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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Uber rape case exposes regulatory, security gaps, online and offline

Uber rape case exposes regulatory, security gaps, online and offline

More details emerge on the rape of a woman over the weekend and the arrest on Sunday of the driver of the taxi she booked through Uber

The Delhi government on Monday banned Uber after a passenger accused one of the online taxi service’s drivers of raping her. Photo: AFPPremium
The Delhi government on Monday banned Uber after a passenger accused one of the online taxi service’s drivers of raping her. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: India’s struggles to create a safe environment for women and the inadequacy of its laws to keep pace with new digital business models were both in evidence on Monday as more details emerged on the rape of a 26-year-old woman over the weekend and the arrest on Sunday of the driver of the taxi she booked through the popular Uber app.

On Monday, the Delhi government’s transport department banned Uber from operating in the state. Mint couldn’t immediately ascertain whether Uber will contest the ban.

Since its launch last year, Uber has become popular in India on the back of promotional offers, the quality of the cars and the service, and safety, touted by the company behind the app itself—Uber Inc.

As incremental details of the investigation emerged—the driver was previously accused of rape but claims he was acquitted; Uber didn’t verify his antecedents; actually the company did verify his antecedents but he produced a certificate issued by the police department; the certificate was forged—Uber’s workings in India, especially the virtual nature of its operations, came under the scanner.

Also under scrutiny were India’s inability to create a safe environment for women. The Uber rape brought back memories of the December 2012 gang-rape and murder of another young woman that resulted in nationwide protests and a promise by the government that it would create a safer environment for women, expedite rape cases and institute more stringent punishment for rapes.

Uber’s India play

In India, Uber has a subsidiary Uber India Systems Pvt. Ltd, registered in Mumbai and which has two active directors or partners including Uber Inc.’s chief executive officer (CEO) Travis Kalanick.

Uber operates in India through Uber BV of the Netherlands. Customers avail the service by downloading the Uber app. The app is from Uber Inc.

Customer invoices though mention Uber BV.

Uber India Systems enters into contracts with drivers and taxi companies, but the payments that these individuals and companies receive are from Uber BV.

India’s taxmen have been sniffing around the model, sure that Uber is avoiding paying service tax that it should be paying, but the company has always claimed that it complies with all tax laws.

Indeed, in some ways, Uber is not a taxi company at all but an app that matches demand and supply and provides services to both customers and taxi operators (much like e-commerce marketplaces operating in India).

Still, there are several grey areas in such models, not to mention issues related to accountability that have now come to light.

Anyone using the Uber app agrees to the terms of service, which come with a standard liability protection clause in a marketplace business: “The quality of the transportation services requested through the use of the Application or the Service is entirely the responsibility of the Transportation Provider who ultimately provides such transportation services to you. Uber under no circumstance accepts liability in connection with and/or arising from the transportation services provided by the Transportation Provider or any acts, actions, behaviour, conduct, and/or negligence on the part of the Transportation Provider. Any complaints about the transportation services provided by the Transportation Provider should therefore be submitted to the Transportation Provider."

Several other taxi aggregators operating in India have similar disclaimers.

Uber’s statement on Monday, too, seemed to cautiously shift the blame to the current licensing procedure for taxis.

“What happened over the weekend in New Delhi is horrific. Our entire team’s hearts go out to the victim of this despicable crime," Uber CEO Kalanick said in a statement.

Besides bringing the culprit to justice, Kalanick said, “we will work with the government to establish clear background checks currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programme."

The company will also partner closely with the groups that are leading the way on women’s safety in India and “help make New Delhi a safer city for women", the statement added.

The safety gap

The incident seems to have struck a nerve in Delhi (and other parts of the country). Two years ago, the government responded to the December 2012 gang-rape and murder by enacting a tougher law to deal with sexual violence. It promised to introduce marshals in buses. Last month, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) fitted 200 of its buses with cameras with a view to providing more security for women travelling alone at night. Yet, activists say the streets of the city continue to be unsafe for women.

According to the National Crime Reports Bureau (NCRB) report of 2013, rape cases increased by 35.2% in 2013 over 2012. In Delhi, the number of reported cases went up from 585 in 2012 to 1,441 in 2013. For women across the National Capital Region (NCR), the city now is akin to a battlefield that they have to brave every day.

Bhagwan Devi, 53, who participated in the anti-rape agitation of 2012, spoke to Mint while on her way to a protest once again outside the Delhi Police headquarters over the weekend. “Nothing has changed in these two years. If it had, another woman would not have been raped in a moving car; I would not be on my way to protest again."

“I drive, which makes me more in control of my surroundings, but even that has its pitfalls. If I were to leave late, say past midnight, a friend will follow me home," said Mihira Sood, a lawyer. She assisted the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, set up to recommend changes to criminal laws related to sexual violence against women, following the rape in 2012.

In recent months, some women say, Uber had emerged as a popular alternative to other cab services. It was as if the fact that the booking was done on an app, and through a company that stressed the safety aspect, somehow made it safer.

As the weekend’s incident showed, it didn’t.

The larger problem

At the heart of the matter is the state of India and, specifically, Delhi’s urban transport facilities. Delhi has more than 3,000 DTC buses on the road. A little more than 1,000 service the city as part of the cluster bus scheme. The Delhi Metro has more than 130 stations and operates on a route of length 193kms and there are scores of private cab companies, including well-known ones such as Meru. And there are apps such as Uber and ANI Technologies Pvt. Ltd, which runs the Ola service, often confused for cab companies. Women access these services every day making their way to and from work.

Segregation of women passengers, launch of women-only autos, and cab services run by women for women are all short-term solutions that provide succour on a day-to-day basis. “In the long run, segregation can also create problems," said Amit Bhatt, strategy head, urban transport at Embarq India, a think tank that works with local authorities to improve urban spaces. According to him, remarks against women who travel in the general compartment of the Metro as opposed to the ladies coach are not an uncommon occurrence. The solution lies in designing a more effective public transport systems. According to Bhatt, when a transit system is planned, the target traveller is the young male between 15 and 35. “The needs of women, their fears and concerns are very different from the men, and they have to be taken into account at the planning stage itself."

Jagori, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization (NGO), had launched a campaign titled Safe Delhi in 2004 that aimed to sensitize the population and make public spaces more secure for women. “We campaigned for changing the design of bus stops in Delhi as they were considered unsafe, especially at night. Today, designs are much more conducive, there is bright lighting, etc.," says Kalpana Viswanath, a member of the general body of Jagori, a women’s rights organization.

Other cab companies in the spotlight

Friday’s incident has also put India’s cab industry under the spotlight on questions of licensing, regulation and law.

In a statement, radio cab operator Meru Cab Co. Pvt. Ltd said: “Each driver has to get a police verification done. We get the address verification done by sending a registered post. This ensures that we have all the details." Meru also claimed it kept a biometric record of the drivers, along with a copy of the driving licence and the car’s papers.

Each driver, the company said, had to undergo a four-day training and a special course on dealing with women passengers at its in-house Meru Training Academy.

Meru also said it has the technology to track each trip undertaken by its passengers. It says: “Consumers can register for the ‘Trip Tracker’ facility. This provides the passengers trip details to a trusted person assigned by the passenger."

Aprameya Radhakrishna, co-founder of Bengaluru-based cab aggregator TaxiForSure, which has a model similar to Uber’s, said: “We follow a slightly different aggregation system, where we have a network of 400-500 operators, with 50 cars allotted to each operator (through family and friends connected to the network)."

He added: “We also have a stringent background check for each of our drivers, where he’s expected to undergo pre- and post-training testing from our side. Only when he passes the test is he allowed into our system."

Like Meru, Radhakrishna says TaxiForSure also has a location-sharing feature, which enables users to share their exact location with their family members, who can also track the cab during its ride.

“We all take safety seriously," he said, adding: “However, we need to work on the fundamentals. We need to start imposing stricter laws, and it should scare someone from committing these crimes. That said, despite all documents, background checks or even safety measures in place, if a criminal decides to commit a crime, chances are that he will do it regardless."

Experts say rape is an indication of a society’s attitude towards its women, and even if a government instills all safeguards in place, it is not going to stop until the attitude changes. Women should be able to move in public spaces without any fear of violence, but an overt fear psychosis that has especially taken root since 2012 will only deter women from stepping out. “And that is no solution," said Viswanath of Jagori. The turning point of the gang-rape in 2012 was that it shifted the onus of women’s safety equally onto government, police and public transport providers. “Now we have to take it forward. Make everyone realize that it’s a collective responsibility," added Viswanath.

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Published: 09 Dec 2014, 12:18 AM IST
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