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I-T portal glitch | What went wrong with Infosys' new e-filing portal?

Infosys was awarded the contract in 2019 to develop the new I-T portal, replacing the old one, in a bid to reduce the processing time from 63 days to one day for a total outlay of Rs 4200 crore. The idea was to have a taxpayer-friendly portal that was simple in design and use, and expedite refunds, which has become a running joke now with the portal inaccessible more often than not.

August 27, 2021 / 10:12 PM IST
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For S Sundararajan, a practising Chartered Accountant in Tamil Nadu, it has been a frustrating few weeks. Tax season is in full swing but the new I-T portal has not been working, to put it mildly.

“One Time Passwords weren’t being delivered consistently. If it does, the portal itself does not open. When everything seems to be working, you are unable to complete e-verification,” says the Chartered Accountant, who is batting calls from customers wanting to know when their returns will be filed.

“I have no answer to that,” says Sundararajan.

This is the answer taxpayers and professionals across the country have been seeking from  IT major Infosys, which designed the new I-T e-filing portal that has run into glitches right from the time it was launched on June 7, 2021.

Infosys’ new IT portal

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Infosys was awarded the contract in 2019 to develop the new I-T portal, replacing the old one, in a bid to reduce the processing time from 63 days to one day for a total outlay of Rs 4200 crore. The idea was to have a taxpayer-friendly portal that was simple in design and use, and expedite refunds, which has become a running joke now with the portal inaccessible more often than not.

The portal was launched on June 7, amid the peak tax season and things started going downhill right then.

A few hours after the launch, tax professionals took to Twitter and said that the portal had run into glitches tagging Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. A day after the launch on June 8, Sitharaman asked Infosys co-founder and chairman Nandan Nilekani to address users' concerns.

As the issues persisted, Infosys was summoned by the Finance Ministry on June 22. During the meeting, which was attended by CEO Salil Parekh virtually and COO Pravin Rao in person, the company assured that it has augmented the team to address the glitches and the team is working to resolve them.

Two months later, on August 23 the team met the Finance Minister again and was given the ultimatum of September 15 to resolve the issues. While the company has assured that it is working on this expeditiously and has as many as 750 people working on the project with COO Rao overseeing it, there is not much clarity on what went wrong with the portal.

Moneycontrol spoke to executives, tax professionals and industry experts to understand what went wrong. Most of them spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the project and also because they are not official spokespersons on the issue.

What really went wrong with the I-T portal?

A lot of things, as multiple sources pointed out.

For one, the scope of the project at such a massive scale was not well defined. "They (government) did not define the scope properly and launched it in a rush,” said one of the sources familiar with the development.

While the company had asked the goalposts to be shifted to a later date, that did not happen, said another industry source, who has worked with the company on international projects. This meant that the system was far from ready.

The second issue was that the portal wasn’t complete at the time of launch. There were several aspects missing in the portal and as an executive pointed out, the portal was half-baked. A technology expert, who has experience working in government tech projects, explained that there are multiple layers in the portal that have to work cohesively for the seamless transaction on the site. This has not happened.

Sundararajan, the chartered accountant cited earlier, concurs. “What used to take a couple of hours, now it's much longer. Some of my clients are not getting One Time Passwords at all and for others, it takes a few days to complete the whole process,” he says.

In one case, he had to fill the application online and send it to the I-T office in Bengaluru for verification since the online system just was not working. “Forget about getting processes complete in a day from 63 days. The portal only is not functioning most of the time,” he says.

There is more. Not many functionalities, he pointed out, were working. “The old system had Express Pan, which lets us generate pan card numbers quickly for processing the I-T returns since the whole process takes two months. That functionality is not working now,” Sundararajan says.

Not all error messages displayed had clarity and many of the forms required by the professionals to complete the process were unavailable. “There is no grievance mechanism or forum to put up my query or help desk where I can take up the concern too,” says Sundararajan.

Sundararajan and other experts have pointed out that the lack of clarity around where the issue is presents a challenge. “We don't know if the issue is on the server side, the application or the process itself,” experts added.

The technology expert quoted earlier said, “You experience two things in software parlance. One is either your server will crash or your system will crash. Server crashes are because of load and system/application crashes when the software coding which was done to withstand the traffic does not work.” There is a third aspect, which is the integration of multiple utilities that makes the whole process easier.

Consider this. For individuals, he/she needs to log into the portal and fill in I-T returns form, verify using OTP and then submit it. Once the process is complete, the user might want to go back and download previous ITRs for his foreign travel or to get a loan. Another person might not have linked Aadhaar with his pan card and would need to access that facility in the portal.

Each of these is a separate block that has to work together when the user requests it. But currently it is not consistent making the whole process daunting. It does not help that the entire architecture has been built from scratch.

“So somewhere, I would call it an overwhelming situation where it is a combination of numbers, it's a combination of traffic, it's a combination of new architecture, and it is also a combination of the fact that much of this is custom built,” the expert said.

This brings us to the third issue, lack of testing. According to multiple sources, the portal was launched prematurely before testing. “The user acceptance test was not done by the I-T department. Usually only after (user acceptance) sign off portal is released,” said the third executive.

An email has been sent to Infosys and the Central Board of Direct Taxes on the same. The copy will be updated with their response.

Working on government projects

For many, this is also reminiscent of the company’s work on MCA21 (Ministry of Corporate Affairs) and the GSTN (Ministry of Finance) projects. However, it isn’t just Infosys that has trouble with government projects.

Wipro has had its fair share of troubles with projects such as the Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) project. TCS, which runs India's passport project, the Indian Railways’ IRCTC site, and India Post’s digital project, is an outlier and has had relatively better success here. Even in the case of the I-T portal, the old system was maintained by TCS before for a decade before it was replaced by the current portal.

However, working with the government is far from easy and when you are building a system from scratch, such glitches aren't uncommon, especially given the scale and complexity of the project. The pandemic and the resulting work from home, no clear accountability from bureaucrats added to the challenge.

To Infosys’ credit, one of the executives quoted above, said that the company has answered 70,000 out of 75,000 queries. Multiple executives have also pointed out that the Finance Minister’s tweet about summoning Infosys was uncalled for and has not gone down well with the company executives.

However as the situation prolongs, tax professionals are now asking for the old system to be brought back.

Bring back the old system

Vinay CS, a Bengaluru-based Chartered Accountant, said that between April and November are peak tax seasons and bringing a new system in the middle has not helped.

While old systems need to be replaced, Vinay pointed out that it should have been carried out a lot more carefully even if that means running the old and new systems in parallel.

Now a large section of professionals are batting for bringing the old system, which was maintained by TCS earlier. But it is easier said than done, say experts, and could bring more harm than good.

Why? Take for instance the experience of the Raghav* (name changed).  Close to 10 years back, the income tax department issued a notice to him stating that he had Rs 1,600 in tax unpaid, despite him having paid it. “Why did this happen?” he asked.

“Because when the migration happened from the manual system to the online system then, they missed porting some of the data sets of the old database into the new one.  So one day, physically, I had to go and sit with the income tax department officials and tell them how to port it,” he explained.

Similar issues could arise when moving back to the old system now. Most of the data from the old portal has already been migrated to the new one and many have already started filing them. If we were to reverse the old portal, user information could go missing resulting in mismatch and could create an even bigger mess, experts added.

Leadership transition

Moneycontrol recently reported that Infosys' India business head Raghupathi N Cavale, who was set to retire in September, is likely to get an extension as his exit could hamper its attempt to turn around the crucial Income Tax portal project.

He was supposed to be replaced by Karthikeyan Neelakandan, Vice-President, who was given charge of the India business in April 2021, making way for a transition this September. But those plans may change now, as the company faces blowback for the series of glitches in the newly unveiled I-T portal, sources said.

Cavale had taken a backseat in running India operations a few months ago but was pressed into action in the last few weeks as he has deep expertise in handling government projects and dealing with bureaucrats. COO Rao, who is now overseeing the project, will also be retiring this year end, which could also pose a challenge as the company looks to address the concerns.

“Infosys has built a strong system that can scale. But it is a large and complex system and stability will be an issue,” one of the sources said.
Swathi Moorthy
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: Aug 27, 2021 07:49 pm
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