In 1970, a team nominated by the Singapore government came to Mumbai to study its black-and-yellow taxis. The two-model system, with its large taxis (the Ambassadors) and small taxis (the Premier Padminis and Austins), in existence since 1913, was to serve as a reference for a taxi modernisation process that the Southeast Asian country had undertaken.
Ironically, four decades later, Neeraj Gupta decided to start research for his upcoming venture, Meru Cabs, in Singapore's hi-tech nearly 25,000-strong taxi fleet network. He decided to roll out the business after the Maharashtra government issued permits to private fleets in June 2006 - an offshoot of its Mumbai-to-Shanghai dream. The go-ahead saw two private players, Meru and Gold Cabs, emerge over 2006-2007.
Though their total strength of 700 vehicles across Mumbai is just one per cent of the 55,000-strong black-and-yellow force, government officials believe that it will bring much-needed efficiency to the city's taxi networks. "We need to improve the efficiency of the service in a way that is profitable to drivers too," said Sanjay Ubale, secretary for special projects in the Maharashtra government.
AL Quadros, the general secretary of the Mumbai Taximen's Union, however, believes that the new services will struggle to sustain themselves. "In 1997, the Government stopped issuing new taxi permits," he said. "Most of the drivers who have joined these companies have dead (non-renewed) permits." He added that 1,000 requests for permit renewals are still lying with the road transport office. "The cost of renewing each permit is between Rs 35,000 ahd Rs 1 lakh. How long will private players be able to sustain these businesses?" he asked.
But as a section of commuters lap up the dial-a-cab-service - each company receives 1,200 calls daily - the Mumbai Taximen's Union itself is working on a makeover of a different kind. "We are working on introducing semi-AC taxis, where the commuter can either choose to travel with the AC on or off," Quadros said. In addition, the black-and-yellow drivers are also looking forward to the state government extending taxi services to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, which will permit them to cover areas like Dombivli and Mulund.