Thursday, September 1, 2016

Uber v/s Kaali Peeli. No gunfight.

A few days ago the taxis - “kaali peeli” variety – auto rickshaws – also “kaali peeli” – and the grand BEST busses – bright red – were to go off the roads on a one day strike. The Unions had called this strike to protest against Uber and its Indian clones Ola. This strike was called off. However, on 31st August 2016, the auto rickshaws went on strike.

Uber and its Indian clones have, to use jargon, `disrupted’ the taxi cab business. I am not going to tell you how Uber operates.

I have used Uber several times and am by and large very happy with the service when compared to a kaali peeli. Of course, there is a difference between various Uber drivers, in their competence, ability to read and use the GPS, knowledge of roads, ability to comprehend and follow instructions and so on. However, that is an Indian problem. We have lots of drivers, why drivers, lots of people who simply cannot read a map. Brain power differences are something that affects all of us.

What really troubles me is two broad aspects. First is a larger and graver question. What will happen if Uber runs out of money? The second is the sheer stupidity, pig headedness and attitude of the hyperbolic media that I cannot understand.

I am a capitalist, though, I must confess, while on the one hand I am all for `disruption’ and the consumer is king, I do feel twinges of hurt or conscience, call it what you might, at the havoc that could befall us if the `disruption’ is complete. I guess that is true for a lot of us. No, I do not read Economic & Political Weekly or the Guardian. So, I presume, it is the conscience that has been troubling me. Let me explain.

The cost of an Uber ride is - if you exclude surge pricing - very close to what you would pay for a kaali peeli. In fact, at times a ride in a small Uber will be just slightly more [by this I mean probably 5%] than an auto rickshaw ride. HRH the Queen of Kutch and I have experienced this several times when returning after a sumptuous meal and several intoxicants had at the ITC Grand Maratha at Sahar. An Uber ride to the ITC Grand Maratha at Sahar will cost a little more than an auto rickshaw ride back from ITC Grand Maratha at Sahar

Obviously, you cannot compare the costs of running an Uber vehicle and a kaali peeli. Travelling in a kaali peeli is a horrific experience, smelly, dirty, and rattly with a stinking unshaven irascible driver who is accountable to nobody. More often than not, the contrary is the case with an Uber. So, the question is who pays the real cost of an Uber ride. The answer obviously is Uber with its vast funds and continual funding has the ability to have extremely competitive fares, engage in predatory pricing, and all this is to the benefit of the customer. Yes, we as users have a good thing going with Uber. I believe, that with predatory pricing and a hugely superior offering, Uber is only going to have an increasing number of rides and customers at the cost of a kaali peeli. So, over time a kaali peeli driver will be out of a job. There are some 40,000 kaali peeli in Mumbai which would mean at least as many drivers. Mind you this is just Mumbai, add a lot more to this number when you look at the several cities that Uber has launched in. Who is going to bear the social and economic cost of these 40,000 being jobless? Certainly not our Government. Certainly not me or you and of course not Uber. My point is, are the Taxi Unions even aware or caring or troubled by this fact? Is striking work going to help in any way? On the contrary, people will get more upset with the kaali peeli and obviously all passengers will get to ride an Uber every time the kaali peeli strike. The Unions seem to be at a loss on how to deal with this `disruption’. I feel sorry for the poor drivers who are being misguided by the Unions and who are seemingly incapable of understanding the enormity of the problem.

Now onto the second matter of the sheer stupidity, pig headedness and attitude of the hyperbolic media. A few days ago while trying to look for a channel on the now re organised Tata Sky, I came across a panel discussion on exactly this. On the show were two kaali peeli Union leaders, some users and a representative of the BJP. Much was made about surge pricing, but, I honestly believe that you as a user has a choice. Surge pricing is disclosed upfront by Uber. It is not a surprise or an entrapment. You have a choice. If you do not wish to pay the surge pricing you can use a stinky kaali peeli. No questions asked. How can you protest this? Is not surge pricing an outcome of fewer taxis or conversely a greater demand. If the kaali peeli Union is so dead against it they should simply increase the number of kaali peeli on the road. But no, they refuse to understand this. Also if I am willing to pay the surge who is a kaali peeli driver to complain. Would he dare to overcharge me? Overcharging has unfortunately become the norm for the most weak and fragile customer – a tourist at the railway station is probably the weakest.

One point that emerged, to my considerable surprise, was that many car manufacturers refuse to sell their cars for use as kaali peeli. I am taking that statement at face value. The Union leader who spouted this explained that despite the willingness of a kaali peeli operator to use a better vehicle to compete with Uber, he was unable to do so as they could not buy the desired vehicle. In retrospect, I can understand the refusal of the manufacturers. But does this not beg the question. Kaali peeli vehicles portray such a bad image with their condition, use, lack of maintenance and so on that a manufacturer refuses to sell the vehicle to them. Is this itself is deeply disturbing and shows how utterly pathetic the reputation for maintenance is as far as kaali peeli are concerned. I am sure you have hailed and travelled in a Mercedes taxi when abroad. Do you honestly believe that this situation will change? How can a kaali peeli ever hope to compete with an Uber? See what I mean by pig-headedness.

Of course much is made about the kaali peeli drivers knowing where Mumbai landmarks are – examples of landmarks given are various hospitals. Is this really relevant in times of GPS? Much is made about the fact that kaali peeli drivers refuse fares. Explanations to this are bizarre – it’s lunch time, it’s dinner time, too short a distance, it’s time to hand back the cab to the next driver and so on and so forth. Once again this is a case of losing the plot. I as His Majesty the Consumer do not get this sort of rubbish from Uber. Why should a kaali peeli drivers problems become mine? Is this stubbornness to accept reality, to accept `disruption’ not only going to kill the kaali peeli driver?

Frankly, in my view, Uber and its clones have a bright future, and this bright future is directly inversely proportional to the kaali peeli’s dim future. This is not my real worry. My real worry is the social cost which no one seems to care about.

I cannot remember the last time I shouted `Taxi’ !

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