TIME: 12.15 am-1.20 am
DISTANCE: 42 km
JOURNEY: Sector 93B, Noida Expressway, to DLF Ph III, Gurgaon
“Madam, main pahunch gaya hoon (Madam, I have arrived),” says the voice at the other end, at exactly 12.15 am. He sounds warm and middle-aged, taking some edge off the nervousness at the start of a long journey from Noida to Gurgaon via Delhi.
A short, mustachioed man in a khaki uniform has rolled up in a green Meru Tata Indigo in front of an apartment complex on an empty street off the six-lane Noida Expressway. He opens the passenger door before getting into the driver’s seat.
Asked for his ID, the 38-year-old flicks the inside light on and points to a placard on the dashboard. The name on it matches the one sent by Meru in their confirmation text message, as does the face.
For further assurance, he shows his Public Service Licence. “We log in with our IDs on the GPS system or else the ride won”t be logged,” he says.
Could he take the shortest route as shown by Google Maps? Without any fuss, he says, “Jaisa aap kahein, madam (Whatever you say).”
Noida looks vast and empty at night. The streetlights are off, and only a few cars whiz by. Five minutes into the ride, I ask bluntly:
“Has any Meru driver been accused of rape?” “Not to my knowledge,” he says matter-of-factly, before quickly moving onto the regular cabbie-customer banter. “This is my last duty of the night. I don’t drive more than 14 hours a day,” he says, adding that he had dropped someone from Gurgaon to Noida before this ride. He earns between Rs 4,000 and Rs 6,000 on a good day, of which he pays Rs 1,400 as rent for the car to Meru.
At the SMS-AAMW Tollways, the truck lanes are full, while we are the only ones in the car lane. “Jab aisa kuch hota hai (When something like this happens),” the driver suddenly says, referring to the alleged rape in an Uber cab, “sarkaar aur police kuch din ke liya jaag jaate hain (the government and police become alert for a few days).”
From Saharsa in Bihar, he was a Blueline driver before the buses were phased out. Then he shifted to radio taxis. He worked with Easy Cabs for two-and-a-half years before joining Meru in 2010.
He says a driver from the “big three” — Meru, Mega and Easy — would “never” rape, and that his company checks its drivers stringently. To get his Public Service Licence, he says, he paid Rs 250 at the DCP’s office and, a few days later, a policeman came to his house to verify where he lived.
“I have no case against me, except a few challans,” he says proudly.
He believes Uber is at fault, but doesn’t agree with the ban on it. “What will happen to their 3,000 drivers and their families? I say let the company apologise and hang the offender,” he says, his voice rising.
We are in Delhi now, and with its well-lit roads and more traffic, it feels safer than Noida.
Without waiting for a response, the driver continues: “Saare fake licence banaate hain Mathura aur Bulandshahr se (All get fake licences made). There should be verification of all drivers every year.”
As he talks, he never looks into the rear-view mirror, his eyes set on the road. Speeding past the Akshardham temple, and overtaking a few trucks, he explains how all new “original” licences and number plates have chips embedded in them. The stench of the Yamuna wafts through even the closed windows of the car.
Continuing onto Ring Road, he narrates a recent episode when he dropped a girl from Kalkaji to Rajouri Garden late in the night. “The girl asked me to roll the window down, but I told her it’s late and it might get her unwanted attention. Some boys in a car later trailed us and passed lewd comments.”
It’s 12.45 am now, and the cab has hit the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road. Crossing three PCR vans in a row, the driver laughs at how the police come out in “full force” only after an incident occurs.
He also talks of how customers “short-change” drivers. “When they get late, they promise to pay extra, but refuse to do so at the destination and then complain to the company about us,” he says.
Laughing, he adds that in its first few years, Meru hired most drivers from Haryana. “There were more complaints. Now, at least 70 per cent of the drivers are from Bihar or Chhattisgarh.”
The car crosses into Gurgaon with the metro snaking above the road. The end of the drive near, the air inside the cab is more relaxed. At the border post, the police hail down an i10 with two men in it. As the driver speeds past it, an automated voice pipes up, “Slow down, you are above the speed limit.” He drops to 80 kmph.
As the car enters U-Block, DLF Phase III, the driver switches on the overhead light, but the guard at the gate is uninterested. We finally crawl to a halt at 1.20 am, and with the punch of a few buttons, he produces a bill. There is some confusion about the change, but he ensures he returns just the right amount and then waits to hear the clang of the gate opening before heading home to Palam Gaon, where he lives with his wife, mother and three children.
I feel for the pepper spray in my pocket and smile. Another night, and I didn’t have to use it.
TAXI METER 41,977
Total number of taxis registered in Delhi
Mega Cabs: 1,963
Meru Cabs: 1,004
Easy Cabs: 1,963
Status of cabs: Uber, Ola and Taxi For Sure banned
I want to avoid bypass. ‘We are not Uber, but Mega,’ he says. ‘Tracked at all times’
Victoria Memorial at 12.30 am
TIME: 11.30 pm to 12.10 am
DISTANCE: 22 km
JOURNEY: City Centre mall, near Salt Lake, to Santoshpur, Jadavpur
It’s just past 11 pm and slightly chilly for Kolkata. In one of the most happening places in the city’s posh Salt Lake, groups of people still hang around. Outside the City Centre mall, young men laugh loudly at a shared joke, while at a nearby crossing, an argument has broken out between a couple of autowallahs.
A young couple who emerge from the multiplex after a show of Ungli ignore the autos and try to hail down passing taxis. Three stop and ask them for their destination. When they say College Street, each drives off saying they are looking for “long distance” customers.
The Mega Cab has been booked a day earlier, for 11.30 pm from City Centre mall. It’s now close to 11.15 pm and there is still no SMS from Mega with the details of the driver, which should have come by 11 pm. A man had called from an unknown number earlier, given his name and assured that he was the Mega Cab “chauffeur” assigned for the pick-up and would arrive on time.
A worried call to Mega Cab’s number is received by an impersonal operator. He checks the details and assures that it was the “assigned chauffeur” who had called and given the details. To repeated queries on why this wasn’t accompanied with the requisite SMS, the operator says: “The SMS cannot be sent twice. It was already sent. There can be network issues. You have got the driver details. So don’t worry.”
At exactly 11.30 pm, a white Indigo pulls up to City Centre. As the customer gets off, the driver wishes loudly, “good night madam”. He then crawls along slowly, assessing the people waiting outside the mall, before coming to a halt. The front window on the left rolled down, the driver, his face covered with a muffler but for his eyes, peers out and asks in Bengali, “Madam have you booked a service to Santoshpur?”
Asked why there had been no SMS with driver details, he too is evasive. However, he immediately assures, “It does not matter, madam. Get in and relax. You will reach your destination soon.”
The vehicle is clean, and there is a whiff of a car fragrance. The driver glances at the rear window and, catching the eye, tries to explain. “I have two phones. The number from which I called you, that is not the number registered with the company. The number that the operator gave you is the official number.”
A request that he go through the city to Santoshpur — located at least 22 km away in Jadavpur, on the southern fringe of Kolkata — rather than the Eastern Metropolitan bypass does not go down well. The bypass is an isolated stretch of road. Sensing the tension, he adds, “Madam you are safe, relax. The bypass is the most convenient route.”
A repeated insistence to avoid the bypass has him irritated. “Why are you insisting on the city route? We are not Uber, we are Mega Cab. You are absolutely safe. We are always tracked by the control room. My company will pull me up for not taking the easy and direct route to Santoshpur.”
Finally acquiescing to “take the route as you direct me to take”, he veers around to the issue that has been hanging in the air — the alleged Delhi Uber rape. “Madam, tell me one thing,” he says, “don’t you feel the guest travelling in a radio cab so late at night should remain alert and not doze off? The guest must protest if a driver takes her towards Barrackpore while the car is booked for Santoshpur. I watched the news… I felt really bad.”
He doesn’t agree with the Uber ban, he adds. “If a person wants to do something bad, what can the company do? If a person is bad, he will be bad in all the companies he joins. I drive rented cars too and felt ashamed seeing what he did. But madam, we go through an inquiry that is more rigorous than before joining a government job. I had to bring certificates from my hometown in Bihar, though I have been staying in Kolkata since 1992. I had to produce a certificate from the local councillor and police station too. Some of my friends who work in Uber and Ola say they did not need to produce any document.”
Pointing to the GPS screen, he says, “You see, this is connected to our Delhi office and to all our local call centres. One person tracks 10 cars at the call centre, and the moment I stop the meter, they call me for my next pick-up.”
This is not his own car, but he could pay Mega in instalments and transfer ownership to his name. He hopes to do that soon.
The car is now passing through Esplanade, the heart of Kolkata. It’s midnight and in a city with just a few spots of night life, including Park Street that is around the corner, the streets are deserted. Three-four policemen can be seen at the crossing of Esplanade, Park Street and Rabindra Sadan. The much-hyped women police patrol force, Shakti, is nowhere.
The driver notices the measured looks out of the window, and breaks the silence. “Madam, why are you out so late?” he asks, a tad too curious.
Told it was due to work, he nods, maintaining eye contact in the rear-view mirror. “Several times I have dropped women home after they get drunk at a party. Their men friends mostly get off, leaving them alone. I see my guests as my relatives, but not everybody thinks this way. Girls must fix a time to get home, unless it is an emergency,” he says.
Perhaps realising he may have crossed a line, he smiles that he talks so much as he does not want his “guest” to be “nervous”. Now he opens up more, about his own life. He came to Kolkata in 1992, and first drove cars for a private company. He shifted to Mega Cab around five years ago. Now he earns Rs 20,000-25,000 after giving the company its share.
“I work 12 hours at a stretch, 9 pm to 9 am. We have a quota of logging a maximum Rs 2,500 per day. After that, the company ‘shuts off’ this car. But some of my friends work up to 16 hours. To do that, they drink, which is not allowed in our company,” he says. He works 28 days a month.
Going back to the alleged Delhi rape, he adds, “I am sure the Uber cab driver was drunk, like those in the bus in Delhi who tortured a girl two years ago.”
It’s just past midnight, and Santoshpur is now minutes away. The bill paid, he asks, “Is the guest satisfied with the service?” I say thanks and get down.
TAXI METER 23,990
Total number of taxis registered in Kolkata
Mega Cabs: 375
Meru Cabs: 100
Uber, Ola cabs together: 300
Status of cabs: No official ban but Uber, Ola almost off the roads
‘Women prefer us,’ assures Uber guy. Next day, comes ban
TIME: 8.30 pm to 8.45 pm
DISTANCE: 10 km
JOURNEY: Residency Road to Forum Mall, Koramangala
Sandhya Harsha Raj
It has been nearly a week since the alleged Delhi rape by an Uber driver. That’s not a fact easily forgotten. But it’s past 8 pm and to reach Forum Mall at Koramangala, 10 km away, for a 10 pm film show, the options are limited. Autos are available here, at Cash Pharmacy on Residency Road in Central Bangalore, but getting into any means endless rounds of haggling — not a relishing thought at this hour.
Downloading the Uber app takes minutes, and another few minutes later, there is an SMS that a promotional code has been activated and the first ride of up to Rs 500 would be free.
The nearest available Uber cab is 15 minutes away, and soon, there is a call from an unknown number. In a polite, professional voice, a man says he is attached with Uber and would be at Cash Pharmacy in about 14 minutes. The model of the car — a Mahindra Logan — the driver’s name and registration number flash on the Uber app. Seconds before the driver arrives, at 8.30 pm, there is a message notification as well.
A quick check shows the registration number matches the number on Uber app. The driver is in his 40s, dressed in a white shirt, and is wearing the seatbelt. The car is clean, and airconditioned. But the inside lights don’t come on when the doors are opened. Two out of three things crossed from the checklist. Not bad.
Pointing to an iPhone on the dashboard, the driver says “Madam, zero”, indicating he is about to start the meter.
He anticipates the questions that are coming. Hasn’t Uber already shut down in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai? Is Bangalore next? “No, madam, who told you that?” he smiles. “Some things happened in Delhi, such things will never happen in Bangalore.”
Manoeuvring through still bumper-to-bumper traffic on Bangalore’s packed roads, he tries to keep his tone casual. “When such incidents happen in trains, does the government stop trains?”
He has an explanation for what went wrong in the Capital. “In Delhi, the antecedents of the driver were not verified properly. Why should other drivers be punished for this? In most cases the cars are owned by the drivers themselves. Drivers will not risk their livelihood with such crimes.”
“Uber cabs,” he adds, “are in 240 countries.”
There has been no fall in demand since the alleged Delhi rape either, he insists. “I picked up a lady from the airport this morning. She told me she had a tough time finding an Uber cab to reach Mumbai airport.”
He admits though that the bond between Uber and its drivers is just that iPhone with him. “We don’t have a special safety device.”
Rushing to reassure, he adds, “Madam, the Uber taxis in Bangalore are owned by the drivers. We are from the city itself, that is why they are safe, and many people, especially women, use them. Don’t worry, madam, you will reach safe and on time.”
He has been working with Uber for six months, he adds. “I worked for a private firm earlier. I decided to join Uber because I need to pay them only a 20 per cent commission while others like travel agencies ask for 30 to 40 per cent. Uber is prompt with payments and my week’s account is settled through a bank transfer of funds,” he says.
He also likes the fact that with Uber he keeps no fixed timings. “I can work for up to 24 hours or, if I don’t want to work, I can switch off the iPhone and will not receive information about any prospective client,” he says. “But if my device is on and my cab is booked through the service, I can’t cancel.”
This particular ride is his 13th pick-up for that day and he makes around Rs 300 per trip.
Unlike what has been reported in case of the Uber driver accused of rape in Delhi, he says he was trained for three months by Uber on using its app and devices, and on how to take calls and talk to customers. “A lot of emphasis is on client handling.”
We have reached Forum Mall by now, and he presses a button on the iPhone to signal the end of the ride. Within seconds, there is an email from Uber saying no money was charged for the complimentary first ride and that the trip was completed in 14 minutes.
“Madam, I am giving you a five-star rating as a passenger. It will fetch you better discounts on Uber. You can also review the cab service on your phone,” he smiles.
I get off with the reassuring thought that the iPhone has stayed on throughout the journey.
The next morning, Uber is off Bangalore roads.
TAXI METER 73,000
Total number of taxis, with state or all-India permits
Meru Cabs: 600
kstdc cabs: 700
ola cabs: 160
uber cabs: Till last week, over 500
Status of Cabs: Uber banned
(Sandhya Harsha Raj works with NGO Janaagraha in Bangalore)
He is clear: ‘If women stop taking cabs, we’ll be finished’
TIME: 9.50 pm-11 pm
DISTANCE: 30 km
JOURNEY: Vaishali Nagar to Sanganer airport and back
The Pink City sleeps early. In winters, maybe even earlier. So, at 9.50 pm, the route from Vaishali Nagar on the western fringe of Jaipur to Sanganer Airport in the south and back is replete with dark stretches empty but for police patrol vans.
But, thankfully, the 15-km ride to the airport that takes 50 minutes during the day will be done in 20 minutes at night. “This route has no check-posts or traffic signals. Is it fine with you?” says the driver from Metro Cabs before he starts the white Tata Indigo.
He seems chatty and good-humoured, prompting the question on everyone’s lips. Jaipur is India’s prime tourist destination and, surely, post the alleged Delhi rape, some precautions are being taken regarding radio taxis? “Just a couple of days ago, police verification was done for all the drivers,” he says crisply.
Grimly, he adds: “There is panic for no reason. Just because one driver turned out like that, it doesn’t mean everyone is bad. Look at Shiv Kumar Yadav’s record. He was a serial rapist.”
However, he is open about wishing that girls were more careful too. “Taali ek haath se nahin bajti. In Jaipur, 80 per cent of our clients are women, many of whom hire cabs after parties. Some of them are so sloshed we carry them into their houses… Then there are inappropriately dressed foreign tourists. Plus in the Delhi incident, the girl should not have dozed off,” he says.
Having started out as a driver in 2010, he now owns six cabs, two of which he operates across the state for tourists and the rest for Metro Cabs. At any point of time, he or a cousin drive one car. For the rest, he has hired drivers, for Rs 12,000 a month. He pays a fee of Rs 400 per day per car to the operator. “My cabs run for at least 14 hours a day for all 30 days,” he says.
It’s 10.13 pm by now, and we are at the airport, where flights with tourists land round the clock. The driver waits on the kerb, having agreed earlier to a 15-minute wait for delivery of a package, before the return trip.
It looks like a sluggish day at work as all along — he does not get a single call or text for another booking. He explains it is midweek and not too many commuters travel this late. “Most of our clients are women who hire a cab after parties over the weekend. If women stop hiring cabs, our business will be finished. Men, usually visiting professionals and businessmen, hire cabs only to get to the airport or railway station. Families rarely call for radio taxis here while tourists prefer hiring for the entire day.”
In tourist season, he pulls out his cabs from the radio taxi service even while he pays the daily fees, to send them out on tours across the state. “That is more profitable. Metro Cabs has a large fleet, so they never fall short,” he explains. The driver who would rather be called a “contractor” now has also picked up some English to impress the tourists.
He chats freely without getting personal. Nor does he steal glances in the rear-view mirror.
Reassuring signs, I think, as I get off. The next morning, my phone beeps. It’s a message from Metro Cabs, with details of the driver’s name, his number and the car’s registration number. The message has finally reached — nearly 12 hours after my pick-up.
A network fault, I think. But then I look at the message carefully — none of the details matches with the cab I took the night before.
TAXI METER: 10,925
Total number of registered cars in 2013-14. no separate figures for taxis
Metro cabs: 80
Ola cabs: 150
Uber cabs: 25
Meru cabs: 100
STATUS OF CABS: None banned
Fear is in the air, he nods. ‘Orders will fall’
TIME: 11.30 pm to 12.45 am
DISTANCE: 45 km
JOURNEY: Nariman Point to Dahisar
The first sign is not good. At 8.30 pm, I booked a TABCAB from Express Towers, Nariman Point, to Dahisar. The driver is supposed to reach at 11.30 pm. He is 10 minutes late, having landed up at the wrong building.
Can’t he tell the address having been at the job for so many years? The driver, a lean man in his late 20s, a thin peach overcoat over his shirt, is polite. “I know the address, madam,” he says. “I have been driving TABCAB for 22 months.”
A migrant to Mumbai from Allahabad, he informs that besides this Toyota Etios, he used to have two other cars, a Swift Dzire and Indigo, deployed as cabs. “I had assigned them to a call centre in Kurla. It is now shut and I have sent the cars home.”
He is suspicious about all the questions directed at him, and wants to know why. At the mention of the alleged Delhi rape though, and how this was a precaution, he laughs: “Do I look like a criminal? What happened in Delhi was very bad, I have never heard of such an incident in Mumbai, at least involving a radio taxi.”
He admits though that there is fear everywhere. “Just this morning I took a girl from Navi Mumbai to the Mumbai domestic airport with her father. She kept telling him he shouldn’t have come, and he said it was not safe. That is the kind of fear that has spread. I think the bookings will go down for at least one month.”
He also stresses the need for police verification of drivers every year. He admits that TABCAB isn’t so rigorous about it any more though. “Initially, they checked thoroughly. Since six to seven months though, I have heard, they have been hiring without police verification as there is a shortage of drivers.”
He isn’t too open about the money he earns though, only saying that he has to pay Rs 1,200 a month to the cab firm.
To avoid traffic near Mahim Dargah, we decide to take the Bandra Worli Sea Link. However, traffic is moving slowly. As soon as it clears, he speeds and almost collides with another car. He apologises.
By 12.45 pm, we are in Dahi-sar. Now the driver strikes his second wrong note. As I get off, he gives me his mobile number. “Madam, you can call me directly,” he says. “Just tell me two hours in advance.”
TAXI METER: 48,500
Number of registered TAXIS
Radio taxis: Over 4,500
Status of cabs: None banned