On Tuesday, a district court in the national capital sentenced former Uber cab driver Shiv Kumar Yadav to life imprisonment for raping a female passenger in December last year. According to media reports, the court accepted the prosecution’s submission that the convict deserves no leniency for the heinous crime. Late last month, Yadav was booked under multiple laws by Additional Sessions Judge Kaveri Baweja on charges of rape and physical assault. He was additionally booked for kidnapping and abduction. It was last year in New Delhi that authorities had banned the use of Uber post the incident claiming that the app-based service was not responsible as they did not do a background check on their drivers. The incident created a huge controversy that gave rise to a nationwide debate about women’s safety which was presumed to be assured by app-based services like Ola, Uber, and Meru. These firms claimed to provide absolute security on account of running checks on their drivers and tracking the cabs. The incident prompted the Delhi government to ban Uber and several other web-based taxi companies from operating in the city, for failing to carry out adequate verification of the on drivers. In a desperate bid to wrest back its credibility among Indian consumers, Uber had added a “panic button” and cab tracking features to its tax-summoning app earlier this year. According to Uber, these safety features, each requiring two finger taps, are the first of its kind introduced by the San Francisco-based firm anywhere in the world. However, on the issue of the safety, it is imperative to understand the business model at play among app-based cab services. App-based cab services like Uber and Ola do not consider themselves as a taxi service, but as players in the dissemination of information that caters to the convenience and safety of its consumers. Consequently, their business revolves around listing available taxi partners on their app, and then to provide customers with a method to connect, and in some cases pay, for cab rides. The fine print on their websites makes it categorically clear that these app-based companies are not liable for any harm that you would suffer by riding on their cabs. Despite such official statements, a local court in Frankfurt, Germany, made it abundantly clear last year that Uber should be considered “a participant in any respective violation committed by the driver”.
The success of app-based cab services among young professional women in the national capital is based on the convenience and safety such services provides. These apps enable young professional women to travel from one point to another at any time of the day. However, unlike a ticket booking company for flights and trains, Uber delivers its services to individual customers in essentially isolated spaces. Unlike trains and passenger planes, where the customer is surrounded by other passengers, cabs are usually occupied by a single occupant. Therefore, ensuring the safety of its customers’ needs to be of paramount importance, by conducting thorough background checks on the drivers it employs. The rape last year made it clear that no through background checks were done on the driver, as investigations by the Delhi police found that the perpetrator was involved in a previous case of sexual assault. One could argue that Uber is entering into a contract with a driver, who the Delhi transport and police authorities feel is fit to ferry passengers across the city. However, considering the pathetic state of our public records, it should have been incumbent upon Uber to conduct further checks. This incident should allow us to scrutinise these app-based services and establish workable standards of service and care. Besides the nature of cab service, the recent judgment has also thrown light on the gradually improving state of affairs in our judicial system. It is no secret that the judiciary and the judicial system continue to face a lot of flak for delayed judgments and dereliction of duty.