Taxis in Goa have been on strike since Friday, protesting a government initiative to introduce an app-based aggregator service for commuters and tourists. Goa’s taxi-owners have a reputation for arbitrariness, and tourists have long complained of extortion by drivers. The government has so far held its ground. What’s going on?
Why are taxis in Goa on a strike?
The Association of Tourist Taxi Owners of Goa (ATTOG), an umbrella union of taxi drivers with 30,000 affiliated private taxis, called a flash strike on Friday. By Saturday, it was declared that the strike would be indefinite. Several unions took their cars off the roads. Chetan Kamat, president of ATTOG and the spokesperson for the taxi drivers, has only one demand: “Scrap the government-backed GoaMiles”.
And what is ‘GoaMiles’?
It is a state government-backed taxi aggregator mobile phone application. The app — similar to the Uber or Ola apps that function in other cities — was launched by the Goa Tourism Department and is run by a company called Frotamiles Private Limited. It’s the only app that is currently functioning in Goa. The app was designed by a Pune-based company, Pitasys Software Private Limited, and was later registered as Frotamiles in Goa. Earlier this year, it was allowed to aggregate taxis in the category of AGT (All Goa Tourist), yellow-black taxis and AITP (All-India Tourist Permit) taxis, yellow-black motorcycles, and Rent-a-Cab and Rent-a-Bike, as per guidelines formulated by the State Transport Authority.
What do the striking taxis want?
One of the complaints the union has against GoaMiles is that it started working in the state without any consultation, and without taking their 30,000 drivers into confidence. Several Opposition leaders have in the past pointed out that the government used the PPP model to avoid the tender stage, and no competitive players got a chance. For the union, the app means they lose control over the taxi market, which continues to be unregulated, with no fixed fares. Another reason given by them is that app-based operations would open the floodgates for “outsiders”, who would drive Goa’s drivers and private taxi owners out of jobs. Taxi unions had earlier blocked the entry of Ola into Goa by citing the potential loss of jobs to drivers from neighbouring states.
How did the negotiations proceed?
The strike was the result of a logjam after several sets of meetings between the union and the government failed to persuade each side of the other’s argument. The drivers have said they are willing to come to the “negotiation table” after the government has scrapped the taxi app. They also say they are willing to talk on fixing fare meters on taxis once GoaMiles is out of the picture. The ATTOG has also demanded that the government pay 80 per cent of the cost of the GPS-enabled digital meters, which are mandatory for all taxis. The unions have never explicitly refused to install the meters, but they have not acted despite the passing of several deadlines.
How are tourists coping with this situation?
On Friday itself, the situation was a mess, and the problem escalated on Saturday as the monsoon tourism rush increased. Several tourists were stranded, and some were forced to extend their stay or look for shared transport. The airport authority asked airlines to alert passengers leaving Goa to schedule their journeys to the airport with time to spare for possible delays in getting transport. Several hotels arranged for vehicles from private contractors for arriving guests. Goans pitched in by creating a carpool group called ‘Share Your Ride Goa’ on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram.
But how bad are things in general?
For years, consecutive governments have proposed regularising the taxi industry and tried unsuccessfully to rein in the unions and make the sector transparent. The arbitrariness of taxi owners, holding tourists to ransom, has been one of the reasons why tourism has been hit in Goa. Since there are no meters or regularised fare, organised groups of taxi operators control both rates and routes. Taxis in South Goa and North Goa use different ‘rate charts’.
The steep taxi fares have triggered social media chatter about a holiday in Sri Lanka working out to be cheaper than a weekend in Goa for Indian tourists. Over the last few years, tourists have increasingly complained of being fleeced by drivers. In Goa, it is routine for a tourist to have to cough up more than Rs 100 per kilometre of travel and to pay thousands of rupees to go only short distances. Travelling to high-density areas like the beach belts and the clubbing spots, especially on weekends, can set a tourist back by a substantial sum.
Outside many five-star hotels, taxis operate out of stands, and force guests to use their services, not allowing even friends or relatives to pick them up. Violence is fairly common; in the last one year of GoaMiles’s operation, close to 30 FIRs of stone-pelting and assault have been filed.
Along with reports of foreigners being drugged and raped, the bad press about extortion by taxi operators is seen as a major reason for dipping footfalls. In 2015, Russian Charters listed high taxi fares as a reason why Russian tourists had begun to shy away from Goa.
What is the government doing about the strike?
At a late evening press conference on Saturday, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant said the government was sympathetic to taxi drivers, but “transparency” cannot be compromised. He has offered an eight-day window for the taxi union to either join GoaMiles or make their own app. Sawant stressed the government would not buckle, and would expect the unions to ultimately fall in line.
“We are for good tourism. We are not promoting GoaMiles for any political reason. The industry will benefit. Mining died due to short-term goals, and only a few benefitted. Tourism too, will die if such measures are not brought in,” he had said in the Assembly earlier in the week.
On Saturday night, Sawant warned unions that their licences would be revoked if they tried to take the law in their hands. A union leader, Bappa Korgaonkar, has already been arrested for allegedly assaulting a GoaMiles driver.
What are the arrangements made by government to help tourists?
In view of the strike, all tourists are advised by the Goa government to plan and leave early so as to reach Airport/Bus stand/ Railway station well in time.
The Government of Goa has also made elaborate arrangements for the convenience of the Tourists/Public, stated as below:
* Adequate taxis from GoaMiles will be plying throughout the state. To use, downloaded the app, or call helpline : 9607178989/8888800405.
* For the schedule of KTCL buses to and from Dabolim Airport, please visit http://www.goa-tourism.com.
* Helpline at Collectorate North and South has been activated. The helpline numbers are 1077/North Goa 0832-2225383/South Goa 0832-2794100/1077/ 0832 2225383
* Help desks have been set up at Dabolim airport where tourists can receive assistance.
So, should you be travelling to Goa right now?
At midnight Saturday, tourists arriving to spend the weekend in Goa continued to wait for long to be picked up for their destinations. By midnight, GoaMiles had clocked 2,300 trips, transporting 8,500 passengers, with the total revenue crossing Rs 10 lakh. Kadamba, the state transport corporation, has designed new routes and is increasing the number of trips from the airport and other transport hubs.
Taxis form the backbone of the tourist transport infrastructure in Goa. More than 8 million tourists, including nearly a million foreigners, visited the state in 2018. This is too large a number to be managed comfortably without finding a way out of the current situation.