File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )
I grew up in a city of yellow and black taxis. The drivers were mostly middle-aged and they knew the layout of my city like the palm of their hands. And, then came the Age of Uber and Ola, white glimming taxis with air conditions and GPS installed inside. Vanished from the streets are my well-known, dilapidated, non-airconditioned yellow and black cabs which ubiquitously plied the streets of Kolkata.
While there was some romantic pining for the old ones, most of us breathed a sigh of relief at the new development. The new taxis came with so much convenience, the app enabled us to get a cab at the click of a button, there is no tension of not knowing the roads in an unknown city which one may be travelling because of work or vacation. Most importantly, the commuters did not have to take rejection from the drivers. The haggling with drivers over destination and fare seemed to be things of the past.
Ola and Uber heralded a new age for daily commuters. But what had been good for commuters, can we say with equanimity that the same is good for people working the cabs for Uber and Ola? Or is the current flashpoint a continuation of a larger debate over labour rights and how these companies are treating these drivers with impunity because they are not employees per se but in contractual agreement.
The fact that both Ola and Uber have failed to deliver on their promises of revolutionising daily commute in India has to do a lot with how they treat their drivers whose status vis-a-vis the company is left obscure. Both the Taxi aggregator companies are falling in trouble with governing agencies for violating regulatory rules. They have put up a good fight from city to city, thereby, bringing taxi service to the twentieth century. But as they fought with state regulatory agencies, with more or less success, the mounting tension with their own drivers have become so big that political parties are taking up their cause too.
Starting Monday, Ola and Uber cab drivers will go on a strike for an indefinite period. This strike has been called by Maharashtra Navnirman Vahtuk Sena. The seriousness of the situation will become clear when we know that Vahtuk Sena is led by none other than Raj Thackrey.
MNS has urged the Ola and Uber drivers to obey the call for the strike. If they don't, comes the chilling words of the Union President, the MNS will handle the recalcitrant drivers their own way.
Without letting political parties hijack the cause of Ola and Uber drivers. It will serve the purpose of a fair and reliable transport service in India if we look into the issues,  raised repeatedly by drivers and transport experts, against the app-based companies.
Being app-based, these companies' strategies are anchored in technologies that are dependent on gathering, using and analysing loads of data. Both the companies have been storing data about pick up and drop off points, the routes that are frequently taken, traffic, the frequency of travels by a particular passenger, the performance of the driver, pick hours and down times. All these information is needed to develop a cost-effective and profit-making transportation system. But when a private company is dealing with so much data, there is a tremendous amount of responsibility associated with it. There are serious trust issues involved.
But some serious concerns have been raised by the drivers of the app-based companies. Allegedly, the companies are coming down harshly on drivers for not following the minute details of the code of conduct. For instance, they are penalised for refusing a passenger, they have to strictly adhere to log in and log off times. They have to be equally receptive to cash or digital payment. But all these would not have mattered much at the end of the day, have the drivers were getting paid as promised by the companies.
A very common complaint from the drivers associated with the said companies had been that while they had been promised a profit of 1.5 lakhs of INR, they are now struggling with crushing debts. So much so that, some of them pointed out of not being able to pay EMIs on the loan that they have taken for buying their cars.
It has been brought to the notice that the aggregator car companies had been discriminating between drivers. Courtesy the huge amount of data they own and because of the fact they can use the data howsoever they want, they are privileging those drivers that have taken loans from them to buy a car over those who came with their own car. The companies had been charging 26 per cent service charges on drivers getting passengers using their app. While the rate of service taxes remain the same for all drivers but the companies give first preference to taxis owned by the aggregators themselves. That is drivers who have availed of the companies'  financing schemes tends to get the passengers before other drivers working with the companies.
The drivers of Ola and Uber have little legal rights to negotiate with the companies as they are not employees per se. For instance, they can do little to negotiate wages or when they are faced with discriminations. This problem has been plaguing the companies in the US too. Where experts have urged The National Labor Relations Board to investigate Uber for possible violations of federal labour laws.
In case of India too, it will be imperative that under the current confusion, the Competition Commission of India (CCI), fair-business practice watchdog, should intervene immediately and order an investigation by the DG of Investigations. It is only then that the truth will come out and the drivers of Ola and Uber can get the case heard without politicising the issue to the detriment of their interests.
Drivers, coming from the low-income group, do not need indefinite days of a strike which would critically jeopardise their livelihood. Rather, they will need speedy addressal to their concerns so that they can go about doing their job. The commuters too will breathe a sigh of relief and the companies would be able to function hassle-free, without repeated interventions from regulating authorities.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)