Despite their starring role in the city’s absurd traffic jams, Bombay’s cabs were viewed fondly by citizens because they were always available, charged by the meter, and rarely cheated riders. The system began to decay about a decade ago, and radio cabs, which attempted to supplement it, proved dreadfully inefficient. It took the mobile app revolution to provide a real alternative to the kaali peeli. In less than a year since I first rode an Uber, the service, along with its indigenous rival Ola, has become indispensible to me. It was only a matter of time before taxi and auto rickshaw drivers protested the incursion of these aggregators. It happened on Monday, when two unions declared a daylong strike and kept unaffiliated cabs off the road through threats of violence. This time round, I not only had empty roads greeting me on my journey downtown, but also the option of using the very app-based services the taxi drivers wanted closed down.
Uber and its clones have faced such protests in a number of cities, from London to Toronto to Hangzhou, and there are reasonable arguments to be made in favour of the traditional system. The drivers of app-based taxis aren’t licensed to drive cabs, and can’t be trusted to know the city. Background checks conducted on them are cursory, and their cars don’t have to keep to established standards the way government regulated taxicabs do. The counter-argument is that Indian cabs don’t actually fulfil many of the criteria established for them. Our state agencies hand out drivers’ licenses in exchange for bribes, and cabbies are often clueless about important landmarks. I’ve had licensed drivers who didn’t know the way to Churchgate or the Gateway of India.
As for the condition of the cars, while Uber and Ola cabs in India currently offer sparkling-new vehicles, even the passage of time is unlikely to render them as filthy and smelly as the average black-and-yellow. When state regulation of taxis becomes purely a matter of red tape and corruption rather than increased security and convenience for passengers, a private, technologically sophisticated solution is preferable, though of course, as the rape of a woman by an Uber driver proved, technology in itself is no guarantor of security.
I felt the absence of app-based cabs keenly on a visit last week to Goa, where a taxi mafia ensures bad service at extortionate rates. The state’s reputation has gone downhill over the past few years, and even Russian tourists are now abandoning it, not least because of the antics of taxi drivers overzealously guarding their turf.
The fall in foreign visitor numbers ensured we got a great deal for our hotel, but it would have been nice to summon an Ola for a midnight ride backafter dinner with friends. The firm did commence operations in late 2013, but Manohar Parrikar, who headed the state government before being nominated last year to the defence minister’s post at the centre, caved in to taxi owners’ demands, and banned the service.
I’ve been wholly supportive of Uber so far in this piece, but there’s one caveat I must add. Drivers are flocking to the service and hoovering up new cars, enticed by the excellent deals they’re being offered. For a guy in his early twenties with no great education or skill to earn between Rs 50,000 and Rs 90,000 a month, as many Uber drivers are doing, is a dream come true. What these men don’t understand is that the music will stop playing and the party will end. Some vaguely recognise that no company can keep subsidising cab rides forever. At some point, the need to turn a profit will trump the focus on customer acquisition, and both riders and drivers will be squeezed. But most drivers I’ve spoken to have no understanding of business plans in the Internet age, and genuinely believe the easy money will continue to roll in indefinitely. I suspect there will be a time not very far in the future when Uber drivers will be the ones on strike.