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NEW DELHI, 21 Feb 2017:
Not long ago, US-based Uber and its local rival Ola were seen as offering Indian taxi drivers good employment and a source of empowerment.
Many quit their other jobs to join an app-driven transport shift in India’s major urban centres in the last four years or so.
Uber and Ola’s technology, financial incentives and the freedom to choose work hours heralded a new world of opportunities for the drivers used to working long hours for meagre monthly pay.
Today, the relationship is facing a rough ride as the trust is replaced by frustration and recriminations.
Drivers complain the taxi aggregator firms have cut their benefits – forcing them to work for more hours to earn the same amount of money. As many have taken loans to buy their cars, a significant portion of their monthly earnings goes into debt servicing.
On Feb 10, drivers part of the two online taxi service networks resorted to a strike in Delhi and its satellite cities to demand higher fares and better work conditions.
Known as the National Capital Region (NCR), Delhi and its surrounding areas have a population of some 25 million.
The strike led to harrowing experiences for millions of commuters and tourists who were greeted with a ‘no cars available’ message.
In recent years, the two online cab services have become the first choice of transportation for millions of professionals, office-goers, people visiting hospitals or shoppers.
These taxi services offer reliable, comfortable and quick rides at competitive prices. Given a choice, who wouldn’t want to avoid Delhi’s overburdened public bus system, crowded metro rail and unreliable autorickshaws?
The online system created an electronic trail of the ride providing an additional assurance of safety to women travelling in the NCR, which ranks among the most unsafe regions for women in India.
As an estimated 150,000 taxis (according to one taxi union, the number could be as high as 400,000) stayed off Delhi’s roads. Thus, the familiar tales of commuter woes that existed before the Uber phenomenon were heard everywhere.
Call taxis, which operate under normal government taxi permits, are in huge demand but in short supply. Calls to radio taxi services took longer to go through and often ended with call centre executives making apologies for not being able to provide cars.
These services charge about three times the rate of an app-based taxi per kilometre and have a much longer pickup time.
The onset of app-based rides has drastically hit the business of radio cabs and neighbourhood taxi stands, with many disappearing from the market or joining the app bandwagon.
Then there are the notoriously unreliable three-wheeler autorickshaws driven by probably the rudest drivers anywhere in the world.
When you try hailing an “auto”, the driver would slow down to hurriedly ask you where you want to go.
Once he determines your destination is not convenient for him, he would let you know that he is travelling on the opposite direction, so your chances of a ride depend on whether the driver is going in your direction or not.
If you insist on taking the ride because he cannot refuse passengers, he may demand extra money.
If you insist further on paying the metered fare, he may feign an illness or inform you that his vehicle has run out of gas.
And nowadays these auto drivers have started getting sarcastic as well. “Why don’t you book an Uber or Ola instead?”
Delhi has always suffered their rudeness and bad service. The online taxi firms largely provided protection against such unpleasantness – until their own relationship with their drivers soured.
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