Tiding over a taxi ban

Tiding over a taxi ban

The city’s taxi ecosystem had quickly morphed into an affordable alternative for private transport. But a blanket ban on app-based taxi operators has stunted this fledgling industry, with commuters dubbing it as a knee-jerk reaction to the Delhi rape episode.

Bengalureans rejoiced when hyper-competitive taxi service providers dropped rates rivalling autorickshaw fares. They collectively eased into smooth-sailing cars, as the once taxing commute through overcrowded roads suddenly turned manageable. Was it too good to last?

The rape of a Delhi professional inside a Uber taxi changed the dynamics of this fledgling system overnight. The subsequent ban on all app-based taxis – dubbed as a necessity and a knee-jerk reaction in equal measure– completely overturned the evolving ecosystem. The city’s taxi crowd now remains confused, hesitant and waiting…

The D-Day for more clarity is December 31, the deadline fixed by the city police for all taxi drivers to get their backgrounds verified. But will this exercise prove futile? With drivers insisting that such verification certificates are available for a ‘price,’ would women feel safer when they get into that taxi again on January 1?

A foolproof system that monitors every taxi and every driver and thus throws a safety net around the commuter is surely the best bet. But that cannot happen in a jiffy. Neither is a blanket ban the best way to impose it, contend both drivers and taxi service aggregators.

Bengaluru’s fast evolving taxi market is big. Transport department statistics show that the city has 11 operators carrying out their taxi business based on aggregation models. This is besides the 71,245 cabs / taxis registered in the State and 3,539 plying within Bengaluru on city taxi permits.

Permit violations

Despite these big numbers, there is a catch. Only eight operators are registered with the transport department: Rapid Taxi, Spot Taxi, BangaloreTaxis, Mega, Meru, Ola, KSTDC and Easy Cabs. Department officials say, of the 71,000 cabs registered with state permit, many ply within the City violating the rules.

City police commissioner M N Reddi had recently warned of criminal action if taxi drivers or owners violate the 25 permit conditions required to operate inside the city. But Reddi’s insistence that the operator or the aggregator will also be liable for action has stirred fresh trouble.

The police say they have a precedent to follow. In incidents linked to sexual abuse of students inside schools, the managements were held responsible for not following specific safety guidelines. By the same logic, the law enforcers contend that cab operators too can be booked if they are found to have violated security norms.

For the operators, there is also another “registration” linked to the transport department. The department insists that taxi operators that follow the aggregation model should also register. But aggregators contend they don’t own the vehicles they operate and work through the web-based applications and internet softwares. Thus the responsibility and onus lie with the individual cab driver and not on them.

Drivers too feel trapped in the uncertainty. One of them, Syed Pasha, elaborates, “We have taken loans for our vehicles and these actions by the department are affecting our business. How will we repay our loans if this uncertainty continues?”

Transport department officials say that the drivers should push the aggregator companies to register themselves with the department.

Built-in checks

Background checks, insists another driver Gopal Raj, are built into the system. Drivers are being monitored through GPS systems and regular checks. “We have dedicated helpline for drivers and we are being inspected almost every alternate day by the company officials. Just because one person committed a mistake does not mean that the industry has to suffer for this,” contends Raj.

The aggregator companies reiterate the inbuilt mechanism for passenger safety. Explains Anand Subramanian, Ola’s Director, Marketing Communication, “We conduct our own checks including verifying the drivers’ licence, car ownership documents, taxi permit, bank account and PAN card. We have already initiated thorough background verification checks for every driver on the platform and are working with local police authorities to complete this at the earliest.”

Whatever be the mechanism, background verification without an official seal is unlikely to pass the test. The police currently follow a standard procedure while conducting checks on potential employees on a company’s request.

One critical part of this to check whether the employee has a criminal background. Based on the person’s residence location, the local police calls he/she to the station to verify documents related to identity.

Crime database should be thoroughly checked to verify whether the person has pending cases against him/her. Only after the police are totally satisfied should a No Objection Certificate be issued. The driver verification exercise is bound to follow the same procedure. 

Police commissioner Reddi reiterates that the moment an application comes in, the driver’s identity will be matched with all those in the criminal database. Past records will automatically mean rejection.

“It gives us an idea that the applicant had a proclivity to criminality. But verification is just the first step. Other systems such as in-vehicle cameras and geo-fencing, where an alarm goes off when the driver deviates from a predetermined route, need to be explored,” says Reddi.

Enforcement challenges

But enforcement will remain a weak area. The perennially short-staffed police are likely to find it tough to meet the verification requirements of the huge number of taxi drivers.
As it is, the transport and the police departments are not able to prevent the banned taxi services such as Uber from operating. The drivers attached to these companies are still available through the mobile app, since their vehicles do not sport any logo.

Yet, a larger question looms large. Even if a properly verified driver gets onboard an aggregator taxi service, is there a guarantee that he will not go astray?

Taxi commuters, who feel the blanket ban was a hasty, uninformed decision, have an answer: Let the customer decide. One driver’s criminal deed cannot be the benchmark for an entire industry. Do not hold one bad trip as an excuse to ban a million trips.

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