Safe Rides In The City: Cab Service Providers Speak Up

Posted on June 26, 2015 in Society, Staff Picks

By Pallavi Ghosh

In a week’s time I have a flight to board from the IGI airport in New Delhi, but it is not the flight that is bothering me. It is the half hour cab drive that I have to book to reach the airport.

At the beginning of June, another sexual assault allegation against a driver working for the Uber cabs, had rekindled concerns over women’s security within the city’s environs. This makes me re-visit a much debated question – Are women in Delhi feeling safe travelling within the city?

Rituparna Patgiri, who is an M.Phil student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, shares, “I had gone to the airport alone at 3 am once. But after recent happenings, I became a little conscious…a little fear crept inside me. So I spent 1000 bucks more to book a flight ticket at a more convenient time. It is the fear of getting raped in the streets at 3 or 2 am in the night when nobody is out there in the streets.

Hands of a taxi driver, Calcutta Kolkata India
Uber, a California-based company which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, has revamped its security measure after a 27-year-old woman was raped by a cab driver while she was headed home from a party in Gurgaon. It shared that new in-app features like SOS button and Send Status were amongst the measures taken post December to ensure better safety of its customers. Apart from these two features that are instrumental in connecting to friends, family and officials including police and Uber support team during crisis moments, the Send Status feature enables tracking a ride by friends and family.

They also have support teams on-ground who are approachable via email on Twitter and Facebook 24/7. However, the absence of a direct helpline number is likely to make the route to seeking help during crises a little more time consuming.

Moreover, despite these specific measures, it remains doubtful as to how aware the customers are about these technological developments. Even the 21-year-old victim of molestation was unaware of the in-built SOS app.
The government had rejected the fresh license applications of Ola, Uber and Taxi For Sure on June 3, 2015.Operations of these three aggregators had been banned post December, however, the companies did not comply with the order and continued functioning.

According to Transport Minister Gopal Rai, Uber and Ola cabs were asked on May 28 to furnish details including number of vehicles and addresses of their drivers to ensure regularisation of their services. But the two operators did not comply with it.

However Gagan Bhatia, General Manager of Uber in Delhi, shares in an e-mail with YKA, “The request for additional data was verbal and not a part of the licensing process. No specifics on the content or format of such information were provided to us. Even as of today, there remains no formal communication.

Luckily for Ola, a Delhi High Court order came as a relief to the company and operations stood permitted under a legal reprieve. APRA Cabs India Private Limited(APRA) and Serendipity Info Labs Pvt. Ltd. (Serendipity) had filed a petition in January arguing that it had been banned without being given an opportunity of being heard by the banning authority-GNTCD. The order also revokes the ban imposed on Ola and Taxi For Sure and has also granted them the permission to apply for license to the GNTCD. The authority has been asked to analyse, ask for response in case of non-compliance of any requirement and then respond to the applications within a period that does not extend a month.

Post the December rape allegation against an Uber driver, the company had applied for a complete radio taxi license in January, when it had also shared all the driver details that are required as per the application process, says Gagan. Uber has turned in details regarding its driver partners and vehicles in Delhi to the government and is currently seeking towards an amicable solution in favour of the citizens’ interests.

Uber is still silent about starting up a helpline number for its customers. However, when asked about expansion plans, Gagan said, “India is an important market and we’ll continue to invest in the Indian market. We aren’t able to share specific details on what is in the pipeline but we have a number of exciting things our teams are working on. For now, our focus is growing our business in the cities we are currently available in and ensuring our rapidly growing rider base in these cities is served to the highest quality.” Given the clouds of scepticism hovering around its current functioning, it is difficult to say as to how the expansion plans will take shape.

Is The Model Flawed?

Meru is another popular cab service in the city that follows a different model than Ola and Uber. Unlike the latter which are only aggregators, Meru has a hybrid model and have a mix of owned cars and aggregator cars. Meru follows a policy of training their chauffeurs at the Meru Training Academy in subjects like road safety, consumer etiquettes, and technology.

Amidst raised concerns over growing insecurity of women travelling within the city, Meru has shared plans of integrating Aadhar Card database with their driver verification program to improve passenger safety in cabs. The company is also mulling the option of online driver identification inside the cab every few hours before a booking is assigned through an Aadhar biometric scan. This, the company feels, will be a foolproof way to ensure that only the authorized person is driving the cab.

Meru cabs, for their part, have a 24/7 call centre number along with tracking – Trip Tracker – and emergency connect – ICE alert – as part of their safety ensuring mechanism.

However, Meru Eve, which is targeted to cater to women and is run by women, has many additional safety amenities like the ‘Himmat’ app and ‘Video Recording’ facility app installed in mobile phones, Panic Buzzer, Pepper Spray, Women Helpline Numbers and Speed Dial for all SHO’s for Distress Call Number.

There are over 100 cabs operational under Meru Eve and the company is planning to scale operations up to 250-300 cabs. Like chauffeurs at Meru, lady drivers at Meru Eve are also well trained in safe driving, technology and consumer etiquettes along with self-defence techniques.

Mr. Siddhartha Pahwa, CEO, Meru shares in an e-mail conversation with YKA, “With improved levels of presence of women in the public place and their significant contribution the country’s workforce, women’s safety is the need of the hour. They need a public transport system that is by them, of them and for them, true to the tenets of a good democracy. This is where Meru Eve comes in, by playing its part in ensuring women’s safety on Delhi roads, thereby empowering both the women drivers and the passengers.

However, how much faith and trust customers have in cab services remains debatable. For Maitrayee Patar, who is all set to begin her M. Phil at TISS, the dilemma is very real. She shares of a time in Delhi when she preferred to spend a night at the airport rather than booking a cab in the wee hours. She says, “I have been told that a few cab services are really good and safe, but when it comes to 2:30 am in the morning, I found out that I could not trust any cab service. My instincts said that it’s better to on the safer side rather than to lament later. And I am not very proud of the thought.

Sakha, on the other hand, has a different model. Unlike Meru, which a radio taxi service-cum-aggregator, Sakha is a cab service provider with three kind of services – chauffeur on call, cab service with a minimum booking for 4 hours and drivers supply service for women and children. Sakha is a completely women-driven project initiated by the Azad foundation and has about 90 women trained and another 100 in training chauffeurs.

Currently, the minimum booking of 4 hours and the lowest price available is Rs.600 for a budget cab for a distance of 40+10kms. When asked in a telephonic interview if this provision is likely to limit the access to affordable and safe cab service to many women, Deepali Baradwaj- CEO of Sakha- said that the current model has been successful and has a retention capacity of 90 percent in terms if their customer base. Consequently, with on demand from the customers’ side and a relatively stable business model, the company does not feel compelled to work on radio taxi model. Baradwaj also shared that there are plans of extending cab services in Rajasthan this year; and Kolkata and Indore by the next year.

However, one must ask if a woman-for-woman model is ideal to work towards the struggle towards gender equality? Or does it re-enforce gender binaries by fixing men as perpetrators and women as victim of patriarchal practices? For Baradwaj, it is not about isolating men, but about creating safety solutions and livelihood opportunities for women by increasing their presence on roads. But is this presence to be taken as an intrusion or right? The answer remains debatable.

The Other Side Of Cabs: Cabs As Solutions For Safe Travelling Within The City

One must also keep in mind that the very existence of cab service is to ensure safe travelling within the city environs. Consequently, banning service providers is not the best solution especially in cities with a vibrant night life and night shifts at work. Mumbai, for example, is well-known for its exuberant night life. It is often called as the city that never sleeps.

Neha Shefali, who is a copywriter at McCann and has been living in Mumbai for more than two years now, shares, “I feel quite safe even at night here. I work mostly during morning shifts, but sometimes I am called in at night as well. In a situation when I cannot avail the office cab service, I opt for regular cabs. I live 23 km away from my office and the cab drivers are usually safe to travel with.” She adds that given that the auto rickshaw drivers often refuse customers, relying on cabs has so far been a better option for her especially during odd hours.

However, Shefali agrees that the city also has its own bag of unsettling stories especially with regard to safety of women. She shares a personal experience when two years ago she was a student at St.Xavier’s college in Mumbai and had booked a cab at night. She states, “It was around 9:30 pm and we (Shefali and her friend) were in the cab when I thought we crossed a stadium where a cricket match was going on. I asked the driver twice if he was aware of any match that was scheduled that night. He remained silent. A few minutes later we got to know that he was masturbating. We were shocked. We stopped the cab; de-boarded it; threw money at the driver and went walking to our place.

She states further, “In the two years I have spent here, that was the only disturbing experience I have had in the city with a cab driver. Therefore, despite the experience I feel quite safe booking a cab ride at night in the city.

Lastly, we must not forget that road safety has many facets and is definitely not just endangered by unreliable drivers. For many women, who go out to socialise or work purposes, the cab provides a safe way to get back home specially when one is drunk, has been working late or is sleep deprived for any reason. Driving oneself back is definitely not a safe option in such cases. Consequently, the need of the hour is to develop ways to make cabs services safer rather than shutting them down.