Moving on apps

Print edition : July 24, 2015

App-based taxi services make use of GPS. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Uber taxi drivers hold placards during a protest against the ban on online taxi services, in New Delhi December 12, 2014. Photo: ANINDITO MUKHERJEE/REUTERS

Cabs attached to TaxiForSure, another app-based taxi service, in Bangalore. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Online taxi aggregators have many takers in the country despite the ambiguity over regulation of such services and a ban on them in Delhi. But is India ready for them?

Less than a year ago, Mantu Kumar, 32, was rendered jobless when the power project he worked on closed down. With his Provident Fund money and other savings, he bought a Maruti Suzuki Swift Dzire and joined Uber cab services, which had just been launched in Kolkata. “The income that had stopped revived and it might increase as I take delivery of a second car soon,” he told Frontline. For half a day, Mantu drives the car and for the other half, he has hired Ashok Yadav, an erstwhile driver of traditional yellow taxis.

Ashok, 36, from Karunamoyee in Kolkata says he likes his job as there is peace and dignity in it and he can go offline and have his meals on time. “When I used to drive the yellow taxis, customers would get angry if I refused them a trip during lunchtime, but now there is no such tension,” he said. He says he now earns more than what he used to get earlier. “Driving the yellow taxis, one can earn Rs.1,500 a day, of which 50 per cent goes for diesel, Rs.400 to the owner, and the driver gets Rs.300. More than Rs.100 goes for two meals and there is a daily take-home earning of only Rs.100-Rs.200. Even a mistry’s helper [unskilled labourer] earns more than that,” he said. Ashok now earns Rs.12,500 a month.

App-based taxi services may have faced a huge media backlash owing to issues of regulation and women’s safety following the rape of a finance company executive by an Uber cab driver in Delhi last December, but there are any number of happy customers who swear their loyalty to such services and drivers who feel empowered. And despite a ban on app-based taxi services in Delhi, Uber, Ola and TaxiForSure cabs are back on the streets. The ongoing row over app-based taxi services shows not only how unprepared the regulatory framework is for the optimisation of these services but also how unsafe it is for an unchecked growth of these start-ups.

As advanced technologies enable business models that were unimaginable a few decades ago, it is a challenge for governments across the world to devise ways of regulating the new marketplace. Conceptually, app-based taxi services are an innovative idea in a furiously changing world: flexible working hours for drivers, better incomes for drivers and/or cab owners, low capital, and ease of hiring a taxi for smartphone users. But as incidents in the recent past show, these solutions are not for a world that is not yet equipped to deal with them. With lax and insufficient controls, a company that offers simply a request tool on a smartphone and does not own any cab has limited liability and little responsibility in grievance redress in case a crime is committed by one of its partners. Besides, as these cab services hit directly at traditional models of taxi services, drivers’ associations from San Francisco to London to Kolkata have been opposing the way these companies are allowed to ply in violation of local regulations.

The Radio Taxi Association in Delhi comprising licensed taxi services such as Meru, Easy and Mega Cabs have filed public interest litigation (PIL) petitions seeking penal action against the unlicensed companies. “They want to enjoy all the benefits but are not willing to take on any responsibility. Many of us also operate through apps and Uber can too, but it must comply with regulations. It has been operating here bypassing the Motor Vehicles Act and rules that apply in various States,” one of its representatives told Frontline.

The rape of a finance company executive by an Uber cab driver had become disturbingly reminiscent of the December 2012 brutal gang rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in a moving bus. The media furore that followed the Uber cab incident ensured swift police action and arrest of the accused, Shiv Kumar Yadav. The Delhi State acted readily and banned Uber and other app-based cabs from plying on Delhi’s streets until they procured proper licences. However, Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari objected to the imposition of a ban on the services.

Ban in Delhi

Despite the ban, app-based taxi services have continued operations in Delhi, resulting in more than 500 of them being impounded in the National Capital Region in just over a month. State Transport Minister Gopal Rai has taken a firm stand against the unlicensed cab services and made it clear that while the government is not against any kind of business, it will not compromise on women’s safety.

“Unfortunately, the conduct of these companies so far does not inspire confidence and I have no hesitation in publicly stating that they have indulged in cheating the trust of the Delhi government and the residents of the national capital,” he said in a statement. Recently, Gopal Rai met representatives of taxi operators and told them that their pending applications for fresh licences would be considered only if they agreed to adhere to the existing ban on them, furnished the data of drivers and their vehicles within a week, and gave an undertaking that they would comply with safety regulations, particularly for women commuters.

“It is extremely surprising that these companies did not furnish the data within the time limit agreed to by them. It was because of this that their pending applications for fresh licences were rejected. It is beyond any reasonable understanding as to why companies are unwilling to share their data. Do they have anything to hide? I have met representatives of drivers’ associations and they have told me that they have submitted all their details with the offices of these companies located at Gurgaon. Then why are these companies hesitant to share the data with the Transport Department? In case these companies have nothing to hide, they should come clean and submit the required data and comply with stipulated safety guidelines,” he said.

He asked the Central government to have an effective implementation of the ban through the Department of Information Technology, but it was pointed out that as the server of this app-based service was not in India, the request could not be taken forward.

The Delhi Transport Department then rejected their application for licences for flouting the ban, but the Delhi High Court has ruled that the rejection of licence applications of Uber (Resource Expert Pvt. Ltd), Ola (Apra Cabs Pvt. Ltd) and TaxiForSure (Serendipity Labs) was invalid and the department should give them a fresh hearing.

It is not just in India that Web-based cab services are in trouble. Services in Thailand, Spain, France and Germany have had run-ins with the local authorities over non-compliance with rules and regulations and for disregarding proper background checks on drivers. Reportedly, in the United States, Uber faces legal issues in several places and was sued by 45 cab companies in Philadelphia alone.

There have also been reports of assault and rape. In one case, the initial reaction of Uber to the death of a six-year-old girl who was run over by an Uber driver was to deny responsibility as the driver was “offline” at the time of the accident. But the case became instrumental in making Uber and others toe the line and promise primary insurance coverage.

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