No rides, no income

BySashikala VP

Mar 26, 2020

Ola and Uber drivers started suffering even before the lockdown. Now they have to sit at home with no social security except that Uber will look after any driver who tests positive for 14 days

It was a couple of days before March 22, the day the first lockdown in Delhi was announced until the end of the month. About 10:30 at night, our newspaper was sent for production, I booked a cab home with the usual dread of receiving a call by the cab driver asking, “Kidhar jana hain?” (Where do you want to go?)

But not that day, he didn’t call until he reached right outside the office to say “Come out ma’am, I have reached’. Once the ride started and we were on our way, his chattiness surfaced and with it the explanation as to why he didn’t ask me what my drop location was. 

He replied that with such few rides, he was in no position to reject any rides that came his way. To start the day, he would drive 40 km from his home to wait for rides that would earn him a few hundred rupees more before calling it a night.

Since the pandemic started, Uber and Ola cab drivers have suffered. There have been long queues, the drivers say, to fumigate their vehicles as per government orders but only a trickle of customers were going out since companies allowed them to work from home.

But this was just the beginning of their loss of business. Once the lockdown came into effect, the Delhi government took all taxi services off the roads including all public transport services like the Metro, while about 25% buses are supposedly running. These are important measures to arrest the spread of the virus and prevent the pandemic from reaching Stage 3, which is community transmission. In such a scenario, it would be impossible to trace the source of infection and matters would spin out of control. .   

Before the lockdown, many Uber and Ola drivers started leaving Delhi for their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar. My driver that night, Rishi, was the owner of the car he was driving for Uber, but there are many who work on behalf of the owners, giving them a cut of their earnings. Rishi has a second car, which he had given to a driver who called him that day to say he was leaving for home,

 “He said ‘I made only Rs 350 today. How will I run my home and also pay you a cut?’” His car was handed back and Rishi was left with only his own rides for earnings. That day, he said he wouldn’t stop driving no matter what, risking his health to venture out. Rishi said he knew he had to keep working even if it was to earn just about Rs 1,000 in a day, “One has to eat, right?” he asked rhetorically with a weak smile.

Then came the lockdown. Thousands of migrants left Delhi in the last few trains before the lockdown, and the complete shutdown of train services across the country.

With no work available, no money left to feed themselves, forget paying the rent, Rishi had asked me why would anyone want to stay back in Delhi. “At least if they return home they’ll find a way to earn, what will they do here?” he had said. But now the other states are also in lockdown, an unprecedented situation which no driver or cab hailing company could have predicted.  

We asked Uber executives if they intend to help drivers who had lost on income due to lockdown. We were given the response that only if a driver or delivery person associated with Uber is diagnosed with Covid-19 or is sent to quarantine, he will get assistance for up to 14 days.

Here’s the full statement: “We will provide drivers and delivery persons with financial assistance for up to 14 days if they actively drive or deliver with Uber and get diagnosed with Covid-19 or are personally placed in quarantine by a public health authority. The circumstances surrounding Covid-19 are changing rapidly and we expect they will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months ahead. To ensure we are responsive to this reality, this policy is effective until April 6, 2020, at which time we will reassess the situation and release a go-forward policy.”

Asked how many drivers associated with Uber had suspended their accounts before the lockdown was placed in Delhi, we were offered nothing on this front.

Ola, meanwhile, did not comment.

Since both Uber and Ola call their drivers ‘partners’ and do not directly employ them, the drivers are left to fend for themselves like other self-employed persons. Those that do remain in Delhi and come under the free ration scheme will get a little relief with the AAP-led government announcing a few measures of help.

This includes free food grains for about 72 lakh beneficiaries, doubling the pension amounts for senior citizens, widows and differently-abled.

Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had tweeted: “Corona restrictions causing terrible financial stress to the poor. Following decisions taken to provide them relief. Rs 4,000- 5,000 pension will be paid to 8.5 lakh beneficiaries by 7 April. Free rations, with 50% more quantity than normal entitlements, to 72 lakh beneficiaries,” adding they would also arrange free lunch and dinner at 220 night shelters. 

The treasury must be having the resources as it does not have to reimburse DTC for free bus rides for women. But things will fall apart if the lockdown continues beyond April 14. Will the Centre hold?