It’s 2019 and with the advent of technology, we’ve been blessed with the convenience of finding a ride at the click of a button. Gone are the days when we had to give-in to the demands of anonymous taxi and auto drivers, claiming arbitrary prices disproportionate to distances travelled. But for women, the reasons to resort to new-age applications goes beyond convenience.
I remember this one time, a taxi driver took a mysterious turn into a lane, and when asked why, he said, “Shortcut, madam.” Soon, I was in the middle of a secluded area in Delhi, and the driver wouldn’t stop or respond despite repeated requests to drop me off on the street. I raised my voice and yelled, demanding he stop immediately. I’m lucky that he did, as that ride could have taken any direction.
Today, women across the country would rather request a pick-up, instead of taking a rickshaw or taxi from the streets. Ola and Uber’s rides are women’s means to a safe journey. Receiving the driver and vehicle details beforehand, receiving a link that can track the ride, is so reassuring, yet women get into these vehicles knowing there’s a contingency. A set of possible outcomes arising from a system that provides no transparency or accountability.
Over the past few years, popular cab services have faced scrutiny for the continued risk to women’s safety. Several cases reported of harassment, sexual advances and rape, have brought into question the safety measures implemented by such agencies.
In 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development made policy recommendations adopted by the Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways. The New Taxi Policy Guidelines included dislodging the central locking system in taxis, mandatory fitting of GPS panic devices and the driver’s identification displayed more prominently. Emergency buttons have been installed in apps for passengers to raise alarm with safety response teams, in addition to having the 24*7 helpline number to assist passengers with a risk to their safety.
Yet, all these measures fall short when a woman finds herself in a threatening situation.
‘Unregistered Uber Driver Rapes 26-year-old Woman‘, ‘Woman Allegedly Forced to Strip, Driver Booked for Harassment‘. These are only a few instances. Despite all the cases reported, companies like Ola and Uber have managed to escape without being subjected to greater accountability. The result? “I knew no one could save her, says Ola driver accused of molesting Bengaluru woman.”
A few days ago, I was harassed by a drunk driver who demanded I pay him extra money. In the middle of the ride, all the driver details disappear on my app, and the tracking link stopped functioning. I noticed him pull out a bottle from which he began drinking. Not only was he slurring the whole time, he was speaking to himself in a language he assumed I didn’t understand.
In a disparaging and suggestive tone, he said, “She refused to pay me extra, let me take her to her destination” – an innuendo I wish I didn’t know the meaning of. I asked him to stop the vehicle, I booked another cab and fled.
When I contacted Ola’s safety emergency number, I was on hold listening to music for a good twenty minutes. “What if this was an emergency?” In response, all they could say was “I apologise for the inconvenience and delay.” They told me they would find the driver, investigate and, if found true, action would be taken.
I reached out to them the next afternoon after there was no communication from their side. Again, I found myself listening to music for a while. I was informed that the driver was found guilty of the allegations and was suspended.
When I asked them to send me a confirmation of my complaint, and in writing what steps had been taken, they refused on the grounds of their internal company policy that restricts sharing such information. An argument that lasted 42 minutes ensued, after which I received a generic email:
“We are sorry about the incident on one your rides bearing CRN 3200100258. Your request has been auctioned as per Ola policies.”
The vague nature of the email provided no assurance that any action had been taken. They accidentally revealed that the driver was given a “last warning and a temporary suspension.” My demands were now to receive additional information, of the measures taken, the policy implemented for the misconduct of employees, and the policy that restricts sharing information. How do you raise issues of accountability when crucial policy details are not available publicly?
India has struggled to bring information technology-based transportation aggregators like Uber and Ola under regulation, and one can only wait to see if the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill manages to usher in some changes to the situation.
Also read: A Feminist Guide to Delhi
The irony is that women in India are deterred from proceeding to initiate action and not the transgressors from committing grave violations. When I tried to reach the local police station, no one answered. I received a call half an hour later: “Is it an emergency? If yes, we will send someone. If not, come to the police station.” If it was an emergency, I would have already faced the consequences!
Next morning, I was called to the police station where the accused was waiting. The senior inspector questioned my credibility, he said I had no claim as the driver hadn’t made any lewd comments or touched me, neither did I have any evidence that he was drunk. He said, “Go to the consumer forum, your complaint belongs there”.
There have been several instances in the past where I’ve dealt with police stations in my personal and professional capacity. “She doesn’t have broken bones and is not bleeding, why should we file her complaint?” “She has no case of abuse, tell her to work it out with her husband.” “This is just a case of theft of a mobile” (ignoring that a man broke into her room in the middle of the night, covering all CCTV cameras with handkerchiefs), or taking no concrete measures when a man was found masturbating outside a girls’ dormitory.
It’s 2019, and we still ask: “What is the issue with women’s safety in this country?”
Ramya Reddy is a Human Rights lawyer.
Featured image credit: Flickr