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All hail the new boys on the streets

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Unlike the regular taxis, the new cab systems reward good behaviour and punish bad services.

Catching a ride is one of those quintessential Mumbai experiences, like eating a Bombay sandwich by the road or getting lost in Crawford Market — only that the latter would be mostly a harrowing experience. Not magically does a black and yellow chariot materialise every time I throw my hand in the air and shout “Taxi!” at the top of my voice. Pulling my hair out as cab after cab passes without as much as slowing down has become a daily ritual for me on my way to work. And on my way back, I’m always at the mercy of the principles of supply and demand: there are always more pedestrians left hanging at the curb waiting to get a cab than there will be cabs.

As I do every day, I tried hailing a cab to work on September 1, around 9 a.m. For quite some time the taxi stand drivers seemed to be quietly watching me frantically waving my hands in front of a pool of kaali-peelis, as the black and yellow cabs are typically referred to in this city. I was not asking for a ride to the wrong part of town, or for a less profitable trip to some outlying neighbourhood, yet I was being rejected. After stopping a cab with a passenger, the taxi stand drivers turned towards me and remarked that there was a taxi strike, in protest against the app-based cab services.

Just like the red buses of BEST, the transport provider, Mumbai’s kaali-peeli taxis are an iconic part of the urban landscape, and their drivers know every cranny and alley. I cannot deny this fact, given that my app-based cab driver one day didn’t know where Nariman Point was. But then these kaali-peeli drivers are never a call away and don’t give me an option to pay online. They seem to think that the sheer romance of hailing a 1990s model of the Premier Padmini would help preserve their position. These striking drivers are in denial of the digital age. In fact, a lot of this looked more like a riot than a strike, based on some reports of app-based cabs and their drivers being attacked. The reason behind my post is not to argue for non-violent strikes over violent strikes, but to point out the absurdity of the strike in the first place.

Let me revisit my taxi ordeal from a normal day. I catch a cab from Worli Sea Face and explain I want to go to Lower Parel. The driver halts saying the cab cannot go to Lower Parel — as if it weren’t a part of Mumbai. I stop a cab at the Dadar bus stand in the rain to take me to Worli, and the driver refuses unless I paid him meter and a half. Every other day, drivers seem to express their disappointment that I wasn’t going someplace far away, drop me 500 metres away from home and insult me for demanding a balance amount of Rs. 7.

The interiors of the taxis are filthy, the seats are ripped up and the drivers are often talking on the phone while driving. When asked to slow down or to stop smoking, they rarely oblige. I adjust my expectations if I have to get somewhere between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., and the rush hour being at its peak is not the only reason. The real reason for the scarcity of taxis at that time can be attributed to the cabbies’ daily shift change. My friends and relatives share similar tales as if they were war stories.

But unlike these regular taxis, the app-based cab systems reward good behaviour and punish bad services. It works both ways, because the drivers get to rate the passengers as well. If you are rude, late for the ride or drunk once too often, you’ll find there is never a driver willing to pick you up. This isn’t the only new standards that these cab services set. Apart from a clean record, they expect the drivers to own relatively modern models of cars. My 5’8” frame most certainly is uncomfortable inside most of the outdated taxis. I like being offered choices of cars that I can hail, and I like being relieved from standing in the street with my arm outstretched; hailing a cab has become easier. They are doing something incredibly simple — fixing bad taxis forever.

By going on strike, the cabbies are only driving riders into the arms of their self-proclaimed business rivals. By disabling their dynamic pricing, the app-based cab services are positioning themselves as “good corporate citizens” rather than aggressive and opportunistic operators, and thus were well-received and appreciated by several commuters.

I understand the distress of the regular taxi drivers but they need to figure out something else like, gasp, improving their services. All they are doing is hastening their industry’s demise. After all, someone who has to travel from Worli to Nariman Point isn’t just going to shrug his shoulders because the taxis are not running. Guess what I did when I needed a ride yesterday?

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 2:07:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/all-hail-the-new-boys-on-the-streets/article7626359.ece

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