Society

On a new ROUTE

When K. Madhavan Nair, 75, drives his Swift Dzire into city streets he is not sure how much money he will make that day. But that does not bother him at all. For he has opted to partner with one of the fast growing app-based cab service, only to meet people, make friends, and make another day of retirement worthwhile.

Madhavan Nair is one of the 12,000-odd drivers or partners, as they are called, of two cab services that operate in the city. And the number is growing.

These cab services have virtually exploded in Kochi. As an official of one of these companies, who does not want to be named, said, there are “a couple of lakh customers who have registered and the number of rides per month is a couple of lakhs. Every month we see a steady increase. There are professionals who, instead of their cars, take these taxis to their work place.”

The service, certainly has become extremely popular with the urban, smart-phone wielding commuter, but more importantly these taxis have transformed the lives of many for the better.

If for Madhavan Nair, a Chartered Engineer, this is not a means to augment his retirement income, for most others it has opened a new lifeline. “I came to know of this from two of my friends in the United States. They drive these taxis whenever they find time and earn well. They asked me to try this out. I love to drive and have been doing this from my school days. So now, retired and nothing much to do, I decided to give it a shot. I work on my own terms. It is fun and at the end of the day you make decent money too,” says Madhavan Nair.

But for many others like Joseph Babu (name changed) it has provided new hope. The prospect of a job, which did not materialise, brought Joseph to the city from Valparai. He started off as a driver, then bought a car on loan which was contracted to companies.“This meant long and fixed working hours and a payment of around Rs. 10,000. And even that was often delayed making life miserable. I was really desperate and that was when I heard about Uber,” says Joseph in his heavily accented Malayalam.

Today, Joseph claims to have almost cleared his debts and earns a steady income. “It depends on how hard you work. I usually put in 12 to 13 hours minimum and there have been days when I touched 42 hours forcing Uber officials to tellme to stop and go to sleep,” says Joseph with a laugh. He makes an average of Rs. 50,000 a month. “I can now afford to take a break during the weekends, spend time with my family and go to church on Sundays.”

Most of the drivers aver that this job allows them more autonomy and they have a greater life-work balance. Nirmal N. Nair, an electrical engineering graduate, is a partner with two cars and “more coming up.” Nirmal, who hails from Chengannur, has settled down in the city and doubles up as a driver occasionally. What attracted Nirmal to this was that it enabled him to work on his own terms. “That is the biggest plus. I love the freedom it gives, the flexibility, and the cash that comes every week. And it comes into your bank account without fail,” says Nirmal.

Partners confess that they are now making more money than they did before they joined this service. Anoop E., from Kannur, started out as a driver in a travel agency. He now drives his own car for one of the taxi aggregator services. “You can drive as much or as little as you like. If you have an appointment with the doctor and want to take your child to the hospital or you have a wedding to attend all you need to do is to switch off your phone. This never happens when you are working for a taxi service. When you are on a trip, say for four days, you are stuck. You cannot leave even if there is a death in your family unless you manage to arrange an alternative cab for the passengers. You get a monthly salary, which means in an emergency you may have to beg or pawn your wife’s gold ornaments. Now, it is so much better, so much happier,” says Anoop.

This is primarily a male dominated field. The number of women drivers in the city is hardly one per cent. There are women like Siji K.I. and Sheeba Antony who have won top ratings consistently for their service. “I’m past 40 and circumstances forced me to seek a job. I was with She Taxis before I joined Uber. I don’t want to compare the two. But let me ask you who will give a woman a decent job once your past 40 and that too with such a good starting salary?,” asks Sheeba.

The drivers have their problems, which they want the companies to sort out. “There’s a help desk that works from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. But we need one that works 24x7 since most of us work late into the night. Again, very often we need to drive say two to three kilometres to pick up a customer and the trip would be either very short or to the same destination from where we began,” says Laijumon, who owns more than a dozen cars often doubling up as a driver.

“We at Uber do have an emergency desk that works 24x7. This is a central help desk that works on an Interactive Voice Response system. Perhaps it may not have a language support. But we will certainly take steps based on this feedback. Riders tend to take short trips due to the convenience Uber provides, of getting a reliable ride at the push of a button at your doorstep. For driver partners, the economics are managed by charging a minimum fare which makes it viable for them to take short trips,” informs Nithin Nair, General Manager (Kerala), Uber.

And for the riders, as of now, it is travel in air-conditioned comfort, clean cars for very competitive rates and some great offers too. “But things can change,” says Venugopal, a regular rider. “Once the companies are strongly entrenched the rates will be hiked and the incentives of drivers will fall. This is when the companies begin to rake in the profit. But by then these taxis would have become a part of our life,” he adds.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 3:36:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/On-a-new-ROUTE/article16087597.ece

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