“I have been slut-shamed, harassed, humiliated. I will not take this lightly,” tweeted Raina De, a resident of Kolkata, to Uber India. Her experience with a cab driver who refused to divert his route despite the app showing the wrong location was only one of many instances that passengers have had with customers using cab aggregator taxis in the country. Although widely used, there have been multiple instances of errant drivers and where the company’s response was found wanting.
Many questions have been raised about the efficiency of the app, systems in place, and the regulatory vacuum that these aggregator cabs operate in, but they remain widely used and yet, there is no data on the number of incidents faced by passengers in these cabs, or what happens to the cases that women actually do put up on social media.
For Raina, who was travelling with her grandmother, the cab driver refused to re-route despite the map location being wrong. He further went on to berate her and said that he would drop at that very spot even though she was with a senior citizen. However, when Raina wanted to reach out to Uber for help at that moment, she drew a blank.
“When I was trying to find the SOS button, it was not working. A lot of times there’s no good network in a lot of areas. There should be a way of calling Uber up without needing internet. If the maps on Uber weren’t working, then the emergency button also wasn’t working. So I tried searching for helpline numbers, but couldn’t find any,” Raina says.
Human rights lawyer Ramya Reddy also faced the issue of the SOS button not functioning, albeit on Ola, when she was harassed by a drunk driver. All her ride details also disappeared. Speaking to TNM, Ramya says that she had already boarded and even sent the tracking link to a friend, and hence should have at least received a notification that her ride had been cancelled. According to her, she managed to get hold of an executive only after 20 minutes.
Looking back on her experience, Ramya says that there could be certain ineffective services in the apps. She adds that during the time, she realised that it was a possibility that the driver could cancel the ride after boarding, without the passenger receiving a notification. Furthermore, Ramya noticed that all the details of the ride were withdrawn from the app and emergency assistance was terminated in the middle of a ride. “Reaching the service providers includes a long wait even under emergency circumstances,” she says.
Ola and Uber, the biggest players in the area, both have emergency buttons built into their apps.
However, according to Sruthi Krishnan, co-founder and researcher at Fields of View, who has researched on similar panic button apps, says the very framing of any such app puts the onus of safety on the woman. “The onus of safety is on the woman to ensure that the phone is charged and you've downloaded the app. So, the questions are along the lines of why you didn't charge your phone or why you didn't press the button. It's similar to asking questions like what were you wearing?” she says.
According to Sruthi, the lines of communication surrounding a panic button needs to be cleared, and the institutional processes need to be examined. “Emergency is a very broad term. An emergency could mean that your car broke down, you had an accident, and could go up to sexual assault. We need to classify the emergency and figure out safety protocols, and they can definitely be established,” she adds.
For Ramya, she says she could only get through to Ola’s emergency contact after twenty minutes, by which time she had managed to exit the vehicle. With regard to her safety, Ramya says that the company needs to run its existing services effectively.
“An adequate background check needs to be conducted on the drivers. The aggregators claim that such a check is part of the process in commissioning drivers to work under the company’s name. However, they are rarely conducted and not to its full effect,” she says.
Kalpana Vishwanath, the co-founder and CEO of Safetipin — a social enterprise which provides technology solutions for safer cities, says that while cab aggregators are required to have a verification process for the drivers, the police verification procedures themselves are bad.
“Our police verification procedures are so bad that we are saying that Ola and Uber need to do better verification. Is this a good solution? At the end of the day, our police verification must become foolproof. It’s okay as a temporary process, but our demand must be that the police verification becomes a gold standard,” she says.
In 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development recommended certain measures for the safety of passengers, especially women and children to be included in the New Taxi Policy Guidelines. The suggestions made by the Ministry included taxis mandatorily fitted with GPS panic devices, and disallowing central locking systems in taxis. Another woman also stressed on the fact that the driver having control of the car’s door and window locking systems could pose a risk. She was locked in the cab by the driver, and when she wanted to attract attention through the window, that was also controlled by the driver. Eventually, it was only quick thinking at a traffic signal that helped her exit the cab.
However, the Taxi Policy Guidelines were never implemented.
The 2019 Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill recognised digital aggregators and gave the government power to regulate these cabs.
Both Sruthi and Kalpana say that there are things that the aggregators must do, the larger processes need to be assessed and contexts need to be taken into account.
“The long term goal is to start more conversations around the culture of masculinity, culture of patriarchy and have programs where there are notions of understanding of freedom, what can be done, what are the possibilities, etc.,” says Sruthi.
What Uber and Ola have to say
“We believe that technology makes it possible to focus on the safety of riders and drivers before, during, and after every trip in ways that have never been possible before. Everyone who signs up for an Uber account is required to follow Uber’s Community Guidelines which outline the ground rules and the kind of behaviour expected from riders and driver-partners on the app,” an Uber spokesperson told TNM.
The spokesperson said that the company had a number of safety products including their personal details being anonymised, screening of driver partners and a dedicated safety toolkit within the app to guide them.
“During an emergency, the in-app emergency button, within the safety toolkit, lets riders connect with law enforcement officials at the tap of a button. Moreover, for the rider’s peace of mind, someone from Uber’s 24/7 safety response team gets in touch with the rider within minutes,” the company said. In addition, the company informed that it was piloting a 24x7 safety helpline in Chandigarh.
Ola also said that it carries out driver verifications and background checks, has measures to prevent driver partner impersonation, a 24/7 customer support across phone, social media or the system built into the app. On pressing the emergency button, an alert is sent to Ola’s 24x7 Safety Response Team (SRT), ride details and GPS coordinates are sent to the emergency contacts, and passengers also receive a call back from Ola’s Safety Response Team. Ola said that customers also have the option to contact the police control room directly. The company also has Ola Guardian, a real-time ride monitoring system, which analyses rides on various indicators. Safety triggers are created and are attended to immediately by Ola’s Safety Response Team, the company said.