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?