Airport Pre-paid cabs and the Taxi aggregators

Last weeks two pre-paid taxi rides from two big airports brought out starkly some concerns and questions about regulating the taxi sector, which seems to have become so important with the emergence of taxi aggregators.

In the first ride, I got off New Delhi airport Terminal 1 D at 1:15 am in the night and with my phone battery discharged was forced to stop by the pre-paid taxi window. For  Rs. 250 I was handed a green and pink slip for a trip to a hotel close by. I was asked to show the slip to an attendant close by who after some confusion about which vehicle I should get into pointed me in the direction of a ram shackle Maruti Omni, which turned out to be non AC and then I also noticed another passenger get into the same car as well from the other door.

That particular night was a crazy one with inclement weather at Delhi having completely thrown off gear flight schedules. The other passenger seemed equally tired and without much application of mind we both adjusted, more so because it was a 10  min ride. The driver was a cocky one, who seemed to know both the hotels and was confident that you could name any hotel in Delhi and he could reach us there. It was one racy high speed drive in a ramshackle vehicle.

So two people paid Rs.250 to receive the drop service of an individual taxi but were accommodated into one ramshackle one. This is as per regulation?

The second incidence was at Mumbai Domestic Airport. I came out late night. Saw a large line at the Meru counter. There was another newly opened counter of some Sai Travels, which offered a rate of Rs. 750 for the cab, which obviously was atrociously high on any benchmark. Any fare regulation here?

I could see an Uber cab far away on the app and no Ola cab. I decided to go for the pre-paid cab. For Rs. 350 I was again handed a receipt with a vehicle number I was to board. On coming to the location where the cool cabs are parked I was told that the taxi allotted to me had left and was asked by one of the drivers to inform the security person there who in turn went back to the counter and got another booking. There was some issue with that booking as well but then another of the drivers who had been noticing this back and forth asked me to come along and ushered me into his vehicle. It was a cool cab, Santro, with greasy upholstery and some of the fixtures on the door panel broken.

What began was a very risky high speed ride which left me with a feeling of having leapt of a cliff. The driver was leaning over the steering wheel as if that would contribute additional acceleration to the vehicle beyond what he was getting by putting his foot on the pedal. In the beginning of the drive after joining the highway he opened the door at high speed to empty his paan and tobacco full mouth. Immediately after that he edged out another vehicle in high speed, who abused him while passing by. I remained quiet at this point.

On another instance on the high way he dangerously manoeuvred a scooter driver who showered him with another set of abuses. At this point I had to indicate to him that I was in absolutely no hurry and so what exactly was the point in driving so unsafe. He replied that I might not be in a hurry but he clearly was. In an aggregator cab I would have given such a driver a single star and in the comments section reported him affecting future rides that he would get. But here there was no redress.

At a time when we discuss road safety in this country the rash driving of both the pre-paid drivers I engaged would have qualified for serious action. But it is instances like these which place poor faith in India’s ability to make any difference to the situation.

The pre-paid cabs at the airports and the cool cabs in Mumbai are run by a nexus of various government officials, not limited to just officials from the Transport Department, political lackeys and the usual mix. The drivers have no fear from the police or the laws about being involved in an accident or breaking traffic rules because who will police the police? They know they will be rescued by the framework under which they operate.

Which brings us to the essential question about what really is the regulation we want in the taxi sector and to what end? Bangalore has just banned Uber.

At all airports aggregator cabs are treated as pariahs even when it is the first choice increasingly for most users of the airports. Why is it that pre-paid taxis which are not the first choice is provided premium positioning at the airports? Are they in any ways safeguarding consumer/commuter interest better than aggregator cabs? Are the transport departments safeguarding commuter interests here?

Yes the basic argument will keep cropping up – that the aggregators are out to kill the competition with their deep discounting and once there is no competition left they will hike the rates. So how does that justify a closed nexus of who knows whom operating pre-paid taxi’s at all Indian airports? How are their rates determined and what are the service level standards? Is observing some archaic clause of Motor Vehicles Act all that is to regulating taxi services? Are the same authorities which are breathing down aggregators as interested in regulating pre-paid taxis and many other facets of the taxi trade or transport governance for that matter? Is regulating the aggregators at the airports all about protecting the business model of pre-paid taxis?


3 thoughts on “Airport Pre-paid cabs and the Taxi aggregators

  1. The problem Rishi I think is two-fold. First, the MV Act does indeed have a provision for a regulator, the State and Regional Transport Authorities, but the legal provision is weak. The so-called regulators are not really independent and essentially operate at the behest of the Ministry. That’s fundamentally a bad set-up. Also the functions, powers and operation of the regulators is weak/poorly defined. Clearly the Act needs to be amended to fix these structural lacunae. Second, the STA/RTAs, such as they are, do a very poor job of regulation even under the powers given to them under the Act. The officials who constitute the STA/RTAs (typically the District Collectors, RTOs etc) have an almost non-existent understanding of their role and since this is not an aspect that typically attracts the attention of the general public, they don’t even fulfil the mandatory functions they are supposed to perform.
    How to effectively regulate any service provider, which is the key function of the regulatory body, is a well-developed area of function in most other countries, and to some extent even in other sectors in India as well, but in a really poor state of affairs with regards to Motor Vehicles.
    A robust regulatory mechanism will not solve all the problems, but will play a significant role for sure.

  2. Dear Rishi
    This is one of the issues we should have taken up with Transport Commissioner thru’ MTF. Other than appearing in front of Hakim Committee we did nothing on improving the Taxi/Auto trade.
    Competition from Taxi aggregators have really helped in bringing down the arrogance of regular Taxi/Auto drivers and we need to support this competition.
    Can you organise a meeting with TC to put forth our views?

  3. Very interesting post, Rishi.

    I would say a bigger taxi scam / fail is actually outside Mumbai’s Dadar railway station, though.

    Every time I have got off a train there I have had a really bad taxi experience. I’ve been variously hustled on the platform, fobbed off by the many kali peeli cars just waiting outside but unwilling to follow the rules (always with a “broken meter”, quoting a crazy price etc), asked by a driver to swap my money for his Rs. 1000 note (a big scam), and even had a driver stop to let a sinister accomplice (“his uncle”) into the front of the cab (only loud shouting out of the window got us out of whatever sticky situation we would have ended up in).

    There’s clearly a criminal taxi mafia operating there – do a google search for “Dadar station taxi scam” to bring up thousands of similar experiences.

    The station geography and situation means Uber drivers are scared off from picking up there.

    I’m a fit adult male who knows my way around the city and who can look after myself, but even I have felt scared and intimidated. It must be much worse for all people arriving in the city for the first time, be it Indians coming from villages, domestic visitors or international tourists. For solo women travellers the situation must be horrifying.

    I find it very sad that one of the city’s busiest stations can be so dysfunctional and crime-infested regarding onward transport. I’m a very experienced traveller, and Dadar is the worst example of a taxi/transport mafia I’ve seen of any station or airport in India, or indeed the rest of the world.

    What can be done to highlight and remove this menace? Surely local politicians are aware?

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