In defence of Uber: Is the government passing the buck?

First published in Scroll.in on 10 December 2014.

2014 was the year of the app. Come to think of it, there is no major life activity that is not being overtaken by smartphone apps. Ordering food, going to the movies, calling a cab, dating, instant messaging and forwarding inane jokes, shopping, news, posting selfies, watching online videos ‒ all of it is now through your apps. The most popular apps for those activities are Zomato, BookMySHow, Uber, Tinder, Whatsapp, Flipkart, NDTV or Times of India, Instagram and YouTube. Apart from the obligatory Facebook and Twitter. If you are a young urban professional in a big Indian city, chances are you have most of these apps on your phone.

One app, not ubiquitous yet, is called Secret. Secret connects you with your Facebook and phone friends who are also on Secret, but no identities are revealed. It promises to be super anonymous. Then, you can leave any secret on Secret. As you can imagine, most of it is about who’s sleeping with whom, who are the worst bosses, and a lot of bitching about companies. One message on Secret on Tuesday said that Uber has “made arrangements with 8 bloggers and 6 journalists for 6 figure sums to help them hush the Delhi incident”. If there was ever misuse of online anonymity, it is this. Now one can’t even make a case for Uber because someone one Secret will say, “I told you so.”

Uber hasn’t offered me a bribe. They aren’t even willing to take calls or answer questions. I believe they’ve been too busy with the police. But I do have a vested interest here, one that demands full disclosure: I love Uber. It’s changed my life more than any other app on my phone.

You could say I’m being selfish. I’m not a woman who fears the driver could turn into an animal any moment. But let me point you to this piece by TV journalist Sunetra Choudhury, who writes  about how women came to trust cab services like Uber:

“My younger colleagues no longer had dads waiting downstairs at our office for them. They would frequently have girls’ night outs and their sullen boyfriends were replaced outside the bar by more reliable ones named Meru and Ola and Mega with flexible pricing. I remember I heard about Uber when my colleague told me, ‘I thought I must be drunk because I called a cab and I saw an Audi outside!’ Yes, suddenly we Delhi women thought we were citizens of the world, living lives we were always meant to be. I could come home from work with my driver and then let him go home as I was supposed to, taking a cab later, if I was going for a movie or dinner with my friends. For my night out, I could wear whatever I wanted to, and not worry like I would had I taken the metro. I would sometimes think about forwarding my cab details to my husband but I became so trusting that I banished even those thoughts soon.”

Why we love Uber

The global transportation company arrived in Delhi in October 2013. Within a year, it disrupted the taxi market so badly that other cab services faced the heat. Uber has a simple mantra: keep both drivers and customers happy with simplicity of operation. Its strategy: have so many cars out there that a customer can get one within five-seven minutes of tapping on the app. Its global aim: making it redundant to have a car. Uber wants to be your personal chauffeur-driven car, even if you have to go for a short distance. The service is addictively good, and quite affordable – their recent aim with UberGo, using small cars, was to compete with auto-rickshaw prices.

A tap on the app and you knew who your driver was going to be, his name, photo, phone number, current location and approximately how many minutes away he is. You could see the car moving towards you on a map. After the trip, you were forced to rate the driver. The driver rated you too. Every driver thus has a fluctuating rating which shows on your screen. So if a driver has a rating of 4.5 of 5 stars, you know that many users liked travelling him, and felt safe.

This system makes Uber feel safer than any other cab service, and safer than the government’s licensing and law enforcement on the street.

If you added a complaint to a bad rating, Uber’s customer service got back to you. If you said he took a deliberately long route, Uber calculated the shortest route using a map and refunded you the extra amount.

Uber does not own these taxis, it does not employ these drivers. Uber is a middleman. It connects passengers with taxi drivers. So many Uber drivers told me how Uber changed their life. They loved it more than any other service. They tried them all. They left their jobs, bought a car, and joined Uber.

Now, thanks to one bad apple, and some really stupid government regulation about who can drive taxis where and how, Uber is going to be shut down. As are other app-based taxi services, perhaps. Uber allows their drivers to drive for others, so some drivers also took work from Taxi for Sure or Meru. Everybody in the radio taxi service business was forced to upgrade to the app way of running cabs across cities. Customers and drivers had both begun to detest market dominator Meru, and now Meru was facing the heat.

Is Uber really to blame?

Uber has 15,000 drivers across India, who must be doing at least 1.5 lakh rides a day. Of these, one Uber driver raped a woman in Delhi. It is far from the first case of a cab driver raping a woman in Delhi, or rape in a vehicle. The Delhi Police was quick to blame it all on Uber. Remember the flak that the Delhi Police and the Delhi transport department faced over the 16 December 2012 gangrape and murder. This time, it wasn’t a Delhi rape. It was an Uber rape.

When the Delhi transport authorities issue someone a commercial driving license, it is the Delhi transport authority’s job to make sure that the person gives legitimate documents and his address is verified and that he has no criminal records. In this case, the driver seems to have had a character certificate from the Delhi Police. The Delhi Police claims it is fake. Now, is an employer also going to check whether every authentic-looking document real or fake?

The driver had been acquitted on rape charges earlier. The victim had turned hostile. Uber should have checks in place so it doesn’t hire such drivers. But it is a comment on our legal and judicial process that a driver who allegedly commits rape manages to have a “compromise” with the victim and is back on the road.

He also has a character certificate from the Delhi Police. If not Uber, somebody else would hire him. You could force Uber cabs to have GPS installed in them, apart from the phone GPS they use anyway. But drivers could disable that too. Drivers may not even disable the GPS to commit rape.

Of course, it is not rape but stupid regulation that is being invoked to ban Uber in India. In the process, the government is missing the woods for the trees. It is making our lives, those of men and women, inconvenient and more unsafe.

Instead of banning app-based cab services, the government would do a lot better for women’s safety by working with them. It is clear that the solutions have to come from the government more than Uber. Having a national database of drivers with commercial licenses, along with their criminal records, would help companies make the right decision while hiring drivers. You can kick Uber out of India, but ensuring there is adequate public transport and it’s safe for women is the government’s job.

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