Sunday, December 14, 2014

Regulations, Rape and Uber - Let's get our facts right and let's ask the right questions!

I woke up last Sunday morning to the horrifying news of yet another rape in Delhi and what made the act even more dastardly was the fact that the incident happened in what was till then considered ultra safe Uber cab allegedly perpetrated by a Uber driver. And then all hell broke loose - news channel were running the story non-stop highlighting how Uber - 'a radio cab operator' has been flouting norms, calls to ban Uber started coming in,  Uber officials in Delhi were being summoned by Police and transport authorities, soon Delhi Govt banned Uber, Home ministry also issued an advisory to states government asking them to ban Uber and pretty soon Telangana and Maharashtra followed suit (and the current status in these states in unclear given the number of uturns), Uber Mumbai's GM was attacked inside a Govt office premises in front of police in full view of press and now Uber staff is working out of either hotels or home too worried about their safety. Of course, the Uber incident has also had a fallout for other similar operators viz. Ola and TaxiforSure who have come under fire in some of these cities. Amidst all this Uber hunting there was also a surprising and somewhat reassuring statement by Minister of Transport who asked the question if banning Uber would solve the real issue here?

While the situation has been rapidly evolving over the last 7 days ever since the story broke - I have been amazed to see how poorly informed our authorities and news channel have been about cab aggregators like Uber, Ola etc.For instance, Delhi Police wasn't even aware of what Uber is all about and one of the senior police officer actually had to download the app and hail a Uber cab in order to reach the Uber office - this despite the fact that Uber is a registered company providing cab service in the city and has been in news for all sorts of other reasons till this incident happened - the latest being RBI orders to get its payment system in compliance - clearly no one is Delhi Police bothers to read news unless they are a part of it! Moreover, given the fact that registering a business in India is toughest in the world - one would expect that at least this tough process makes it easier for authorities to track down the business in such situations - clearly that is not the case. Similarly, it was irritating to see leading news channel referring to Uber as a Radio cab operator for next 2-3 days and therefore, talking about its lack of compliance such as not having a call center etc without even realizing that none of that holds true for a cab aggregator and therefore, clearly misled their audience in believing that Uber and other similar players have been flouting radio taxi norms. It was really funny to see some of the so called traffic experts and former police officers appearing as guest on these channels already convinced about Uber's guilt and imparting wisdom - clearly nobody bothered to do their homework and definitely no one seemed to be asking the right questions.

As someone who has been watching this space closely, I am very disappointed with all the misinformation and therefore sharing some facts on regulations so that next time when people debate Uber at least they do it on the right basis. Also will try and give my two cents on this entire Uber saga.

Interestingly, last year in Mumbai, RTO filed a case against Ola (and also Meru Plus) for operating tourist taxis with a meter (more on why that would invite RTO's wrath later in this post)  - while what happened to that case is not clear but why did the authorities not wake up then to the potential problem an unregulated player can pose? Perhaps they were waiting for this incident to happen!!

Its not Uber, Its Delhi Stupid!
But I get into Uber stuff, as a Delhi boy, I have one question for the city - WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU DELHI?

I happened to be in Delhi in 2012 Dec when the entire city was on boil in the aftermath of Nirbhaya gang rape case. The fact that the issue rocked the parliament with women MPs vowing that this case won't be just another statistic and the India Gate stand-off gave me hope that perhaps things will improve - perhaps the perpetrators will realize that rape is just not done knowing very well that next time they will have to pay a much bigger cost if they dare to commit the act. But no, my optimism was misplaced  - Delhi continues to be the rape capital of the world. At times I wonder who are these guys who can so easily commit such crimes without even thinking once about the consequences? For instance, what was this Uber driver thinking - that he won't get caught? Also what is it with Delhi rapist and iron rods - is there some Delhi School of Rape which we don't know about teaching lessons on preferred weapons for sexual assault? Interestingly, all those who are cursing Uber need to remember that Nirbhaya was raped in a Pvt Bus - bus which essentially operates on a stage carriage permit (a permit which allows pvt buses to operate as chartered buses picking up and dropping people along the route) and its driver and conductor were involved - people who are given license by the authorities. More importantly, the unfortunate girl was in that bus because the auto drivers outside the mall, who operate under the permit given by the Govt and are obligated by the law to ferry people, refused her a ride - in my opinion those auto drivers are as much responsible for her rape as that bus driver and conductor.

You may be wondering why I have jumped topics here? My limited point in highlighting these facts is to ask the authorities why wasn't anything done then to ensure that city transport is in safer hands - the auto drivers still blatantly refuse fare and often themselves indulge in eve-teasing (ask any Delhi female), was any drive carried out to check the antecedents of Delhi bus drivers and conductors, any review done of permits given to pvt buses and taxis then? If not, then you were essentially waiting for another disaster to happen and it has happened.  Why is it that for a woman to commute safely in the city she needs a cocoon like Uber and cannot rely on regular auto drivers or other modes of public transport to reach home safely and when that cocoon turns out to be nothing but a mirage all hell breaks loose? Perhaps if our city transport would have been in order may be this girl wouldn't have bothered with a Uber!

So, how much are Uber, Ola et al in the wrong?
Now lets come to issue at heart of this post. Are cab aggregators really working outside the law? To answer this one first need to understand the entire system of permits that govern taxis in India. Ever wondered why even though there is so much demand of black-yellow taxis/autos there are so few of them? The demand-supply of these taxis/autos is so lopsided that they don't mind refusing fares till they get a decently long distance fare leaving most of us ripping our hair out trying to reach our destinations. Why is that more people don't run these black-yellow taxis and take advantage of this unmet demand? That's because their supply is tightly controlled by authorities through a taxi permit. Only those guys who have a permit can ply these black-yellow taxis and do a curbside pick-up - no one else is authorized to do so. Of course, if you are operating under the permit there is a long list of rules that you need to follow for eg. charging fare using a meter which calculates as per the rates set by the authorities, always wearing a uniform, never refusing a fare - but most of us know what really happens. Now besides these taxi permit vehicles, there is another set of vehicles which can ferry people - these are vehicles who have tourist permit. Unlike black yellow taxis, these are the vehicles which are intended to provide at times intra but mostly inter city transportation for tourist and travelers. A tourist permit taxi cannot do curb side pick-ups and cannot have a meter - they need to have a pre-agreed contract for a point to point drop with a fixed fare. In addition to these two types of taxis we now have for last 8 years or so (at least in few big cities) radio taxis - the Merus of the world. These radio taxis are more like a hybrid between tourist and city taxis wherein they are primarily meant for intra city travel but cannot do curb side pick-up - you would need to ring a call center to get such a cab. Special licenses were given out to operate radio taxis across these cities where these licenses had some tough pre-conditions such as minimum 500 sized fleet within a year, 24x7 call center, GPS fitted vehicles, sufficient parking space etc. - In some ways radio taxis were the authorities' solution to the pathetic service being provided by black yellow taxis while ensuring that they do not rub the powerful taxi unions the wrong way - and of course the pricing was also set in a manner that they stay out of reach of the common man.

Now coming back to tourist taxis, there is a lot of ambiguity in regulations around usage of such taxis for intra city travel - for instance, I am sure before radio taxis came in, a lot of us must have called the nearest taxi stand to get a tourist taxi for a station or airport drop. Even now there are number of tourist taxi operators who provide these taxis for point to point drop within the city - all you need to do is call them and fix the rates. In fact, there are number of organized operators like Avis, Orix who have a fleet of tourist vehicles providing corporates intra-city logistics solutions for their people.You will be surprised to know that in a city like Mumbai where there about 48K black yellow taxis there are another ~45K tourist permit taxis. Imagine if these were also available to us as easily as city taxis - the supply demand skew would immediately get balanced and that is where the players like, Uber, Ola and Taxiforsure (and even Meru Plus) come in. Since these taxis cannot do a curb side pick and therefore cannot be on the road waiting for a passenger - how will they get info they you need a taxi? Either you call them (and then you will end up calling 3-4 of them before you get an available taxi at the right fare at the right time) which then is no longer as instantaneous as curb side pick-up or have someone like these cab aggregators aggregate this supply, fix a price and then act as a go between you and these operators to ensure that these cabs are available as instantly as city taxis - and that's how these guys are solving a major urban transport problem by providing a technology platform .

Now while the tourist permit taxis and their drivers are duly covered under the MV act and rules of country, these technology providers fall in a grey area as they neither own taxis nor they themselves are providing this service - at best they are acting like agents who are helping you get a ride. Therefore, there is no section in MV act under which they can be held accountable - though interestingly some of the states' MV rules like Maharashtra have rules around agents requiring them to get registered but again those rules refer to a person acting as agent and nothing really covers an entity or company working as an agent.Therefore, as long as these cab aggregators are aggregating cabs which have a permit they are not doing anything illegal - they are just providing information to commuters and getting their commission. In fact, it is really sad to see that here we have a bunch of new age companies with amazingly empowering technology platforms solving an age old urban transport issue coming under fire from those in the power echelons, who have otherwise had accepted status quo as part of their lives, working at the possible behest of those unions and vested interest who now see their grip loosening over the urban transportation scene.

Having said that since these aggregators are almost working as pseudo operators setting fares and terms and conditions of operations - I think it is critical that they are brought under the ambit of MV act with the new bill that is due to be presented in the parliament soon - so that they can be regulated more easily and do not get away by dealing with customer in a high handed manner.

What about aggregators' accountability?
Now that we have some clarity on regulations what about the question of accountability? Surely these aggregators who are venture backed incorporated companies run by well educated enterprising individuals have to be more responsible then some fly by night operators who typically take people for a ride by promising a chauffeur driven sedan and delivering a rickety private car driven by a ruffian who looks all set to murder you at the slightest provocation! If they want to build a sustainable business in such a highly competitive environment they better be accountable. But the question is where do we draw a line on accountability? I am not sure if you noted that throughout the coverage of Uber rape case there has been no mention of the taxi owner - the actual permit owner who is answerable under the law. How did he employ this driver? What checks did he do before employing the driver? More importantly, what checks are prescribed under the law before hiring a taxi driver by a permit holder? And what provisions are there in the law to qualify license of a taxi driver once convicted under the law? Now definitely these aggregators need to make sure that they do not end up with cab which is not fit for plying (including making sure it has requisite permits, permissions etc.) and a driver who has behavioral issues or a chequered past (besides checking on his health, license etc.). But while you can get a cab tested by a well qualified mechanic and give courtesy training to the driver how do you check the driver's antecedents especially when he is hell bent on hiding it? Do we have access to some kind of criminal database to cross check what a driver states in his application? Or does police provide some kind of verification service which can help such companies? The answer is big NO!(In fact, when I wanted to hire a driver for my car and checked with police on their verification process I was told there was none and advised to just keep a copy of his ID documents - now how would that help curb his criminal intention if he has any?) Even if these companies hire a verification agency the only way they can access such information is by tracking the driver's history all the way back to his place of origin and to the time when he started working -something which firms don't even do for their own direct employees these days. But the bigger question is why should the aggregators facing stiff competition in the market and keen to quickly ramp even worry about the employee of their contractual partner - the cab permit holder - why isn't this the responsibility of the permit holder? And why should this be done only in the case of cabs contracted with aggregators? What about those cabs which operate independently as tourist taxis - don't they also need to be made safe as well? In another incident few months ago a taxi driver and his friends in Dehradun raped and murdered a girl and her male friend who were traveling from Gurgaon  - so much for a safe journey in a tourist taxi - why hasn't this incident prompted the same kind of media scrutiny and authorities' attention and action? What about those numerous cases where drivers including some city taxi drivers blatantly intimidate and abuse passengers? What are we waiting for - a murder? The big question is what are authorities doing to identify such elements and remove them from the system - how do they even get license to drive public service vehicles? Why should suddenly the onus for such checks falls on an entrepreneur who has worked his ass off on developing a tool under the big assumption that if govt has issued permit and licenses then those taxis and drivers must be clean and trustworthy? Also, to all those pointing fingers on these cab aggregators - I want to know what is the expectation here? That they would somehow manufacture courteous civilized free of criminal record drivers ? Remember their service offering is only as good as the people and resources who are already in the system - they can only marginally improve them through training but cannot completely change them - they definitely cannot identify and eliminate a criminal element in a preemptive manner especially in absence of any resource to carry out such checks - the quality of people and resources is something which law makers need to address.

Of course, while arguing this one cannot miss the news that has emerged where the same driver was already reported by another passenger to Uber and Uber did not take action - this definitely qualifies as a breach of trust and deliberate act of omission thereby putting their guest at risk. While Uber and other aggregators cannot preemptively identify drivers who may have criminal intent - one would expect them to take immediate action on such feedbacks. Uber must own up to this lapse and if doesn't, it should be held liable. This is another reason why this new animal called 'cab aggregator' needs to be quickly brought under the ambit of law.

Here's hoping that all knee jerking post this very unfortunate event subsides soon - yes we need new regulations for new kind of service providers but we also need to clean our own mess - do not let the Police and RTO pass the buck to cab aggregators for that will just be playing in the hands of those who do not want to see them succeed and may lead to untimely death of what otherwsie can be a great solution to our urban transportation woes.


Tarsem Mittal said...

In India, every cab has to be yellow plate. Private plate being used for commercial activity is illegal. If others do it doesn't justify Uber's wrong doing also.

All those who do it knows this and pays the share of fortune to authorities. Uber did not pay anything, as they themselves don't claim to be taxi service providers.

But the entire media is harping on police verification of the driver. If he has done any crime before, does it mean he can not get a driving permit; of for that matter he can't get employed anywhere, as he doesn't have good police certificate? Are we really serious here?? What if tomorrow someone wrongly accuses of harassment. My life is screwed then as I wouldn't get employed anywhere!!

We as society have failed so badly. We have reduced ourselves from a joint family to nuclear to now atomic. We don't care about anyone, forget about the marginalized section of the society!!

the more the media runs this country, the more difficult it will get this country to govern!!

Nishant Kashyap said...

Actually Tarsem you got it wrong- Uber was using a vehicle with a taxi permit (and hence a yellow number plate) because had it been a private vehicle they would have definitely been behind bars by now!