Not ribbing you at all my lords of the Supreme Court, just translating your silent wonderment into words, “It’s easier for us to hang a man than ban some taxis”.
At least two Indian courts and three state governments have tried to ban Uber, Ola and other taxi-hailing apps but the companies have flouted the orders. In fact, Uber and Ola, valued at billions of dollars each, have thrived since the attempts to ban them in Delhi and other cities. They have decided to survive, and for that reason they are engaged in a civil disobedience movement.
What they have chosen is to disobey are laws that govern taxi services through licences and regulations. They claim, rightly, that they are not taxi-operators because they do not own a fleet of taxis, nor do they employ taxi drivers, many of whom use both Uber and Ola apps. They claim, rightly, that they are tech companies. Those who dispute this may check out the comical app of Meru Taxi.
What Uber and Ola are telling India is that they are only match-making apps for drivers and riders. Faced with obsolete laws in an old world run by old men, they have decided to break them and persuade the government to come up with a new law worthy of being followed.
There is a bit of Gandhi in it, but aesthetically, more Dhirubhai Ambani. In 2003, Arun Shourie, then the minister of disinvestment, explained in a speech how he had transformed from being a foe to an admirer of the late billionaire.
Ambani was an entrepreneur in an India where there were several restrictions on manufacturing, and importing was often called smuggling. Shourie borrowed from the economist Freidrich von Hayek to praise Ambani and his kind for breaking imbecilic laws.
“…By exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them, they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations, they helped make the case for reforms.”
That is what Uber is doing across the world — in pure self-interest, which is the most credible motive there ever is. It is locked in legal battles in several nations over the definition of a taxi-service. In the United States it is also in a battle over the definition of an employee as Uber disputes that the drivers who use its apps qualify for employee benefits.
Uber is at once popular and despised. Its unpopularity has its origins in a recent past when its boyish management, through some careless statements, antagonised two major forces that influence public opinion — young women and journalists. Since then the boys have learnt the useful trick of tactical humility.
Also, Uber is unpopular among conventional taxi drivers who have lost business to the company, which has acquired considerable unfair advantage through technology, aggressive marketing and a high valuation that enables it to bleed millions of dollars to offer taxi rides at low rates.
In Delhi, for instance, there are times when Uber is cheaper than autorickshaws, and the act of getting into the vehicle does not include a bitter bargaining with the driver.
The young woman who was raped in a bus by six men in December 2012 had ended up in the private bus that night not by choice. None of the autowallahs would ferry her. So, she and her friend stopped a private bus where a bunch of drunks eventually pounced on them. She would have reached home safe if there were taxi-hailing apps then.
Uber’s notoriety as a vehicle of rape is more a consequence of emotion than careful analysis. In 2012, the public anger that followed the rape was directed against the government. In January this year, after a woman said she was raped in a Uber cab, the public anger was directed at Uber. The relieved government then did what it does when it has no intelligent response — it enforced a ban. But Uber largely ignored the order.
Taxi-hailing apps, for their own survival, conduct some form of background checks on the drivers, but it is a farce because it cannot be anything else. Can Uber investigate an Indian driver? We must see a background check for what it really is — a piece of paper, a document provided by the Indian government. As evidence of character it is almost worthless.
If an Indian can get a police verification for a bribe of Rs 500 and a driver’s licence for a bit more, if it is almost impossible to find out if a driver has served time in prison, there is only so far a private company can go in confirming his reliability. What makes a ride safe in Uber or Ola is not the character of the driver but the fact that the passenger can track the route and share it in real time with anyone. To feel safe, she does not have to pretend anymore to be talking to a man on the phone.
By making Uber and Ola ambiguously illegal, hence somewhat underground operations, the Delhi government has reduced the responsibility of those companies towards their passengers. A company that is made to feel it is an underground operation would be lax in its already farcical background checks of drivers. Also, to escape detection, most Uber and Ola drivers in Delhi do not place their phones on the windshield holders anymore. They put the phones on their laps or on the seat, and frequently check the map on the screen, which is dangerous.
It is a good idea for the government to shed its pride and come up with new laws to govern the transformed taxi industry. People and companies tend to respect laws that are respectable.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People.
The author tweets as @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal.