Rough ride for cabbies

- March 22, 2022
| By : Patriot Bureau |

Lockdowns during the pandemic left Uber drivers battered. In their grim battle for survival, many are desperately looking for ways to beat the system and now resorting to protests to demand subsidised fuel from the government

File Photo/ Getty

Uber drivers are in a lot of distress, a distress they don’t mind conveying to customers, breaking the stoic silence they maintained in pre-Covid days. Even then, one in five used to reveal, if they felt a customer would be sympathetic, that they are unhappy with the reality as opposed to the illusions they nurtured when they opted to become ‘partners’ — a term that was meant to dignify them but has lost all meaning. There is no partnership in sight, as the company does not seem responsive to their problems. 


A major grievance is that Uber is taking 20% commission for the support that gives the cab owners their business, which they see as too high during an economic downturn. Paying that commission did not hurt five years back, as for 60 years, kali-peeli (black and yellow) taxis in Delhi had no choice but to ask for double the fare for one-way rides as they would be returning empty to their taxi stands. Once more enterprising companies like Meru came in, and then ride hailing apps like Ola and Uber, drivers could get rides criss-crossing the city and get help from sophisticated navigation software that told them about traffic congestion, the shortest route, even the placement of cameras that monitor speed. 

The pandemic took a heavy toll on all these advantages. During the prolonged lockdowns, many cab owners who were paying EMIs had their cars snatched when they could not pay. Others went back to their rural roots, waiting for the right time to return, and somehow lost their way, taking up other professions. Anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that since January, not enough cabs have been coming back on the road to help the system run smoothly. 

On its part, Uber has made a few, very few concessions. Drivers are now allowed to call a customer as soon as a booking is notified, to ask where she wants to go, and refuse if the destination does not suit them. The result is that as many as three drivers may refuse the trip before one accepts, resulting in wasteful delays and upsetting schedules.

This year, a provision has been made in the app for customers to add tips of Rs 25, Rs 50, and Rs 100 for a driver’s good behaviour. However, the whole experience has become so unsatisfactory, that customers rarely add the tip. Also, with income and job losses during the pandemic, and uncertainty about the fourth wave ahead, customers are not in a mood to throw money around.  

With the onset of summer, if a cabbie says his a/c or radio is not working, a customer does not protest too loud, knowing that he is probably still recovering from the lockdown losses and is unable to maintain the vehicle properly. But as the mercury goes up, so will tempers. 

Another change wrought by the pandemic is that cab owners have themselves taken up driving instead of hiring drivers, as the profit margin is too thin. Big transporters who had sensed an opportunity to make big bucks have sold off cars and have re-invested their money in more promising businesses. This has left a whole army of drivers jobless. Passenger car owners have also not been hiring drivers as they have the flexibility to work from home, whether they are in government service or in the private sector. Plus there are drivers available on call, part of the gig economy, so hiring a full-time driver and paying a monthly salary seems unnecessary.   

This is why a customer might find a cab driver making an unusual request, as follows: 

  • One driver asked a customer, after she was seated, how much she will be paying for the ride. On being told it is Rs 360, he said he can terminate the ride after a couple of kilometres, switch off from the Uber system and then complete the ride if the customer paid him Rs 320 instead. He said he often does this with the compliance of the customer to save on Uber’s commission. 
  • Another cab driver asked the customer how much she usually pays to reach office. On being told it was anything between Rs 280 to Rs 380, he said since he lived nearby, he could do the pickup every day at a fixed time and she needs to pay only Rs 320. Thus it would be a win-win for both. However, his bad driving – looking down at the phone his lap, wrong lane switching at roundabouts — made the customer desist from striking a deal. 
  • Earlier it was standard practice to book for one destination and then extend the ride to another. Recently, a driver refused to go beyond the first stop. On being asked why, he said he had a private booking to go to the airport. But at the stop, a booking came over the system and he accepted it. The customer got late for a doctor’s appointment, as the certainly of reaching a certain place at a certain time had vanished in thin air. 

Pre-Covid, cab drivers were more particular about hygiene, about proper dress, and about politeness in tense situations. Fewer of them spat paan out of the window or by opening the door a bit. They also strictly followed the navigation instructions instead of taking routes that they thought were better. If the payment was online, they did not plead with the customer to switch to cash. The rating system was taken seriously by both sides, and they kept their tempers under control for fear of being blacklisted. This was remarkable in a city where road rage commonly led to violence, vehicle damage and even lynching. 

At the outset, a major triumph of Uber was to train a disparate set of drivers from different educational backgrounds and work experience to follow the system laid down. There was a lot of talk that the company would provide its ‘partners’ health and vehicle insurance, maybe other benefits. Those who had previously been self-employed enjoyed the thought of belonging to a fraternity, maybe a trade union. Those who had been working under feudal or unreasonable employers enjoyed the feeling of being their own masters. Now, the lack of compassion and understanding of their plight on the part of both the company and the government is galling. Yet it is they who keep alive Uber’s dream of tapping a big market like India and the government’s dream of making India a modern superpower. 

Now a sense of disillusionment has set in. Those who can’t find an alternative source of income are sulking, their anger about an unfair dispensation simmering under the surface. On 21 March, these drivers as well as operators of tourist taxis and three-wheelers staged a protest at Jantar Mantar to demand removal of MCD toll tax and streamlining the process of fixing fares by app-based taxi services Uber and Ola. Paying tax to enter Delhi from Gurgaon or Noida while the whole area is supposed to be integrated as the National Capital Region hardly seems fair. It also adds to the customer’s burden and often they opt for metro trains to cross the border, depriving cabbies of business. 

The government should intervene, says convenor of the Sanyukta Sangharsh Samiti Indrajeet Singh, to prevent online cab aggregators arbitrarily fixing fares and paying drivers much less. While this demand is hardly likely to be met, Singh does have a point in asking the government to provide CNG and fossil fuel at subsidised rates to cab drivers on the lines of benefits given to other industries. Economic recovery is not a grand design but the sum of many parts. 

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