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Riding on false sense of safety

 MPost |  2014-12-10 22:26:36.0  |  New Delhi

The Centre has ordered state governments to halt the operations of all unregistered, web-based taxi companies on Tuesday, after a young professional woman reported that she was raped in the national capital by a driver contracted to American-based cab company Uber. In its order, the central government has also revealed a failure to regulate the booming market for app-based taxi services in India. Following public outrage  over the incident, the Delhi transport department ordered a ban on all Uber-based operations. Although a blanket ban does not come even close to addressing key concerns over law and order, nonetheless the Centre’s decision on regulation does hold some merit.

Before entering into the merits of regulating such businesses, let us consider the business model at play. 

App-based cab services like Uber and Ola do not consider themselves as taxi services, 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 provide customers with a method to connect, and in certain 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. However, a ruling by a local court in Frankfurt, Germany, in September, made it abundantly clear 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 provide, in terms of enabling their ability to travel from one point to another at any time of the day.  However, unlike ticket booking companies 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 many others like him or her, cabs are usually occupied by a single occupant. Therefore, ensuring the safety of its customers’ needs to be paramount, through conducting thorough background checks on the drivers it employs.

The events of 5 December made it abundantly 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 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. The ban on Uber and others will not reduce incidents of rapes. However, this incident should allow us to scrutinise these app-based services and establish reasonable standards of service delivery and care.

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