From the moment you request a ride to the moment you arrive, the Uber experience has been designed from the ground up with your safety in mind.
This safety claim on Uber’s website has come under intense scrutiny in India since the alleged rape of a New Delhi woman by one of the taxi service’s drivers. The December 2014 incident has sparked mass outrage and thrown up a whole array of disturbing questions. From a lack of background verification of drivers and the safety of privately run cab services to the absence of regulatory measures and the risks associated with app-based taxi booking, the Uber issue has gone beyond being another assault on a victim in India’s ‘rape capital’.
As per the complaint filed by the 27-year-old woman, she had joined her friends for dinner after work and hired the Uber cab for the ride home from where her friends had dropped her that night. She nodded off in the cab and woke up when it stopped at a secluded spot. The driver, Shiv Kumar Yadav then allegedly raped her and warned her not to inform anyone.
There are a few significant factors that make this case unique:
Uber lapse – The promise of ‘Safest rides on the road’ from Uber seems to be just that, a promise. In the New Delhi case, the driver Yadav did not have a Public Service Vehicle license issued by the Delhi Transport Authority, mandatory for all drivers of commercial vehicles. The police also confirmed that no mandatory verifications were carried out before the company hired him. Yadav has been a serial offender with a string of criminal cases against his name and a notorious reputation in his village in Uttar Pradesh. That he could get away with a forged character certificate points to a lack of rigorous vetting done before he was hired. According to a Reuters report, Uber drivers were only asked for their driving license, proof of address and car registration papers, with one driver claiming he was never interviewed by the company and a travel company closed all the formalities for him. Uber does not run background checks on drivers and banks on the government performing them while issuing commercial licenses. The company is known to perform a thorough three-step screening process in the US where court records are checked going back seven years. Indian customers of Uber have sufficient reason to feel let down as highlighted by the rape. A business that rides on its brand promise must have adequate processes and checks in place to deliver on that promise. The victim probably hired the cab service assuming it was safer than a regular taxi. Brand Uber and its PR machine have much to answer here. Uber also has a controversial track record in several countries it operates in.
Lack of regulation – The cab services market in India has boomed over the last few years and the advent of app-based taxi services like Uber seems to have gone under the radar of government regulation. Uber operates on a model that is unlike other radio taxi operators like TabCab, Ola, and Meru. The company calls itself a technology company that operates software to connect drivers with people who want to hire their services. It does not own the cabs. Even the GPS used by a driver like Yadav is not installed in the car but on his smartphone. So when the phone is turned off the driver is off the map. Other operators claim to have a variety of tools and processes in place like hidden GPS that cannot be disconnected, biometric records of the drivers, police check, continuous tracking and feedback from customers. App-based services seem to have worked around these safeguards through their tech-based model. The question here is how the transport department couldn’t have foreseen the need for regulation since the people who hire these services have the same expectations as from other operators.
Knee-jerk reaction – In the wake of the Uber incident, the Delhi government not only banned the service but also ordered all app-based cabs to go off the road in the capital. Wanting to be seen as taking no chances, the BJP government was probably trying to score a point over the previous government and its tardy reaction to the infamous Delhi gang rape and murder (Nirbhaya). Without considering the inconvenience caused to commuters and the thousands of cab drivers who would be out of work, the decision did nothing to address the larger issues of safety and regulation. It was seen as a populist call taken to score political points in the lead up to the 2015 Delhi assembly polls. Several of these app-based services are still running in the capital despite the ban with many of the cabs being impounded.
Finally, the Uber rape is about the man in question committing a heinous crime. A deplorable act on a hapless victim in a vulnerable circumstance as could typically be the case in such incidents. That it could come from a driver with a history like Yadav operating a cab for an international company projecting itself as a safe ride in an unregulated environment is a staggering occurrence. One can only hope the safety debate continues and pushes for strong measures to be implemented and enforced. Then maybe it would not have all been in vain.