Users of Ola and Uber mobile app-based taxi services in Chennai have been facing a persistent problem over the last few weeks in the city: a lack of cabs. Not just during peak hours, even deserted roads in the middle of the afternoon or early mornings find only autorickshaws available at times – along with the omnipresent ‘Desserts’ option on Ola that is further infuriating users who are in a hurry.
Ola launched its services in the city in 2013, while Uber followed in 2014. Both aggregators have captured a large share of the market, with erstwhile services such as FastTrack and Meru and scores of smaller players relegated to the margins or even forced out of business.
The dominance in the market has, however, come at a price for the drivers who signed up for the services. Attracted by the flexibility and incentive structure that were offered initially, scores of drivers attached themselves to the aggregators.
It’s a well-known fact that several unions have been constantly involved in rows with cab aggregator services over demands such as fare revision and reduction of the commission deducted from the fare. However, it looks like the deliberations have now come to a standstill, which raises the question whether the drivers deciding to call it quits. “As much as private cab companies try to stay relevant, such as using rainbow-coloured vehicle icons on the Ola app to represent solidarity with the Section 377 ruling, what’s the point when there are no cars available? I finish work regularly after midnight, around 1am... but over the last month, I’ve been able to find only autos in the dead of the night. Women generally feel safer in cars because we can raise the windows. I have now applied for my office cab to take me home due to this predicament,” says Arushi Kapoor, a call centre employee who works near Guindy.
The Ola app during peak hours shows cabs 20 to 25 minutes away, which defeats the purpose of using the service at short notice. “Sometimes, after booking the ride, it is shown that the driver is completing another ride and is 15 minutes off. In such cases, he asks us to cancel the booking as soon as we call. This is extremely irritating, especially when we are waiting outside the house or office for the vehicle to arrive,” complains Ravikumar, a businessman in T Nagar.
The drivers say many are moving away from what was their main source of bread-and-butter over the last two years. But what are their alternatives? OHI, OTS and Ula: these are the three brands that are taking over from the duopoly of Uber and Ola in Tamil Nadu.
“There are actually a couple of other services that are developing their apps for attachment to cars and have agreed deals with us. Even FastTrack’s updated app with the pricing is on a par with the best tech. All the drivers part of the unions, which comes up easily to more than 5,000, have decided to move away from Ola and Uber after months of negotiation. We are tired of doing it aimlessly. No wonder customers are feeling the brunt,” explains Ramanujam, leader of the Thozhargal Car Ottunar Amaippusara Sangam (TCOAS).
“People will look for alternatives as this trend progresses. In fact, drivers are already telling regulars about the likes of OHI and OTS. All the unions have gathered together to take this decision unanimously, and the phasing our process has already begun,” he said. “Drivers are now using multiple services: they might take 10-12 OHI rides a day, and just two of Ola or Uber. We would ideally like a world where there is no surge pricing or peak hours – that would make both driver and customer happy. Drivers’ unions will have a meeting soon to decide this,” Ramanujam added.
V Balakrishnan, President of the TN Call Taxi Owners and Drivers Association, agreed that drivers were looking for peace of mind. “Some decide to go as drivers for individuals or shift to tempo travellers. As the number of users increase, the number of drivers is remaining stagnant or coming down in Chennai... that’s the reason for this problem.”
The cab drivers themselves have various reasons to force this shift. They complain of long hours without breaks, and incurring high incidental expenses out of their pocket, including fuel and mobile data to stay online to be able to secure rides. With rising fuel prices, the income shrinks with every passing day. The incentive structure has also undergone overhauls, as per the drivers, now offering them less money for higher targets.
Complaints from drivers also include the increasing commission per ride that goes to the aggregators. “The system is even more brutal on those who do not own their own cars, as their income is almost halved after commissions paid to the taxi aggregators and the taxi owners. Those who own the cars have to pay EMI. But there is no job security or access to social security benefits,” commented 54-year-old Kannadaasan, who has been driving his car attached to Ola and Uber for the last two years.
The drivers also complain of a system that is entirely in favour of the customers. Janakiraman has now moved from Ola to FastTrack. “The rating system ensures we are penalised for even minor transgressions or situations out of their control.
This in turn affects earnings. We also suspect the aggregators to have rigged the system as cabs get closer to the daily targets to secure incentives. We don’t get assigned rides as we are about to reach targets that will allow us to claim incentives. Even the meagre incentives are credited late or remain pending at times.”
Strikes organised in January and June this year have proven futile, with the latest attempt resulting in the detention of over 150 drivers when they protested outside Ola office. The drivers demanded lesser cuts to their earnings and a better incentive structure. When contacted, while the official representatives of Ola attributed the delay in getting cabs to a mere increase in demand and not an issue with the driver-partners, a potential migration to newer services looks well under way.