August 04, 2020
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Riding In Fear Mode

Radio cab services have failed to be safe for women

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Riding In Fear Mode
Road Scare
Police take away a rape accused taxi driver from Mathura, UP
Photograph by PTI
Riding In Fear Mode

“The cab driver was unprofessional. He didn’t care about our secur­ity, started abusing us and dropped us in the middle of our destination, which is not safe...”

“Drivers these days are arrogant and abandon ­customers. There is no action even when I report such irresponsible, drunk drivers. For a woman customer there is no safety guarantee.”

These are just a few of the thousands of complaints and grievances that are coming mostly from women against radio taxi services at a time when their popularity is reaching a peak. As is well known, taxi aggregators have become big players in the private transport sector in urban India. They have made commuting easy by offering round-the-clock services to anyone with a smartphone. With technology on their side—as rides are tracked through GPS and fares are estimated well in advance—one would think we have finally stumbled upon the ideal form of transport and yet, therein lies a bigger problem.

When these services first appeared, they completely changed the way people commuted in the cities. From going to the nearest taxi stand and booking a fam­iliar driver, they advanced to clicking a button on a phone to book a cab driven by someone selected at random. The comfort and accessibility of such cab aggregators rapidly raised the demand for such servi­ces. The increase in the number of taxis now plying also opened a new but lucrative job option for them; the radio taxi driver was earning almost on par with most fresh engineering and management graduates when the service had started a few years ago.

But, despite all the safety measures enabled by such technological advancements, how safe do women feel about the service? How effective have technological safeguards such as GPS tracking and driver identity proved to be? From time to time, reports of harassment and ­molestation by radio taxi drivers have come out. A few years ago, the incident of molestation of a woman by an Uber driver in Gurgaon came to light. It was widely reported as the first such incident ­involving a relatively new taxi service that had ­entered the market with a promise of safety for its customers.

Technology is changing our interactions with each other rapidly. Until a few years ago, boarding random cabs at odd hours wasn’t a comfortable idea, especially for women. But then, it was technology that gave one the assurance—that any possible untoward incident can be pre-empted through surveillance and accountability. Recurring incidents of harassment, however, underline the fact that women’s safety remains a major ­issue even after all the ‘safeguards’ have been put in place. “Some drivers might have attained better economic status through driving these cabs, but the social background and education levels and their mindset vis-a-vis women remains more or less the same,” says Mohammad Salim, professor of sociology at Banaras ­Hindu University.  

As numerous cases of harassment in cabs are still being ­reported, taxi aggregators seem to have failed to create a safe and secure environment for women. It can be said that these services have not managed to reduce the perceived threat by their male counterparts for women negotiating the urban public space. Susan Viswanathan, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, calls this the parochialism of our society. “­Despite ­advancement in technology, women are still perce­ived as obj­ects to be gambled,” she says, adding that even when women of a certain stratum of society step out in public spaces, the threat of assault still looms.

Poorva Joshi, a Bombay-based writer, takes a cab to and fro from work every day. While she might not have faced any threats during her rides, the stories her friends tell her about their cab rides is enough to keep her on the edge—especially while returning from work late in the evening. “The constant dilemma of how safe I would be in the cab is something that plays on my mind all the time,” she says, echoing the fear of many women booking a cab.

While it is true that the technology used in radio cabs has made it safer for women to commute—the GPS tracker in the app makes it possible for the customer as well as the service providers to know about the vehicle’s location, the driver details make the system more accountable and the SOS button notifies the providers if something goes wrong—the system is still not foolproof to guarantee a safe ride to the customer. After Gurgaon molestation incident, the radio taxi giants Uber and Ola had to go into intensive damage control mode and reinvent their modes of tracking.

A vetting system is also in place for most companies to check the background and verify documents before drivers are hired. “We are conscious about recruiting driver-partners with valid documents, ­after a comprehensive background check and mandatory soft skill training,” says Shweta Rajpal Kohli, head of policy, Uber India.

Yet, the large number of drivers to be scrutinised before being given permits to work for the platform is a cumbersome process which has its own loopholes. Kunal Lalani, a lawyer fighting in the Delhi High Court to stop surge pricing in these cab services, says that one of the biggest issues with the drivers on the platform is that many of them don’t have a proper commercial driving licence. “Most drivers who are registered on the platform do not have an ­accredited driving license to ply taxis,” adds Lalani. “Commercial license holders have better driving skills and can be held accountable for any wrong-doing.” He says this clause has been a point of contention with most taxi aggregators but is yet to be addressed by the government.

While companies keep developing new ways to counter the problem of lack of safety through different features, there exi­sts a huge gap in the mindset of some drivers, even in metropolitan cities. ­According to Viswanathan, this pheno­m­enon is common since technology and mentality rar­ely evolve together. “Technology has ­always been value-neutral whe­r­eas culture value is indicative. Only when values and ideas change wit­hin the society do cultural changes take place,” she says.

Technical advancement in the way women commute now has been empowering because of the transparency and ability to track movements. Yet, it seems the role of this technology remains limited to ­being a deterrent instead of bec­oming an agent of change. A reason as to why most women still think twice ­before booking a taxi is that while technology might act as a barrier against crime, it may not lead to any behavioural or attitudinal change within society. “Such technological advancements act only as a first-level barrier. It might be able to, in most cases, instil a fear of getting caught in the driver but doesn’t fundamentally change the way he perceives women,” says Manasa Priya Vasudevan, senior ass­ociate coordinator at the YP foundation, a non-profit organisation which works with young women.

The barriers to claim public spaces ­become even more pronounced when women step into men’s shoes to take up jobs like driving taxis. With women taking up jobs as taxi drivers, the threat to their safety increases manifold. Padmakshi ­Badoni, a res­e­arch officer at Aazad fou­n­dat­ion, which trains women to become taxi drivers, says that while the ability to drive empowers women, thr­eats still ­exist in forms of day-to-day sexism and viol­e­nce. “Despite several ways to minimise threats to women drivers such as help cent­res and other rules in place, they still have to deal with the everyday sexism and ­misogyny out there on the streets,” she says.

It is interesting to note that despite the growing number of incidents of mol­estation in cabs every day, cab drivers coming onto various platforms are still not given any form of training for gender sensitisation. The increase in the availability of such cabs and the growing support for the business model will only lead to more inn­ovations in the ways one travels. As the number of radio taxis on the road inc­reases, so will the ways to find loopholes within the system. Clearly, technology has not provided all the answers to help transcend cultural and mental barriers. For an actual change to be witnessed there is also need for a cultural mobilisation along with class mobilisation which lets women feel safe in cabs whenever they choose to ride them, day or night.


Illustration by Sajith Kumar

Some Safety Measures While Taking Cabs

  • Send cab details to a trusted ­person to track your ride
  • Stay alert: make sure the car isnot in child-lock mode
  • Use the SOS button in the Uber and Ola apps to connect with police
  • Try being in touch with someone on the phone during the cab ride
  • Cross-check route being taken by driver through your own GPS
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