On the evening of 5th December2014, a young lady executive of an MNC in Gurgaon attended a party with her friends in a nearby area and was dropped by a friend to South Delhi around 10pm. From here she took an Uber cab for Inderlok. Taking advantage of the fact that the girl slept off in the cab, the driver switched off his phone and thereby the GPS or tracking device on it activated the baby lock system so that the girl could not open the car doors to escape and raped her. He silenced her by threatening her with a rod and himself citing the fate of the 2012 victim of 16th December. He then threatened her against telling the police and dropped her home. However she photographed the registration plate of the cab with her mobile and reached the police the same night (1.30am). The outcry in Delhi forced the Central Govt’s Home Minister to act fast to deflect attention from the role of the police. He made a statement in Parliament assuring justice, banning Uber in Delhi until it gets a license to operate and calling on all states to impose such a ban.
Subsequently, a wealth of information surfaced revealing much about the various aspects involved. There also emerged opposers of the ban led by none other than the Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkhari. His logic is that if there is a rape on a bus or a train (i.e. on a public transport) will the train be banned? The point is, it is not that taxi but MNC Uber which provides the private transport that has been banned just as the Govt. would surely be targeted in the case of the train and could even be forced to resign if the movement on the issue was widespread enough.
As information accumulates, it becomes clear that this is a case where the willing Govt. has let loose an unregulated service provider onto the people while itself withdrawing from providing adequate services. Secondly, there are the rash of MNCs who couldn’t care less about the people of India, but only want to exploit its numerically vast market as fast as possible. The two are hand in glove.
Taxi Aggregation Services
The taxi industry has changed in the past few years. First came radio taxi operators, with companies owning taxis (now all supposed to be fitted with tracking or GPS services) and employing drivers, with a call centre which takes the bookings.
Uber is however a web based taxi aggregation service; it is ‘A technology platform that links drivers and users’. Simply put, it means a middle man (though sophisticated) having contact with taxis on the one hand and customers on the other and taking a commission for putting them in contact. Uber has contact with a string of cabs on one hand and customers on the other who approach it through its app. These taxis, in Delhi, belong to some owners with licensed tourist taxis or even to the drivers some of whom Uber itself finances to purchase their own taxis. Any owner can opt to put his vehicles under Uber. These drivers usually have an all India tourist license and a character certificate from the police.
Each driver is given a smart phone (now Samsung) on which is downloaded the Uber app, which also has the tracking device (a GPS). In Delhi, GPS is mandatory on autos and taxis on the vehicle. When the driver switches of the phone he is untracable. Many newspaper reports substantiate that drivers simply have to go to the Uber office, submit their licence and character certificates, are given phones and some training for an hour or two chiefly on how to use the app.
Customers who desire to use Uber’s services must download its app on their mobiles. When they type in their requirements, the nearest driver will usually reach the customer within a few minutes. It is a quick service, it is also relatively cheap for customers while the drivers have expressed satisfaction that they are given adequate work and fairly. All this spells certain efficiency and makes it popular among clients including women who actually presume the safety aspect. The company prides itself on having no verbal communication with the communication; the customer speaks to no one, simply sends in his or her requirements and is quickly given a cab. This very aspect backfires on the customer. The company runs no call centre; simply taking the commissions with no responsibilities once it has made the contact; in distress the customer cannot immediately contact the company. That is how it cuts costs to a minimum. In a telling example, in Germany two women named themselves Uber before this company entered the scene there and they registered their phone no. in this name. They virtually became the call centre of the taxi service, getting calls from irritated customers, from customers who accidentally left behind their purses, keys and cell phones in the cabs and didn’t know how to get to Uber’s operatives urgently.
There are three major taxi aggregate service providers in the country. Taxi for Sure is backed by Accel (venture capital fund) and Ola (the largest) is Indian backed by Japan’s Soft Bank which recently gave it a 210 million dollar funding.
Uber was born in San Francisco (US) in 2010. Its short history brings out the problems. In the US, its driver assaulted a passenger in New York while another committed sexual assault. It was banned in Berlin and Hamburg in Germany where it now operates an ordinary taxi service. In the first two weeks of this December it has been banned in Spain, in Netherlands, in Thailand for noncompliance with rules and in Vietnam. The point is Uber is not answerable for passenger safety from the drivers.
Uber’s attitude to its customers? There are two experiences in Delhi itself where Uber entered only last year (It first came to Bengalaru). On 26th November 2014 a young NRI on a visit to Delhi complained to Uber against the lecherous behavior of this very driver. She was given a so-called ‘generic’ response which means a noncommittal ‘we will look into the matter’ and nothing was done as is obvious in the next incident on 5th Dec. The NRI girl has since spoken out publicly, regretting that she did not actively follow up her own complaint.
The second of course, is Uber’s response to the current incident. Eric Alexander, President of Uber Business Asia, gave the official comment on the 8th of Dec. post the ban. ‘We will compensate the victim financially, we will obey the rules and we will remain in Delhi.’ All in one sentence and all accorded the same priority it seems. So the question seems to arise that what are the protests about when, even though the company was alerted about the driver earlier, it is willing to give money to the victim. It is brash, it is business and it is all about the market –if the customer complains the company compensates. It is the arrogance of an MNC who knows it is not disposable to the ruling dispensation which has sworn to be business friendly and in whose view a woman’s right to personal security and to be not bodily infringed against her will is something to be offset by cash.
Uber is not going from Delhi; Rajnath’s statement only implies it has to seek a license. He has played for time till the issue cools off. Mr. Alexander also said that India is one of the top markets of Asia for Uber, neck to neck with China and after the US. The rape incident came one day after Uber raised a billion dollars in funding for Asia and also snagged an evaluation of 40 billion dollars. It is used to dealing with criticism. In the US one of Uber’s executives, Emil Michael, suggested at a dinner gathering that the company should allocate a million dollars to dig up dirt on the reporters critical of it. A top Uber executive has been mired in allegations of threatening Sarah Lacy, an influential Silicon Valley blogger.
Where Does Governance Stand?
One of the facts to immediately come to light was that the guilty driver possessed a character certificate from the Delhi police. How did he manage that, when he is a serial sexual offender, unconvicted no doubt. He is now 32 years of age and the first complaint of sexual assault was lodged against him in his native district of Myemsingh (UP) when he was 21 years old. Three cases have been lodged against him under the Goonda Act. Three years ago (2012) he raped a passenger who hired the radio taxi cab he was driving from Gurgaon to Vasant Kunj. The case was closed this year for want of evidence, though the judge castigated the police for shoddy investigation. The police did not represent the earlier cases, which would not have allowed him to go scot free.
How did he get the current character certificate from the police-just few months earlier? Knowing the police, scarcely anyone is asking this question. Police Commissioner, Delhi, says the certificate is forged. It is signed by a DCP who was transferred from the concerned district in Feb.2014 whereas the certificate was issued in June. Why does the PC not say the signature is forged? Hundreds of drivers have been telling why. In the police stations are agents who get them character certificates for a mere eight thousand rupees. That apparently is how all drivers having all India tourist licenses get their character certificates at least in Delhi.
When the police received the victim’s complaint they said that they had no idea that there was such a service operating in Delhi. Over to Delhi Transport Department who now discovered that Uber is an unlicensed service and has not obtained a no objection certificate to ply in Delhi. Considering that Uber has 500 taxis openly plying in the city since last year, whose fault should this be? In August this year the company was hauled up by RBI for flouting its directives. The Transport department also says that taxis with all India permits cannot be involved in point to point drops in a city. Why weren’t they stopped, why weren’t they detected?
Failure of Public Transport Provision
There is a desperate shortage of adequate and safe public transport services, that too not only in Delhi. In Delhi, as the 16th Dec. 2012 incident highlighted, DTC buses are unavailable even in late evening and that remains the case till date. Buses are overcrowded and inadequate and women face gender harassment commonly. Reacting has more chance of swinging public opinion towards the offender. Autorickshaws and taxi services registered under the transport services over charge outrageously, are not always found, do not always agree to ferry passengers and are considered unsafe due to the behavior of the drivers. That is why those who can afford to do so avoid these buses and this also involves a numerically very large section of working women who work late hours (in malls, in bars, as junior executives in companies as journalists, in call centres) and also others who want easily accessible, not over expensive transport. They go for these private service providers like radio taxi operators (Meru etc.) and services like Uber. They presume the safety aspect. Radio taxi operators are not always able to provide taxis when they promise, involve the user in talking to the driver etc. Besides, their norms for safety like a GPS on the vehicle were imposed after this very same driver, while operating a radio taxi, raped a woman three years earlier. Not only does Uber cater to this section, it offers cars of choice (BMWs) to those who can afford its higher services. The former group has a sympathetic backing in students of various universities of Delhi many of whom do part time jobs to stay alive in the city, and also those students undergoing coaching in Delhi for various examinations. These too often work in call centres in night shift. This entire section is vocal and is active in social media.
There are several discordant notes. The section which uses Uber is not at all against private services but it wants answerability from it, whereas gender safe services are not the priority of businesses. Then there is the polity in which all parliamentary parties quite agree that privatization of services and withdrawal of public expenditure and involvement in these is the answer and there is no serious policy any of them have to improve public transport with a view to common people’s needs. The test case is actually Delhi where, despite the massive upsurge two years earlier when the UPA Govt. held power at the Centre and Congress in Delhi and no policy came forth, to the 49 day old AAP state Govt. which announced no policy in this regard, to the Modi Govt. dealing Delhi for the past six months. Not bothering in the least about providing adequate public transport really involves contempt towards the basic need of people at large who must commute for work and cannot afford public transport.
The Congress criticized the rationale of banning a service for one rape, and wants ‘exemplary action’ against the accused. What is that- unless surety of punishment is considered rare enough to be exemplary? Their opinion before Verma Commission for chemical castration was as much disliked as their rule. The AAP took to the streets to demand a ban on such services and when the conditional ban came, criticized it for being ‘knee jerk’. There are interests of entire ruling class against ban on foreign corporate business – however conditional the ban, however small the corporate.
The situation calls for women to demand that Govts. must provide for safe, efficient, adequate gender sensitive public transport services, for action against the police officer who issued a spurious character certificate and also against policies which involve withdrawal of govts. from providing basic services to the people.