The Kerala unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is set to take on corporate taxi aggregator services like Uber and Ola by introducing a local version of mobile app-based taxi and auto-rickshaw service in the state.

Centre for Indian Trade Unions, the trade union wing of the party, with several taxi drivers unions affiliated to it, plans to launch the service next month on an experimental basis at Kochi, where it runs a Taxi Drivers’ Welfare Society.

The society, which currently has 200 members, will be expanded by enrolling taxi drivers belonging to various unions, who will be given special training, including basic communication skills in English. The society would also make bank loans available to the drivers to upgrade their cabs and procure communication gadgets like smart phones and GPS systems.

A special mobile app on the lines of Uber is being developed for the service, according to former Rajya Sabha member and CPI(M) Ernakulam district secretary P Rajeev, the main architect of the service, who also spearheaded the successful organic farming initiative of the party.

Initially, this service will charge government-approved rates which are later proposed to be adjusted by market conditions.  Rajeev thinks the discounted rates that the corporate groups charge now will not stay for long and it is only a matter of time before the companies stop paying incentives to drivers from their own pockets and make the customers pay the full fare.

When you can’t beat them…

Rajeev came up with the idea of an alternative app-based service after moves by the party-led unions to resist the corporate online cab service physically failed to strike a chord with people, who have wholeheartedly welcomed services such as Uber and Ola because they are cheap and customer-friendly, compared to conventional taxis.

The party could not rally the taxi drivers against the “corporate invasion” by invoking “anti-multinational sentiments” despite their strong political leanings,  because these services were also economically more rewarding for the latter.

“As a comrade I have participated in several struggles against multinationals and had no intention to join the online cab service.  But I had to change my mind after my income started dwindling as a result of the spread of Uber and Ola operations in the city,” said Aneesh, who worked earlier for a travel firm in Kochi.

He said his income had gone up substantially after he joined the online network. Another advantage was the prompt payment he gets every week. He said that he had never got his salary on time when he worked with the travel firm.

The party-led unions tried to drive away the Uber and Ola driver partners by unleashing a campaign of intimidation and violence.  The union members waylaid and blocked these cabs at various points in the city, especially airport and railway stations, in the last few weeks.

CPI(M) central committee member and former state finance minister TM Thomas Isaac supported the new initiative, saying that attempts to oppose the service physically would alienate people who benefit  by it. The problem can be solved only by empowering the conventional taxi drivers to use new technology, he added.

Healthy competition

Uber and Ola had anticipated strong resistance from trade unions when they launched the service in two cities in the state this year. They view the move by the opposition party to launch an alternative service as a welcome sign.

“This shows that nobody can stop technology. We welcome the proposed service as it will bring more competition to the field benefitting the users ultimately,” a spokesman for Uber said, adding that this will bring an end to the current wave of attacks on their driver partners.

The Uber spokesman said they were also apprehensive about drivers joining the network. He said that the response they got was overwhelming. The number of drivers who have joined the network in Kochi has crossed 1500 within six months of launching the service.

He said that drivers of conventional taxis were migrating to online cab service in large numbers because these platforms have created rare economic and entrepreneurship opportunities for them. According to available information, more than 3,000 taxies have migrated to online app-based service in Kochi.

Naushad, another Uber driver partner at Kochi, said the biggest attraction for him was the regular work he gets. Earlier, he had to wait for hours in taxi stands to get a client. There is no dearth of work as even those who used to go by auto rickshaws have now started depending on these cabs for travel within the city limits.

The largest business-house

The online cab service is yet another business avenue for the CPI(M), which has investments in almost all sectors of the economy in the state. With a host of educational institutions, hospitals, media houses, banks, resorts and even an amusement park, the party is considered the largest business-house in the industrially backward Kerala.

If the land in possession of the party and its feeder organizations is taken into consideration, the CPI(M) is the single largest owner of land in the land-scarce state.  Former Union Finance Minister P Chidamabaram estimated the asset of the CPI(M) in Kerala at Rs 4000 crores a few years ago. He had accused the working class party of driving away investors and using the opportunity to accumulate assets in the state.

The party that views capitalists as class enemies justifies the investments, saying that the workers had created them in order to strengthen the party’s fight against capitalists and monopolies.