As Uber awaits radio taxi licence, drivers' fate in the balance

As the Union transport ministry and the Delhi transport office have conflicting views on the banning of web-based taxi aggregators, such as Uber, Ola and TaxiForSure, in the national capital by the transport commissioner in Delhi, the most vulnerable stakeholders of ecosystem - drivers - are caught in the confusion and largely ignorant of what might lie ahead.

Now, a proposed law, the Road Transport and Safety Bill, might settle things for the taxi aggregator segment. The idea is to make the 'on-demand transportation technology aggregators' such as Uber and Ola register as taxi operators. With this, the Centre's wishes would prevail over the states' rules in case of a dispute.

Though the Centre is planning to table a new Bill, the uncertainty is bound to persist for some time, as it has for the past few months. All this while, dozens of new drivers are joining these companies every day, many even taking out large loans to buy vehicles. The loans, in fact, are becoming easier to secure. "It is on Uber's assurance that banks have approved the loan for us, that too at a discount," said 32-year-old Rajesh (name changed on request), who is the only earning member in a family of four.

For the drivers and the banks, the promise of a steady stream of income is reassuring. In Delhi, for example, Uber is offering its drivers assured business of Rs 3,000 a day or Rs 90,000 a month, provided they meet the stipulated hours and the terms of their agreement.

Uber's drivers are fierce loyalists, even more so after the alleged rape by one of the drivers on its network in December 2014. Uber's speedy payment schedule is one reason. Drivers are paid by direct transfers into their bank accounts within a couple of days of the end of every week. In addition, drivers were assured of a monthly wage even when the company's operations were suspended last year. While figures vary, most drivers agree that it was "more than enough" to sustain their household expenses. "It was doubly reassuring since we used to get text messages every day from the company. They didn't abandon us like our previous cab service operators would have," said Kamal.

Krishan (name changed), painted the changes in his life more dramatically. "I was a slave to the cab operator till last year. Now, I am my own boss and my income is directly in my hands," he said. Krishan said because of the steady income, he can now apply for a home loan and spend 'lavishly' on his daughter's wedding. This thought is echoed by another driver with Uber, who says the combination of weekly transfers into his account by Uber and the ease of using automated teller machines after years of not having a bank account has made him "feel like a crorepati".

Though taxi operators, including Uber and Ola, have submitted their applications to get a licence under the amended radio taxi policy, the Delhi transport office has been insisting on an affidavit from the companies affirming they have complied with the ban before it processes their applications.

This has landed the companies in a Catch-22 situation because drivers who are using their app are all over Delhi, picking up customers as if there was no ban in place. An affidavit could potentially land Uber and Ola in legal trouble. Their operations would continue to be illegal till they give the affidavit and only then will they receive a licence.

A high-ranking Delhi transport official agreed that drivers are the most vulnerable due to this uncertainty, but he said drivers have taken a "commercial risk" by enlisting on such platforms. "It is a calculated risk," said the official. "The government didn't give them any assurance and, thus, the government cannot be blamed."

The official said Uber should answer some hard questions. "So many drivers have taken a loan on the company's assurance, but what is its corporate ethical responsibility towards them? Until it gives the affidavit, its application will not be processed; it will be rejected eventually."

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