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Putting people last

The tragedy linked to the Uber taxi hailing service and the government’s subsequent ban is a good example of just how much democratic India’s governance is not for the people. The issue goes beyond the immediate one of depriving urban working women a relatively reliable and safe form of transportation, fulfilling a need that state-provided services have been signally unable to provide in all these years. From cable television services to e-rickshaws, to provide two examples, the response of local and central administrations has been to eye ways of rentiering first rather than enhancing consumer choice.

To be sure, Uber cannot be exonerated from its casual driver verification process in its urge to expand quickly. But details that have been appearing in the media reveal the sordid truth of ingrained corruption among public services that can have tragic consequences for citizens. It is now clear that the taxi driver in question was able to operate, thanks to fake verification papers and a fake licence; everyone knows these can be sourced easily and cheaply if you know the right corrupt cop. He was able to get away with impunity as a multiple sex offender because the police forces in India lack an integrated information technology network that would have flagged his criminal past on a database. There is surely something absurd about a country that likes to boast of its information technology prowess to the rest of the world but is unable to harness this talent for the service and safety of its own citizens. The early successes with the income tax filing system, passport services, company registration and Aadhaar suggest that this is eminently doable.

The fact that the government has a predilection to control rather than enable its people is clear from the responses of officialdom when Uber started gaining traction. Instead of recognising that this novel taxi app filled an urgent need, the first response was for the central bank to insist on an unnecessary two-set verification process that is hugely cumbersome for even the smartest mobile phone. It occurred to no local authority that safety processes should be strengthened in a major way since women are dominant users of this service. A major reason for the overall lack of concern is that local transport services in most cities have been cornered by the underworld-police nexus, so local administrations have a vested interest in the continuing inadequacy of city transport services. But surely this has to change in a country that hopes to catapult itself into the ranks of the developed world.

It was the same story with cable television services, which made their debut as a lucrative business for local strongmen looking to cash in on consumers’ appetite for more than the drab fare that state-owned Doordarshan dished out. But instead of recognising this need (or demand) and looking at ways to enhance the viewer experience, the government’s initial response was to ignore it and then to mandate one technology that resulted in monopolist control by select equipment suppliers but left consumers tied to the vagaries of their local service providers. This changed only after some strenuous intervention by television broadcast companies so that the proliferation of choice has vastly improved the viewing experience for most consumers. With e-rickshaws, it took one accident for the authorities to ban it, resulting in thousands of commuters being stranded, before a slightly more stringent verification process put them back on the road. Why weren’t the authorities ahead of the curve? Surely the Uber incident is a tragic wake-up call.

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