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Rahul Jacob: Strangling Uber with red tape

In the past week, Sunil Sudan has had to journey back to a past he thought he had left behind. Sudan, 39, has been driving a tourist taxi from Delhi to places such as Nainital and the Jim Corbett Park. In Nainital, he says by phone from Uttarakhand, he had nowhere to sleep but his car for two nights, despite the temperature being below zero degrees. He confesses to being homesick for Delhi — and his job as an Uber driver.

Sudan took a loan in May to buy a Maruti Dzire and was earning Rs 45,000 a month when the ban on Uber in Delhi sent Sudan and thousands of other Uber drivers’ careers into a tailspin. Uber continues to pay Sudan what he was earning every week before the ban. Because of this “support” and because Uber pays drivers within a couple of days of the end of each week, Sudan says he wants to stay with the company. Surabjit, the Uber driver of the Nissan Sunny that miraculously arrived at a friend’s home in Mumbai to take me to the airport early on Sunday morning a fortnight ago, also said that given a choice, he would not work with anyone else.

Unhappily for Sudan, he lives in Delhi where the Transport Department this week released regulations that will turn the business model of Uber on its head and possibly destroy it. Uber may have disrupted traditional modes of business, but neither the power of the internet nor Silicon’s Valley ingenuity is a match for that infamous disrupter of business – and indeed common sense – the Indian bureaucrat.

Of course, Uber needed to be pushed to be more accountable. As per the new regulations, a GPS device that the driver cannot easily switch off is essential, a company number that passengers or the authorities could call in the event of a mishap or tragedy makes sense as well. Uber was cavalier not to have such safeguards in place.

But, what is the logic behind insisting that a printer and a display panel be installed in every car that shows the route being covered when the app does that already — and emails the customer the bill for good measure. My favourite inanity in the new rules is that an LCD panel has to be put on “the roof of the car to indicate it’s a radio taxi and whether it is available or not.” There is also the order that the taxis should be white “with a coloured strip on both sides of the taxi, prominently displaying the name of the licensee.” This is mild compared to the Karnataka guidelines, which prescribe the colour (blue) of the socks drivers should wear. (In Bengaluru, prior to Uber’s arrival, getting a taxi at all was so difficult, I would not have minded if the driver arrived wearing polka-dotted pants).

Memo to the Transport Department: it is no doubt years since you grandees needed a taxi, but in 2015, one does not require an LCD panel to alert you that a taxi is in the vicinity; the app connects you to the driver and gives you his photo and mobile number as well.

What these lazy cut-and-paste regulations from an earlier era will likely do is cripple Uber, which capitalises on the unused inventory of fleets that serve the city’s hotels (and, therefore, cannot have taxi company insignia on them) as well as allowing drivers such as Sunil and Surabjit to become their own bosses.

Uber’s management, unlike Air Asia’s Tony Fernandes in the past week, has either been missing as the controversy has raged or obfuscated the issues. They have not explained what follow-up, if any, was initiated by the company after an American NRI complained about Shiv Kumar Yadav’s lecherous behaviour towards her, crucially days before his alleged attack. Uber’s CEO’s statement in the aftermath of the rape may have been a model in terms of distancing the company from any legal liability, but was utterly insensitive. Delhi authorities, too, should take a bow for a blanket ban that hurts drivers and passengers, but please tell us if that notoriously dangerous, lonely stretch in Inderlok in north Delhi that residents have complained about for years, has seen an increase in police patrolling since the attack occurred.

Has anyone in our political leadership spoken against the repeated crimes against women since the Prime Minister did in his Independence Day speech? Is once a year enough? Shouldn’t Bollywood curb its appetite for scenes where a woman rejecting a man is somehow seen as the preamble to being seduced by him?

Isn’t it time to launch a remedial course in gender sensitisation for the country as a whole? Or does that, as per the transport commission’s exhaustive regulations, only apply to radio taxi drivers? They must now be enrolled in regular “structured refresher training programs” on gender along with “safe driving skills” in a city where police merely watch as drivers jump red lights and drive in a suicidal manner and half the black and yellow taxis purportedly have meters that are not working?

As for, erm, good governance, could the Delhi government extend its insistence on “a feedback register easily accessible to the passenger” in every radio taxi to a complaints book on the city government’s performance to be placed at every street corner? The nation’s capital has the worst air pollution in the world, it has become internationally recognised for crimes against women… not much gets better in New Delhi, but venting could be therapeutic.


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