Uber’s operations in north India are run from a posh hotel in Gurgaon by a four-member team

San Francisco-based Uber, which was valued $40 billion after the latest round of financing, has been a darling of investors and in the news for its fre­netic pace of growth. It is an ‘aggrega­tor’ that connects passengers and taxi drivers at cheap rates and is complete­ly mobile app-driven. The rape survi­vor logged into the app when she was at Vasant Vihar and requested a drop at Inderlok. The app tracked the driv­er nearest to her and sent his details to her phone. The driver was alerted about the ride through a text message.

Though Uber promises safe and reliable pick-ups, its terms and con- j ditions clearly say that the company does not have any liability after con­necting a passenger and a driver. After that, the responsibility lies with the “third party”, the driver. Uber even declares in capital letters on its app: “By using the services, you acknowl­edge that you may be exposed to situ­ations involving third party providers that are potentially unsafe, offensive, harmful to minors, or otherwise objec­tionable, and that use of third party providers arranged or scheduled using the services is at your own risk and  judgement.”

Regular radio taxis, on the other hand, have to adhere to strict rules as per the Radio Taxi Scheme, 2006. The regulation requires them to be | registered under the Companies Act, have call centres equipped with radio communication and at least ten tele­phone lines to monitor cabs, GPS sys­tems in all vehicles and a brick and mortar office with a parking space of at least 1,000 sqft. Also, the licensee is responsible for police verification and the conduct of drivers. “The city taxi services, radio services and autorick­shaws are supposed to be regulated by the city administration. The driv­ers must be badge holders given by the transport department after thorough police checks,” said Kunal Lalani, president of the Association of Radio Taxis. “But the laws in the Motor Vehicles Act have loopholes which companies like Uber make use of.”

Uber and other mobile app-based | taxi services do not comply with the | Radio Taxi Scheme. In fact, Uber’s j operations in north India are run from | a posh hotel in Gurgaon by a four- member team. Its India head, Gagan Bhatia, is just a marketing man. “Uber runs a city like Delhi with 1,000 vehi­cles and three company personnel. We have at least 350 personnel handling Delhi alone,” said Lalani, who runs the radio taxi service Mega Cabs. A Delhi-based professional who had been-offered a job by Uber told THE WEEK that the company had only about 15 people in India, comprising mostly technical and marketing staff.

The Bangalore Tourist Taxi ( Owners Association recently staged a protest in the city raising Uber’s lack of adherence to safety measures and laws. “The company is not main­taining police verification records of their drivers and vehicles; it paves for the entry of drivers with crimi­nal records into the system,” said ( Radhakrishna Holla, general secre­tary of the association.

Yadav, the accused in the rape case in Delhi, was a repeat offender. In fact, a passenger had complained about him } in November and Uber had promised in an email to look into it.

Authorities are grapplingto regulate the burgeoning Indian e-commerce sector. Along with foreign investment come business models and formats that skirt grey areas in the law of the land. In the case of Uber, passengers’ security was callously bypassed.

Legal experts, however, argue that Indian laws leave enough room for interpretation. “In Uber’s case, the onus can be extended to those who control the business and operations. It is recognised in our Companies Act and that’s how Union Carbide was brought into picture after the Bhopal gas tragedy,” said Lalit Bhasin, Supreme Court lawyer and former chairperson of the Bar Council of India. Delhi Police has registered a first information report against Uber under section 420 (cheating) of Indian Penal Code.

The radio taxi industry, which is a decade old in India, has been grow­ing fast. Along with the big boys Meru Cabs, Mega Cabs and Easy Cabs, 12 multi-city cab services are regis­tered in India. Meru Cabs runs 4,500 cars in ten cities, while Mega Cabs has 2,500 taxis in six cities and Easy Cabs has 2,500 in four cities. They

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Bumpy ride

March 13,2013: A Uber driver was arrested in Washington, DC, § for raping a passenger June 2014: Cab drivers in Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid block traffic, protesting Uber August 2014: Reserve Bank of India asksUberjto follow two-step verification process for pa®n#t September 2014: Courts Wr Germany ban UberPop, a paid transportation service which resembles car pooling, and UberBlack, a low-cost limousine ‘fk-un service, citing drivers vio­lating law

October 2014: A Paris court fines Uber $128,000 for fraudulent business practices for advertising UberPop as a car pool

rnmmm- have been trying to turn the govern­ment’s attention to the unregulated mobile app-based taxi services ever since Uber started Indian operations in June. “We have witnessed a 15 to 20 per cent drop in business because of Uber’s cut-throat competition and price war,” said Lalani. He claimed no rape charges had ever been made against radio cab drivers. “We track the movement of our cabs and ensure customer safety,” he said.

The Delhi government has banned Uber taxi services and similar ones such as Olacabs, TaxiForSure and TaxiPixi. The Union home ministry has written to all other states to stop operations of web-based taxi sendees.

Uber has promised full cooperation with the authorities and said it would set up call centres and ensure better background verification of drivers. It has even offered monetary compen­sation to the rape survivor, which indicates that it plans to weather the storm and not quit the lucrative Indian market.

WITH ABHINAV SINGH

 

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