex fares, Dyna fares, and Check fares, etc. have brought a boom in air traffic in India. No of passengers traveling by air has increased manifold. There are enough aircrafts to fly you. But the frightening reality is that ground facilities were hopelessly short of tackling this surge. There have been no new terminals; all of the spaces inside the airports at both Delhi and Mumbai are crowded. There was hardly any seat and travelers had no option but to bid time standing, always looking out to capture any seat that gets vacated. With the increase in no. of airlines, the no. of X-Ray machines had to gone up occupying much of the vacant spaces. There is no scope to increase passenger amenities inside. The scene was almost same as in a railway platform, with only difference being the air-conditioned temperature.

This was just the trailer. The scene after security check was no better either. The weather was crystal clear. But literally all the flights have been delayed. The shops inside were doing brisk business by looting hungry passengers. Everything there sells at airport rates. This boom had really benefited them. Finally when my flight to Mumbai started off at the runway after 2 hours of delay what I saw was frightening. The pilot announced that our aircraft was fifth on the queue for take off. In between the take-offs there will be few landings as well. So the aircraft is expected to take–off not before another 15-20 minutes. Looking outside, I saw several waiting aircrafts on either side of the runway. Hardly a flight took-off when another landed. Even before the landed aircraft is completely out of runway, another takes its position for take-off. After waiting for almost half an hour in the queue, my flight finally took off. After arriving at Mumbai, the aircraft had to hover for 45 minutes before being able to land. The flight that should have taken 2 hours (with only 1 hr 40 min flying time) took us 3 hours 45 min. The return flight was slightly better as it took only 2 hour 40 min. I think The Rajdhanis and Shatabdis of Indian Railways have better on time track record.

There are enough aircrafts to fly you but not enough airports. Traffic congestion and clogged runways at all major airports delays any flight by an average of 45 minutes. Any delay in one sortie has a cascading effect in all subsequent flights of that aircraft. This eventually leads to cancellation of flights. This is more the case with low cost airlines like Air Deccan. The service has become at par with Indian Railway – NEVER ON TIME. One has to travel taking at least 2 hours of extra time.

Low cost comfort: Think twice
Air Deccan boost of the lowest airfare on India sky. Are you sitting happy after booking an Air Deccan ticket at 20% of the normal ticket price! Then it is time to worry. I witnessed two scenes yesterday. At Delhi, I saw that Air Deccan flight to Guwahati stands cancelled. Imagine those who might have booked tickets two months back. The second scene was worse. It was inside the departure lodge at Mumbai airport. What I understood is that Air Deccan had announced cancellation of a flight for which passengers had even completed security check. It was a virtual brawl at the Deccan counter inside. People were venting their frustration by shouting, sledging and pounding the desk. Few hapless Deccan staff was at the receiving end. God forbid, such situation should not happen with anyone. I could not see the final outcome, as I had to board my flight. I am told that if an Air Deccan flight is cancelled, they will just refund the fare and that is it. Deccan is not responsible for anything else. It is immaterial to them how you travel if your flight is cancelled. In that scenario you will be left with no other option but to cough up a lot to travel by some other flight.

Deccan advertises on its site that xxxxxx no of Rs.500/- tickets have been sold till now. Honestly speaking I have not met any person who has been able to purchase an Rs.500/- ticket on any sector. Have you met anyone?

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 10:35 PM | 3 comments

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

IRCTC.com : Is it really hassle free railway ticketing

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Most net savvy Indian’s uses or have used this online ticketing site of Indian Railway, called the www.irctc.com at some point of time. It is real time ticketing from the comfort of your home oroffice for which you pay a very small fee. It has gone more innovative with the print and travel facility introduced some time last year. I have been using it for last 2 years. It has been a good experience as the service was very useful and professional, a deviation from any government service. It has changed the way educated Indians travel and eliminated the ticket agents / touts at the railway reservation centers. I remember that there used to be a horde of them in both the New Delhi and the Old Delhi stations when we were studying and the railways did not have a full fledged networked ticketing system. But unfortunately this has not changed Indian Railway, or some its corrupt officials who had found a way out. Here is what I had to share.

All of you must be aware that Indian Railway had changed the Tatkal system few months back. Tatkal is a system whereby one can book tickets for journeys planned at a short notice. Tickets are available only from originating station to the destination station of a train by paying a decent premium. Earlier Tatkal quota tickets used to open 3 days prior to journey date, and tickets could be purchased only in person from the station by producing identity proof. Now Tatkal quota tickets opens 5 days before journey. This change itself is not bad. But they had also done away with the requirement of producing identity proof for tatkal tickets. This is where the loophole has been created, probably deliberately. The requirement of identity proof ensured that only the person who would be traveling has to purchase the ticket himself. Agents could not book tickets under this quota. On 22/05/2006, I logged onto the irctc site at 9 am to book tatkal ticket for going home on 27/05/2006. I was shocked to find that in less than an hour all tickets in any class (2AC/3AC/SL) in all the trains were already booked. The total no. of tatkal on these seats was at least 240. Left with no option, I had to try today. So I got up today early in the morning and remained logged on before 8 am. A bigger shock was awaiting me. The online system does not allow takal ticketing online before 8 am of the day it opens. The reason is that it is made available alogwith counter opening of reservation counters across the country. The moment the railway server clocked ticked 8, I was allowed in. I choose the tatkal ticket for Guwahati Rajdhani in 3 AC class. It took less than 2 minutes for me to fill in the data as I had used already prepared master passenger list. To my utter disbelief the system showed quota already exhausted. I was at a loss in shock for a moment. I came back and tried booking for North East Express. Again the same result. By any sort of imagination, no one can book 96 seats across India in less than 2 min. We all have been victims of the sloth like speed of the Railway ticket clerks at counters. Further, people across India for some reason should be trying to go to Guwahati on 28th May. Also all those people standing at no.1 in the Q in ticket counters should be trying to go to Guwahati on 28th. I had decided to use irctc to exclude the possibility of not standing at no.1 in Q at ticket counters. The real time online system is supposed to keep me at no.1 in the Q from the comfort of home. Only 4 minutes have passed by now. Finally I managed tickets in Sleeper Class. I felt lucky.

Now, let me tell what probably has happened. The Rajdhani and the NE Express to Guwahati always remains full. At any point of time tickets are not available in AC classes for at least next 30 days. To exploit this rush for tickets, some railway officials have in probability colluded with some agents. The tatkal tickets are blocked in the back end (server level manipulation) even before they are to open for sale, may be in fictious names and made available to the agents. The loophole exploited here is the non-requirement of identity proof. No other logic can explain the vanishing of at least 100 AC class seats in less than 2 min. This is not so in routes where there is no such rush or overbooking. I had done tatkal ticketing several times through irctc.com for travelling between Delhi and Dehradun. Honestly speaking, irctc.com provided a hassle free ticketing experience. But for some bad elements its quality of service will come down and also its fullest potential will not be utilised. I had an experience to remember.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 3:27 PM | 4 comments

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Mercury rising

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It was 44.5 degrees C on Saturday. With 44.4 degrees C, Sunday was no better either. To make the matter worst, it was partly overcast that added humidity factor into it. Met deptt. says that the temperature were 5 degrees above normal around this time of the year. The humidity has increased overnight and it was a real hot and humid morning today. I had enquired with my friend in Dehradun and was told that there was light drizzle last evening. While the rains cool the hills, it adds to the humidity of Delhi. On my way to office, the Radio Mirchi jockey announced that temp. is 34+ around 10 am. But the sapping humidity factor was not taken into account. Every 20% of humidity adds to 1 degree C of temp. We were lucky to stay indoors on the weekend. We had also been lucky with power cuts till now that is a regular feature of Delhi in summer. But I feel pity for those who had come to Delhi or India around this time. It is really hot out here and should be avoided altogether. More than 50 people had already died in this round of heat wave sweeping North India in the last few days. With schools closing for summer vacations this week, many people prefers a break from the heat and escapes to cooler places up in the hills. This is the peak season for hill stations like Mussorie, Shimla, Nainital, etc. Hotel rates are at its highest and do not expect any discount. I will be off to my hometown soon for the annual pilgrimage and hope to stay away from the sweltering Delhi heat till moonsoon arrives in mid-June.

posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 11:48 AM | 1 comments

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Venugopal Rao : Don't we have a better batsman

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Normally I do not write about cricket, as many of my readers are not aware of this game that is followed like an alternate religion in the Indian sub-continent. But this time I could not stop myself from expressing. I had undergone the painful experience of watching India-A losing the final of Eurasia Cup Cricket championship to Pakistan-A last night at Abu Dhabi. The teams were almost equals with the only difference is the one guy who was incidentally the captain of India A team. It is the guy named Venugopal Rao. When the asking rate was almost 6 from the beginning, he continued to bat as painstakingly as possible to notch up 69 runs from 99 balls. The 30 balls he consumed pushed the required rate to beyond 10 and reach of others when he got out. Never ever for a moment he showed any aggressive intent to take the bull by horn. He looked so natural blocking balls. The commentators were virtually pleading him to hit the ball or at least try to hit the ball. And the selectors had chosen this man to lead the side. In contrast, Hasan Raza, the Pakistani captain cracked a fine hundred fighting cramps. Don’t we have a better second line batsman in India then this Venugopal Rao?

I was amazed at the opportunities this man has got at international level. What potential selectors have seen in him is not understood. This is his stats in ODIs for India –

Matches: 15 Runs: 207 Avg: 25.87 Fifties:1 Hundreds: Nil Ducks: 2 Highest:61*

The highest score has also came in the recently concluded Indo – Pak ODI series at Abu Dhabi (April 2006). So in the 13 matches before April, 2006, his highest score had been only 38. And the selectors still continued with him while keeping stalwarts like Ganguly and Laxman out. I wonder whose pawn is he? It is not only talent, but other things also helps you a place in team. Think about the money a player gets to paly in an ODI -- it is Rs.1.6 lakh or so. He was the first choice over Suresh Raina. But Raina grabbed the opportunities he got and has made it to the Team India as a potential match winner. Yet Venugopal Rao continued to get opportunities, mostly as a replacement for injured Sachin. What a pity! And the result was there to see for everyone last night.

The only bright spot of the night was the seven ball innings of a youngster named Rohit Sharma. By the time he was in, the required rate has gone above 10. He thrashed Moortaza, the Pakistani leg spinner for 14 runs in one over, that included a majestic square drive for four and a towering six over long-off. This was the same bowler whom Venugopal Rao found hard to even score singles. Rohit Sharma had scored one hundred and two fifties. When he came in to bat, Rameez Raja simply said that he is a class apart from others. He indeed looked so in his brief stay of just seven balls. The confidence, the footwork and the class in his shots a must have catch the fancy of many eyes. May be he is the next Sachin in the making. So guys keep a watch for this guy.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 10:31 PM | 0 comments

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Maldives or Lakshadweep or Andamans

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Two long years have passed since my last real vacation. I had traveled so much in the hills of Uttaranchal that I want the next vacation to be far away from hills --- in the beaches --may be in the sea. The first choice obviously is Maldives. The photographs of Maldives entices you with a picture perfect holiday. A holiday in a water hut in an island resort in Maldives would have been a dream holiday. But then a little enquiry put me aback. One night in a water hut costs USD 950, that is nearly Rs.34000/- Phew! We are not that filthy rich for indulging in such kind of luxury. The cheapest all inclusive offer I got from makemytrip.com is Rs.48,000/- per person for 5 days at Brandos Resort. That is for 3 people that include my 4 yr kid, will make me pooper by at least Rs.1.3 lakh. So the thought of Maldives has gone out of window. But I will like you to have a look at a resort that offers water hut accommodation. I bet you will all long to be there at least once in your lifetime.

Next choice is obviously the Lakshadweep, which is actually a geographical extension of the Maldives Islands group. The only difference is that this is in India and so we will be paying in INR than in USD. But Lakshadweep being a restricted area, organized tourism is fairly new concept. Tourist facilities and circuits are not that well developed. It is not the kind of place where you just land and then find an accommodation. You need to have prior confirmation of accommodation which is very limited. As I have understood, one has to take package tours offered by an agency called SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports). Bangaram Island packages are an exception. This is the only place where there is no prohibition on liquor and is mainly meant for foreign tourist. A standard double hut in the Bangaram Island Resort would cost about Rs.8000/- during the low season from May to Sept (Moonsoon season). Add Rs.3200/- per head for transportation by helicopter. Packages by SPORTS are affordable, but looks to have fixed route and schedule. I am exploring possibilities of a customized tour across 2 / 3 islands. Any opinion / experience in this regard will be highly solicited.

If I can not make it to Lakshadweep, then it will obviously be Andamans. I have found that it is a place where you do not require any package tour. There are plenty of hotels, and resorts which you can book before leaving mainland. You can check about Accommodation in Andamans on this excellent link put up by Andaman administration. So go ahead, plan a trip. I see myself in Lakshadweep by this year end or early next year.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 4:09 PM | 6 comments

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