Severe financial crisis, a paralyzed mother and an ailing father, forced a woman in Baroda to sell herself on social media some time back. Prostitution is not legal in India. Though in this case stuck by her plight, help for the lady came from a host of persons including Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren. Though offering oneself is not a common business and was more a compulsion for the lady, it is an example of how new media platforms can be used for just about anything.
Uber and many other new age companies fall in this category of technology enabled business enterprises that find quick opportunity online. Since there is no legal barrier or regulation for them, law is an ass, as it is famously said. Should then, simply the perpetrator of a crime and the law take up culpability, or should the government or the company be equally held responsible?
Banning Uber, Ola Cabs and TaxiForSure might not prevent a crime as grave as a rape but it does raise a question: Was the Delhi government or the Centre which has now asked other states to do the same, waiting for the rape to happen to ban such outfits?
Since framing of law does not keep pace with the mushrooming of such enterprises, should a policy framework be first prepared to provide “ease of business” to these companies or should they be allowed to prosper first and then make rules around their functioning. In either case, law is an ass. By not keeping the basic principle of equity for all forms of businesses in mind and not learning from the experience such entities leave behind in other countries, and allowing a crime to remind you of the vulnerability of these systems, all you are taking is the benefit of hindsight.
Certainly, law is to be blamed but what about the government? “Uber’s services were also in contravention of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988, and rules framed under it,” said a Delhi government statement. If it was so, then why was it not questioned earlier. Taxi being a civic service used by unsuspecting persons out of need should be safe. But quite similar to the December 2012 gang rape on a chartered bus, which was not suppose to ferry passengers outside its permit, the Uber case exemplifies how businesses run even where regulation fails fully aware that compliance is good for them in the long run.
For the technology friendly or rather apps and gizmo freaks, e-commerce sites, market places and anything born out of foreign investment, private equity or simply new age entrepreneurship, is here to be lauded and written about. And, if the governments tighten leash on them, then taxmen, bank regulators or policy makers are to be frowned upon as being draconian, anti-investment and really decadent in their outlook.
But the ban on Uber’s services is probably a much smaller issue than the loss of image for its brand. As it stands right now, the company falls in no category of taxi service—neither the neighbourhood taxi stand nor the radio taxi service, both of which are governed by rules laid down by the government, so Uber should have been extra vigilant. Post the crime, the company is no wiser. Eric Alexander, president of Business, Uber Asia has been quoted in the Economic Times, as saying he was ready to financially compensate the victim, and how his staff has been moved to the safer compound of a five-star hotel. If that was all, that was needed.
Going by the media reports, the company has suddenly become compliant with regulatory guidelines on payment mode and is also paying its taxes but it is important to note all this happened after it had a run-in with the concerned departments. Culpability, therefore, has to be shared and this time not just by the rapist and the government but also the company and its staff some of whom may have raised slogans or opinions against the Congress governments when the December gang rape happened in 2013.