All unregistered internet taxi companies have been banned in Delhi, following allegations made by a female passenger that she was raped by a driver contracted to US online cab company, Uber. The incident comes not even two years after the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a moving Delhi bus in December 2012.
The allegation has highlighted a fundamental flaw in the Uber model: the horrific consequences when we misplace our trust in strangers. Uber’s aggressive expansion has filled its pockets to the brim, at the expense of cutting corners when it comes to safety.
Uber horror stories have run rife, from one passenger being choked in what seemed to be a racially motivated attack by a driver, to another passenger having accused a driver for attacking him with a hammer. While Uber has finally amended its background check policies on employees in the US, its operations abroad have taken an arms-length approach, leaving it to local governments to conduct the appropriate checks – a pretty irresponsible move considering Delhi’s laissez-faire approach to safety on public transport.
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But Uber’s failings should not deflect our attention from how out-of-touch the Delhi authorities were with what was happening under their noses. Special Commissioner of the Delhi transport Department, Satish Mathur, told the Economic Times that they “came to know only after this incident about [Uber’s] services in Delhi. We too had to log on to the internet to know how the company works”. Despite flamboyant campaigns in the Indian press, including five free cab rides worth 300 Rupees each, and a high profile dispute with the Reserve Bank of India over Uber’s one-step payment mechanism, the Delhi authorities seem to have been blissfully ignorant about its very existence. After failing to find registration records online, the Delhi police actually downloaded the Uber app, paid for a cab and asked the driver to take them to the Uber office, according to HuffPost India.
A more nuanced response to the rape allegation would have recognised that taxis are currently amongst the safest modes of transport for women in India. With poor investment in transport infrastructure such as street lighting, connectivity services between metros and limited operational hours for underground trains, taxis have offered women some measure of protection.
After the allegation was made, Uber immediately provided the police with the driver’s details. The database of knowledge at Uber and the company’s willingness to co-operate with the authorities is good reason to think it has the potential to be much safer than many other transport options in India.
The government should have reacted not by banning these companies, but by putting in place the very regulations that they haven’t implemented up until now. The Delhi authorities should clearly specify to all taxi companies that stringent background checks are non-negotiable.
Perhaps most importantly, the Delhi authority’s knee-jerk reaction avoids the more difficult task of tackling the root causes of a patriarchal environment where men feel entitled to observe, comment upon, and treat the female body however they like.
Travelling on public transport in India can be a deeply violating experience, with women frequently reporting on being verbally harassed, fondled, or worse (especially on Indian buses). Once I was told by a Chennai rickshaw driver not to wear my bag strapped across my body because it attracts attention to my breasts and makes them seem too large.
Monica Kumar, head of the Manas Foundation, which has offered gender classes for Delhi’s rickshaw drivers reiterated the importance of understanding the mindset of drivers, who are often the products of a culture where women are not respected. The pace of cultural progress is often frustratingly slow, but that doesn’t mean efforts to facilitate it should be abandoned. The Uber ban seems superficially satisfying, but it simply hides more insidious failings within the system itself by redirecting the blame.
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