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360 Degree 29 Dec 2019 Riding around in the ...
Sriram Karri is the author of the bestselling, MAN Asian Literary Prize longlisted novel, Autobiography of a Mad Nation

Riding around in the age of Uber

Published Dec 29, 2019, 2:30 am IST
Updated Dec 29, 2019, 2:30 am IST
Cab aggregators claim they are losing money, drivers are not earning enough and customers claim they are paying too much.
Lawmakers are furious that the Uber paradigm rendered so much of old-world legislation, and power, redundant.  (Photo: ANI)
 Lawmakers are furious that the Uber paradigm rendered so much of old-world legislation, and power, redundant. (Photo: ANI)

Some prehistoric relics may recall those days when you booked a cab by making a call to a landline of a travel agency, sometimes a day in advance, for a typical first slab of eight hours or 80 kilometres, whichever earlier, signed the reading of starting and ending meter reading, and paid cash to settle the bill. Or when call cabs arrived, with a call centre to book a trip the same day, and looked with awe at the innovations — a printed bill, a trip summary digital meter and even a card payment mechanism. The dinosaur age!

Then somewhere in London a certain furious-thinker Travis Kalanick got stuck outside the Heathrow airport in London, in rain, and no taxi stopped for him.

 

And he got an idea. Uber, the era-defining innovation, swept over the planet.

In the first wave of technology, software engineers and management graduates built careers with global tech firms. In the next wave, migrant tribal youth from small tandas across Telangana state became cab drivers for Kalanick’s genius-app; plying people from every part of India across the twin cities. Book, ride and settle with digital cash.

A decade ago, it would have sounded like sci-fi. Today, it is just another ride, and includes autorickshaws and even motorcycles in the menu of offerings.

 

Troubles in paradise
But it is not all hunky dory. Drivers are unhappy, customers have complaints, governments are furious, trade unions are protesting, heck, even Uber investors and management turned unhappy and fired the founder of this great innovation. Cab aggregators claim they are losing money, drivers are not earning enough and customers claim they are paying too much.

The finance minister says that the millennials are so caught up in the Uber (gig and sharing) paradigm, they have stopped buying cars. Car companies are blaming aggregators for drop in sales.

 

Lawmakers are furious that the Uber paradigm rendered so much of old-world legislation, and power, redundant. The first one being the idea of price fixing and regulation. Remember the auto meter; with constant fights between passengers who claimed it was tampered and the striking driver unions. Uber brought in surge and solved the problem. This is singularly the biggest issue with both governments and customers — how can Uber change prices? Is it not exploitation? Uber got trolled over surge pricing at work during extreme emergencies and crises, not excluding even during terrorist attacks. The company has since set an upper limit and changed its play out but pricing debate rages on.

 

A government which could not provide public transport services matching aspirations of millions of urban customers, or jobs to lakhs of unemployed under-skilled youth was understandably a bit blown away, and upset that Uber could do both.

Without involving it much; in fact, it could do it because the government was not involved much. Hence, the government strokes the fires of fury over surge in unenlightened customers to push back innovation and reinvigorate the grip of bureaucracy.

Dynamic pricing is a natural phenomenon that most Indian customers do not wish to understand — if you were riding your own car, you will spend different time durations and fuel quantities for the same distance based on traffic.

 

Second, all pricing should be decided by demand and supply curves, not by government intervention in today’s world.

Middle-class hypocrisy
Consumers, who advocate visceral socialism slogans as solutions to their misunderstood grievances, are hypocrites who would not tolerate or brook the same yardsticks for themselves.

Right to price: If software engineers can negotiate their salaries, and negotiate a hike with another company, without government intervention, why can’t cab drivers? How would it be if government set the prices of all cabs, and all software engineers?

 

Right to cancel rides
If techies can decide which platform or tech or company to work for, and have the right to refuse a job, or even project, they don’t like, why can’t cabbies? If a cab driver does not want to drive to Shameerpet, or Bowenpally, can the government force him to without its implying the government can also direct engineers to take a job with a company they don’t want to work with?

Positive impact
A lot has been spun as narrative about the Uberisation of jobs, by intellectuals (with assured jobs). But for the unemployed, an Uber represents an opportunity for a better life, a sustainable living.

 

Uber has also helped traffic police reduce drunken driving and associated negatives.

Lakhs of customers, every day, get the comfort of a dream service — no need to buy a car, drive it, maintain it. No hassles of parking. Drivers riding to pick you up and drop you anywhere on a fingertip’s notice.

Real-issue, safety
There are several real issues that continue to arise.  Safety, in particular of women and senior citizens.

Errant drivers who do not follow rules — wearing seat belts, talking on mobile while driving, and are extremely discourteous — won’t stop playing music on a customer’s request, or adjust the air-conditioning, or worse, on chiding, will stop the car and ask passengers to get down in the middle of the road.

 

As issues raise, solutions emerge too. Uber, and other aggregators, and the entire food delivery industry it subsequently gave rise too, are evolving and will get better. They bring value to each stakeholder, which is why they are sustainable.

It is a luxury to be living in the Uber-era, and driving around in it.  Let us cherish the benefits that we have received. And stay with the thought as we book the next trip.

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