The Uber mensch

Driving a taxi has suddenly become a coveted white-collar job for young, educated, wannabe yuppies looking for quick money and success

June 11, 2016 04:30 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:48 pm IST

‘U may pl come down 2 start trip gentleman pl. Have a great day :-) Pasupathy uber taxi driver’

I blinked in astonishment at the text message. Most cabbies call. Or you keep track on the app. Intrigued, I dragged my sleepy self to the car.

“Good morning, madam. How are you today?”

Well, hello there, Chatty Cathy.

“Fine, thank you, and you?”

“I’m also most fine, thank you. Where shall I drop you?”

An almost-military haircut, weather-roughened features and a perpetual smile, 42-year-old Pasupathy kept up a flow of cheerful conversation in Tamil-tweaked English as he zoomed in and out of by-lanes, steering clear of the 9.00 a.m. traffic with practised ease.

Impressed, I asked how he knew the shortest routes; did he grow up in the city? Oh no, he replied, he belonged to Nedungundram, a village close to Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. But Chennai had been home for the last 18 years. Plus, did I know of this great little app called Google Maps? The navigation on that little thingy was fantastic. Amused, I settled back comfortably. And how long had he been driving? 17 years, came the reply.

I decided to cut the small-talk niceties, and asked how much he made a month. His answer had me sitting bolt upright. “Yes, Rs. 60,000,” he repeated.

Driving a taxi has suddenly become the newest white-collar job in town, as young, educated, wannabe yuppies gravitate towards this rather green pasture. Chennai-based Devanand is a technical diploma holder and an erstwhile demonstrator at Samsung, where he earned around Rs. 25,000 a month, until a terrible motorbike accident laid him up. He could still drive a car, so when a friend told him about Uber, he decided to give it a shot. Three months later, Devanand earns nearly a lakh a month and has no desire to go back to his original job. “This is better for my wife and kids,” he says. Uber, he says, gave him a new lease of life.

Around 2,000 kilometres away, Sarabjeet Singh, an engineering graduate, quit his job as a technical executive at an automobile showroom to join Uber. Singh migrated to Delhi from Punjab three years ago. Times were tough and Singh tried everything from delivering newspapers to working at gas stations till he found his feet as an Uber driver. Like Devanand, he has seen a significant improvement in his monthly earnings.

Pasupathy has been with Uber for six months and says it’s better than other cab aggregators. He likes that work assignments are automated. “Uber treats us like business partners, not drivers,” says P. Damodharan, who has been with the company for a year and six months now.

With 27 years of driving experience (in travel agencies, multinationals, even public transport), Damodharan’s Uber stint soon saw him earning enough to buy his first car, a Tata Indigo, which he registered in his daughter’s name. Within a few months, noting his customer feedback and stellar ratings, Uber decided to offer him a Maruti Swift Dzire at a nominal down payment and low instalments. Damodharan’s latest pride and joy is so shiny and new that the plastic is not off the seats yet.

This is what most drivers dream of — to own their own car and then a couple of others, which they sign up with Uber and rent out to other drivers. In short: their own mini taxi company but under a large and well-known brand name.

Aam aadmi tha main , madam (I was a common man),” says Anil Yadav, who migrated from Allahabad to Delhi around a decade ago. “I never thought that one day I would be able to buy my own car (financed by Uber), much less the three I own now, get married, settle down, be able to buy land, support my family back home...”

Almost all drivers talk of the quantum improvement in their personal circumstances. Take Damodharan. His wife is very sick and needs constant care. Not only can he now afford the expensive procedures and medicines, Uber also pays for the regular kidney dialysis she needs (approximately Rs. 30,000 a month).

With plenty of graduates and few jobs, Uber has become a sort of half-way house for that much-coveted ‘office’ job. “This is just like any other white-collar job,” says M. Gopalakrishnan, with an MBA degree tucked away. “Instead of sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office, you’re sitting behind the steering wheel of an air-conditioned car.” After working for eight years as an accountant in big companies, the 30-year-old decided to quit. He started with two cars about a year ago. Today, he owns a fleet of seven, and is planning to buy two more next month. He has a team of drivers in Chennai, but manages the entire set-up from Madurai.

The trick lies in maximising the trips. A certain number of hours per day earns you incentives in cash. It is the first day with Uber for Qasim in Mumbai. A message on his phone has told him he can earn anything from Rs. 2,200 for four trips to Rs. 5,300 for 10 trips up to Rs. 6,500 for 12. And how many has he managed on Day One? “About 10 in nine hours.” Phew. Wait, what about diesel costs? “Oh, about 30-40 per cent goes into fuel, even if you use CNG. Plus, a 20 per cent commission and 5 per cent service tax paid to Uber,” says Qasim.

Drivers are free to decide when to drive and which trips to pick. T. Thangaraj earns Rs. 90,000 a month, and spends quality time with his loved ones. “I’m my own boss,” says this Chennai-based BBA graduate who bought a Tata Indica a couple of years ago. He invests most of his earnings and is giving his children the best education he can.

In Bengaluru, Bharathi Veerath is India’s first woman licensed taxi driver and presently the only female cabbie in Uber. She was wooed by the company into signing up, and loves it. She claims her passengers are a docile, civilised lot who have never given her any trouble. Pasupathy agrees. “Most of my passengers are a pleasure to drive around, except a few….”

He regales me with tales of rude businessmen and brash teenagers; then starts off on his love story.

I put the newspaper back into the seat pocket of his immaculate cab and sit back to listen.

I realise one interesting fact. The Uber revolution is fast changing the classic profile of the rude auto and taxi driver, especially in Chennai. Cabbie Dinesh Kumar was recently in the news because he changed a potential customer’s flat tyre instead of driving him to work. This Captain America fan began life as a gym master. “I wanted to be Mr. India,” he says. Life changed when he lost his gym in the floods last December. Then one day, he hired a cab. “I asked the cabbie to drive faster, or else I would lose my client. He laughed and asked me how much I made a month. I said Rs.10,000. He replied that he made Rs. 80,000.”

Doesn’t he want to get back to body-building? “Once I make enough money, I’ll reopen my gym,” he says, “but I’ll hire a gym master. I am having too much fun being a cabbie.”

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