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Women-only pools?

The government has made a splash with new ideas to improve safety of women passengers who use Uber and Ola cabs. Patriot meets riders to find out pros and cons of the proposed features

AT first, it seems like a good idea. Like ladies’ compartments in trains, women’s coaches in the Metro, and ladies’ special DTC buses, the Union Transport Ministry is considering asking taxi hailing apps to introduce a women-only option when they travel by Uber Pool or Ola Share.

To curb cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape in cabs, the government feels that if women can choose their co-passenger(s) or pool with only women, the problem can be curbed. The Union road transport and highways ministry will soon hold a meeting with cab aggregators Uber and Ola to discuss various security measures which may help to control incidents of sexual assaults that have surfaced since 2011. Cab services have often been criticised for not taking enough precautions to control the situation.

However, talking to the women who actually use cabs frequently, many ifs and buts come into the picture. Kriti Sharma, 22, a graduate student says, “It’s a non-viable idea as the whole point of booking a pool ride is to find people going on the same route and willing to share. Even if a women-pooling option is introduced, the chances of finding other female passengers taking the same route are less and will lessen the chances of getting a pool ride.”

“For me, the driver is more worrisome,” says Supraja Mahesh, 22, a media professional. “How can you judge your co-passenger based on the information in the app. Random co-passengers can be as bad as a co-passenger chosen by using the provided information.”

Most women like the idea, although they have caveats. Soniya Aggarwal, 25, a resident of Kailash Colony, says, “A women pooling option would be great. It will make travelling at odd hours easier and safer for working women like me,” adding, “Though I’m not sure how viable choosing your co-passengers will be, since all of them will be strangers anyway.”

Kavya Jain, 29, a sales professional, points out that the apps predominantly run on complex algorithms; hence it could lead to delays. “It’s not really possible that I will get a fellow passenger of my choice travelling to the same or nearby destination at the same time. The government should instead audit and work on the way drivers are hired and trained by these aggregators,” she says.

It’s true that more women are worried about the drivers’ misbehaviour rather than that of co-passengers. Whether it’s a tourist or a migrant, drivers are the first ones they interact with. Cab aggregators do have various screening measures in place but that has not solved the problem entirely.
Sapan Goswami, 32, a cab driver who works for both Uber and Ola, welcomes the move and speaks highly of the amount of security it will ensure to women riders. “I think it will be an effective measure. Especially at odd hours, it will certainly provide women the confidence to share their rides,” says Goswami.

Goswami also spoke about the current pooling timings followed by Uber, which is 6 am to 11 pm. If the women-pooling option becomes available, then women riders would not hesitate before booking a pool ride during late hours too.

Vatsla Srivastava, 22, a graduate student, gave an example of Russia’s UTair Airlines which recently started providing its passengers an option to pick who they sit next to by checking their co-passenger’s gender. “It’s a good move since the cases of attack on women in private cabs have increased manifold in the recent times. Many a times women who travel late nights have this sense of fear in their mind while opting for a cab that something bad might happen midway and separate women-pooling option would reduce that fear of safety,” she says.
Adding to this Srija Podder, 22, a working professional says, “If women are allowed to choose their co-passengers they would feel safer while travelling in public buses. It will prevent creeps who deliberately choose a vacant seat beside women with the intention of touching her inappropriately.”
Podder also spoke about the subtleness in which these situations happen and sometimes one questions oneself whether it is sexual harassment or people will call you being absurd if you raise an allegation.
“Having had ugly encounters in the past while using Uber, I’m intimated not just by my co-passengers but also by the drivers. Not only should they let us choose our co-passengers but drivers as well,” says Debolina Biswas, 22, a resident of Sector 51, Noida.

The global scenario is no different as countless incidents of sexual harassments and assaults have happened in the recent past across the world either by the driver or the co-passenger and many new cab aggregators have come to the forefront to ensure utmost safety by introducing services where cabs are only driven by women.

Shebah and SheSafe in Australia, Chariot in Boston, See Jane Go in Orange County and DriveHer in Toronto are some of the cab aggregators which offer only women-driven cab services.

Apart from ensuring its customers more safety voluntarily as of now, the Motor Vehicle Act (Amendment) Bill 2017, which is pending in Parliament, may also bring policy changes for cab aggregators to instill the idea of safety among women passengers.
Both Uber and Ola declined to comment when asked about the idea proposed by the government and said they will get back to Patriot when it’s time to make a statement.

It’s clear that the idea of introducing women-pooling option or letting women choose their co-passenger is a no-brainer and exemplifies a need for new reforms. As till now it is all words and no action.

If at all the move fails, perhaps Delhi could try to replicate Priyadarshini Taxi Service in Mumbai and Go Pink Cabs in Bengaluru. This is a concept Faridabad-Uber driver Shafiq Ahmed, 46, has also thought of himself. He spoke about the predicament some women face while taking a cab driven by a male driver and says he believes that more and more women drivers should become part of the industry.

Gross violations

On June 1, a gruesome incident of sexual assault occurred where an Ola driver in Bengaluru allegedly molested a 26-year-old woman while she was on her way to the airport. She said the driver stopped the cab at a deserted area near the airport, locked the car, and assaulted her and forced her to strip so that he could take photos. The driver even shared the photos which he took on WhatsApp.

On April 27, a woman who took a cab in Greater Noida was allegedly gangraped and forced to consume alcohol. Along with the driver, the police detained six other persons in connection with the incident.

In March 2018, a 22-year-old Uber driver was arrested in Haryana for allegedly abducting and sexually harassing a woman after she boarded his cab.
In September 2018, an Ola driver and one other man allegedly raped and killed a 12-year-old girl. The two men were reportedly drunk when they picked up the girl from a footpath.

In May 2016, a 24-year-old Belgian woman alleged she was molested by an Ola cab driver. First, he asked her to sit in the front seat, then he kissed her and tried to abuse her.