Radio-taxi aggregators like Uber and Ola have been embroiled in legal battles ever since a female passenger was allegedly raped by an Uber driver in December last year, spotlighting app-based cab services’ inadequate and half-hearted consumer-safety measures. Confusion surrounding the proper legal requirements for these companies was intensified by the lack of a clear regulatory framework to deal with them — a problem the Indian government is not alone in facing. The Union ministry of road transport guidelines issued this week will go some way towards clarifying the compliance burden on the likes of Uber and Ola. Though the states do not have to abide by the advisory, it creates a broad structure that should help remove ambiguity for taxi-app companies, which face different or outdated laws around the country.
The guidelines impose additional costs on app-based cab aggregators. They require them to have 24×7 call centres and establish driver-training programmes that include gender-sensitisation. They also mandate that a vehicle be equipped with a “device capable of physical location tracking” and that the operator conduct stringent criminal background checks on drivers. Several of these have already been adopted by taxi-app services in response to the intense criticism after the December 2014 incident, as well as the threat of bans. Ride-hailing apps are mired in controversy across the world — as a reaction from entrenched interests, and because incidents such as the alleged rape raise uncomfortable questions about the fundamental premise of such services, which depend on strangers trusting each other to work while shortcircuiting the safeguards that apply to their more traditional versions.
Yet, while the government is rightly concerned with ensuring that ride-hailing services prioritise safety, it must also not seek to pass on the entire responsibility for people’s safety onto private companies. In fact, the success of Uber and Ola owes much to their promise of flexibility and freedom of movement, especially to women, that the state
has consistently failed to guarantee through the provision of reliable and safe modes of public transportation.