NOWHERE IS the right of the consumer pitted against that of the worker than in public transport. Even if you go back a decade, everyone who took a taxi or auto will have a horror story, of suffering the curse of the hostage customer. A relative, for example, once went to Sikkim and took an SUV for a Northeastern tour and sometime later, when he asked the music to be turned off, the driver coolly stopped the car and told him he could either get out in the middle of nowhere with his family or hear the songs. He took the second option.
Taking a taxi from an airport or railway station was almost certain to test your negotiation skills. You were lucky to not get overcharged or extorted. It is still like that in many parts of India, but there has been some letting up of the stronghold of the cabals because of Uber and Ola. They brought in professionalism and also a grievance redressal system. They could do that by giving huge amounts of money from their own pockets to drivers in the expectation of growth and future profits.
They have stopped doing it and are letting the market now determine how much a driver will earn. That is why you saw drivers of these services go on strike in Delhi and Mumbai. They went offline and also harassed commuters by accepting trips and then cancelling it. There is some merit to what the drivers say. They took loans to buy cars in the expectations of future earnings being in line with the past. Instead, they were being squeezed dry and are now barely able to make ends meet. They want Uber and Ola to increase base prices—according to some media reports quoting anony•mous sources, as much as Rs 100 from the current Rs 35.
But what they are experiencing is the story of all those who decide to become entrepreneurs. Because what Uber and Ola did was to make each driver a mini entrepreneur—and in business, some make good, many fail and most just make do. Instead, drivers are looking at themselves as employ•ees with a minimum wage guarantee which is still considerably higher than what they used to earn before they got onto this service. Employee status, in fact, is what the UK’s Supreme Court has just given Uber’s drivers and even ordered pensions. That the strikes in India should follow that ruling is probably not a coincidence either. But the UK ruling is the benevolence of a First World country with a strong public transport system as an alterna•tive for commuters. Drivers, now being employees of the company, might even work there because commuters can afford the huge tariff hike that it will lead to. In India, to have even a minimum base tariff of Rs 100 will be a death knell for all short distance rides. What they might make in individual rides, they will lose in volumes. The commuter will, as usual, get the worst of all worlds.