Offices, malls, restaurants, airports, railway stations are all shut due to the lockdown. No one is travelling unless absolutely necessary. What this also means is that no one is booking an Ola or an Uber. As a result of this, lakhs of cab drivers across the country are now sitting at home with absolutely no income.
Inayat Ali, a driver from Bengaluru has a family of six. With his income becoming zero, Inayat is worried sick about being able to feed his family, educate his kids and pay his bills. Moreover, though the bank he has taken car loan from has offered him a three-month moratorium, he worries about the additional interest he will have to pay eventually.
And for some drivers, the Reserve Bank of Indiaâ€™s announcement of moratorium does not help, as many take loans from smaller financial institutions and loan sharks.
Similarly, Aravind, another driver who went back to his hometown says that most of his savings are now exhausted and his family is struggling for daily sustenance. He moved back to his hometown just before the lockdown was announced, hoping to get some work as demand for cab rides dwindled in the city. However, with the whole country under a lockdown, he has been unable to find any work. He made a video and posted on social media, appealing for help from the Karnataka government.
Drivers and driver associations across the country are approaching their respective state governments and the Centre, appealing for relief.
Inadequate help from Ola, Uber
Drivers that TNM spoke to say that while Uber and Ola have come forward to announce some measures for drivers, not only are they inadequate, but relief has not reached the majority of the drivers.
Shaik Salauddin, National General Secretary of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport workers (IFAT) reveals that data collected by IFAT from over 5,000 Ola and Uber drivers from across 51 cities and 15 states has shown that drivers were making only Rs 300-350 on an average after logging in for 12-14 hours each day as rides reduced since March, even before the lockdown.
Now, their incomes have come to a grinding halt. Most of these drivers, he says, have EMIs of anywhere between Rs 13,000-18,000 a month.
â€śThey are loaning money to us. We have to return this money to them at some point. Why would we take on additional burden at such a time? In terms of essentials, theyâ€™re giving us 5 kg rice, 2 kg dal and 1 kg salt. Now you tell me, how can a driver survive on this with a family of five for the lockdown period?â€ť Inayat from Bengaluru asks.
Salauddin says that based on his conversations with various drivers, relief from Ola and Uber has only reached 10-15% of drivers.
Tanveer Pasha, president of Bengaluru-based Ola and Uber Drivers Association says that he has also observed the same thing. â€śInitially, some drivers got money from Ola. But barely 1000 drivers to my knowledge received it. Uber said it will give Rs 3,000 to drivers in installments of Rs 500. But we havenâ€™t gotten anything,â€ť he adds.
Uber and Olaâ€™s responses
While Uber has not directly responded to TNMâ€™s queries on how many drivers have received funds so far, it pointed towards an update from the company on April 9, which said that Uberâ€™s drivers began receiving the first batch of grants from Rs 25 crore deposited by Uber into the Uber Care Driver Fund.
Ola, on the other hand, launched the Ola Sahyog, a scheme where it is offering interest-free loans to drivers, and the Drive the Driver Fund, through which it is offering medical assistance for non-COVID-19 conditions, and is distributing essentials to driver partners.
While Ola has not shared information on how many drivers have been benefited through this, sources told TNM that 150 tons of food grain has been distributed so far. Under the Ola Sahyog scheme, Ola has said that 6,000 requests for financial support have been received, which are being processed and disbursed in tranches.
Sources in Ola told TNM that the company has been receiving calls from various drivers for financial support and that it is reaching out to as many as it can, especially to those who need it the most.
In some cases, drivers seems to be unaware of the protocols they need to follow to get the relief. For instance, to receive essentials from Ola under Drive the Driver Fund, they will have to go pick up grocery kits from places where Olaâ€™s team is distributing grocery, etc.
Salauddin says that both cab aggregators need to hasten the process, given that the first lockdown has already ended and the second one ends on May 3. He says that at the very least, they need to give clear assurances to drivers on how and when they would receive support.
â€śMany of our drivers say that they havenâ€™t received any support. Ola and Uber should help us when itâ€™s actually required. Many drivers are going hungry as we speak, and they need support now. What is the point if help doesnâ€™t come in time?â€ť he adds.
IFAT also wrote to Ola and Uber after both companies announced some measures for drivers, asking for a contingency deposit of Rs 21,000 in each driverâ€™s account for subsistence during the lockdown, which can be recovered back on a weekly basis once restrictions are lifted.
EMIs, loan instalments burden drivers
Salauddin says that IFATâ€™s biggest ask to the government has been a waiver of EMIs for drivers. Apart from RBIâ€™s moratorium directive being unhelpful for them, the small finance companies drivers usually take loan from charge a very high interest rate.
Salauddin and Tanveer say that poorer drivers often borrow money from loan sharks. â€śIn several cases, local money lenders resort to extortion and violent methods of collecting money and interest. We had asked the Karnataka government to at least issue a warning that lenders cannot forcefully collect money from these poor drivers, but we havenâ€™t heard back from them,â€ť Tanveer adds.
In Inayatâ€™s case, while the bank he took loan from has offered him a three-month moratorium, he will have to bear the cost of added interest for this period, which worries him.
â€śI have taken the moratorium out of compulsion. I have to feed my kids. I canâ€™t afford EMIs with no income. But I donâ€™t see it benefitting me either. I still have to pay it back, not just the EMIs, but added interest on top of it as well. We all know that even after the lockdown, it will take some time before people start stepping out as usual. How will I earn enough to pay back that accumulated interest? Why canâ€™t they waive off interest for us at least?â€ť Inayat questions. He adds that he is worried the bank may seize his vehicle if he doesnâ€™t manage to pay his EMIs post the lockdown.
Difficulty in paying rent
And itâ€™s not just EMIs. Most of these drivers live in rented houses and have to pay rent and electricity bills. Bunty, the head of an Ola and Uber Drivers Union in Maharashtra, says that he has been receiving several calls from drivers worried about not being able to pay rent.
â€śTheir landlords arenâ€™t giving them relief either, since they need that money too. Some drivers are saying they managed so far by selling off jewellery, but donâ€™t know what they will do if the lockdown goes on for another month,â€ť he says.
Bunty too, claims to have written to the Maharashtra government seeking relief, but has not received any response so far.
Inayat, Bunty and other drivers that TNM spoke to say that they now have little expectations of help from anyone.
â€śWhat should we expect from Ola and Uber? I keep reading that they are giving so much money to the government, but we get meagre resources from them. If they really want to help, then why canâ€™t they directly help us?â€ť Inayat asks.
Arbitrary BPL eligibility
While some state governments have offered financial relief to BPL (Below Poverty Line) families, Salauddin and Tanveer say that most drivers donâ€™t qualify for this as they own a car, or in some cases are qualified as having an income of over Rs 15,000, even though their income is not fixed.
â€śIn Telangana, white ration cards of drivers were taken away saying you own a car so you donâ€™t qualify as BPL. So, we cannot even get Rs 1,500 the government is offering or the ration it is giving. We brought this to the governmentâ€™s notice several times over the years, but nothing happened,â€ť Salauddin claims.
Appeals to the government
The day the lockdown was announced, Salauddin wrote to PM Narendra Modi asking for relief for drivers and food delivery executives in the form of EMI waivers, reduction in commissions taken by Ola and Uber and a minimum wage for all of them.
Tanveer says that the state government should help drivers with some form of a financial package, similar to what the Delhi government has offered.
The Delhi government announced in the beginning of April that it will provide financial assistance of Rs 5,000 to drivers of public transport vehicles including autos, taxis and e-rickshaws in the city.
â€śOther governments should also follow suit. We donâ€™t have any lavish demands. We are asking for basic needs. Getting only rice isnâ€™t enough; we need some basic financial help as well. Otherwise while these drivers may have survived coronavirus, they are more likely to die of hunger, stress or mental distress,â€ť Tanveer adds.