A couple of months ago, I wrote a column about the decline of Bombay’s black-and-yellow cab service. Around the same time, a convenient option arrived in the form of Uber. Fleet cab services had been around for years, but taxis had to be ordered well in advance and often failed to turn up on time. With Uber, I could get a comfortable ride at a reasonable price in a matter of minutes. Soon, the San Francisco-headquartered upstart became my default taxi option.

Uber’s drivers came from a substantially different demographics than the city’s conventional taxicabs; they were mainly young Muslims , Marathis and South Indians. In conversations, they gave me an insight into the firm’s operations. It had scaled up extraordinarily quickly, to nearly 10,000 cars per city in a few months, with only skeleton staff. Not only did it contract existing tourist taxis, it secured good terms with car dealers so specific models could be bought in bulk by interested companies and individuals.

Uber itself neither purchased the vehicles nor guaranteed loans. It put drivers through rudimentary training focussed on understanding the mobile app on which the entire service hinged. While it trusted the police force to test drivers and weed out criminals, the company did provide customers one extra layer of security: the driver’s name, picture and mobile telephone number.

Off the map

The service, I found, wasn’t always efficient. Drivers received my location through the app, just as I received theirs, but few could navigate on the basis of a map. A telephone call or three was standard before I climbed into the car. I’d occasionally grumble about the calls, and was told that clients often marked the wrong address, so following the map only led to missed fares. Then there was surge pricing, which meant periods of high demand when Uber raises its price by between 25% and 100%. Some drivers, I learned, gamed the system by switching on the iPhone provided by Uber only long enough to check if a surge was on. Rather than drive around the whole day, they picked the most lucrative times.

Uber’s customer service degenerated very quickly in the face of its rapid growth. After each ride, the app requires customers to rate the driver, and offers them the option of adding comments. After I complained about a driver back in August, I promptly received this reply:

We work hard to partner with the best drivers and we appreciate your sharing your experience. We'll follow up with (Name withheld) regarding this trip and to remind him of the standards and city knowledge that riders expect when they request an Uber pickup.


(Name withheld)

Then, last month, I was cheated by an Uber driver at the Santa Cruz domestic airport. After asking me to come to a bus-stop close to the terminal, he pretended he was at another bus-stop, then lied about being at the international terminal, then switched off his tracker, and finally charged me for a ride I never took. I have written over half a dozen messages to Uber about this, and received no response.

Being Indian

My first reaction to being swindled was to tell myself I’d stop using the service. However, I knew I wouldn’t keep the resolution even as I made it, because getting conned and finding no recourse comes with the territory of being Indian. I’ve been deceived, lied to, or treated unfairly by pretty much every service provider I use: my phone company, my cable operator, BEST, private airlines, you name it. I’ve complained to their customer service departments, as I have to local branches of multinationals like McDonald’s and Amazon for sundry infractions. In no instance has any complaint evoked a proper response, leave alone a satisfactory resolution. I’ve realised there’s no point quitting my phone service provider because the competitors are no better. As for the state-owned utility BEST, whose employees accept my electricity bill is way over what it should be but profess an inability to do anything about it, it currently has a monopoly to abuse.

So it was that I continued using Uber, and booked a cab even on Monday, as the news sank in of another ghastly rape in Delhi. The Left happily took the opportunity to bash the United States and multinationals, which served the police well. But it’s unclear how Uber is meant to conduct adequate background checks in the absence of government-created databases on criminals. Besides, it’s not as if the Uber case is an exception.  A cursory web search throws up many instances of rapes by taxi drivers in Delhi, and outside. You can read the horrifying stories here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here .

Uber is not the problem, even though it isn’t the solution some hoped it would be. The problem remains India, and males, and Indian males, and Indian culture. It remains inefficient, corrupt regulators with no accountability. It remains a judicial system that takes 40 years to convict the killers of even a powerful minister, with an appellate procedure to follow. Uber will face consequences worldwide for what happened in Delhi. Its reputation, already low, will sink further. It will have to take steps to improve protocols. On the other hand, the man who gave the rapist a clean character certificate will face no criminal charges. The police have begun their usual cover-up by claiming the certificate was forged, and the concerned officer wasn’t at work that day. Each such cover-up carries within it the seeds of more horrific crimes.