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The Uber Wallah in India

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on January 06, 2020 Published on January 06, 2020

Despite being exhausted after driving for 36 hours straight, 22-year-old Raval accepts yet another ride request saying, “It’s very difficult to pull away when I’m making money.”

He makes up for these long hours by taking the next day off. Raval belongs to a nomadic Banjara tribe with hardly any education, property or farming. He and four of his five brothers are now Uber drivers.

The move has brought quick change in their lives. They have acquired 10 acres of land with vision of more after driving for the ride-hailing app.

For Mudassar, who hails from a family of glass bangle makers, Uber has provided lucrative employment opportunities, ruling out instances of discrimination he would otherwise have faced with respect to the religious minority group he belongs to.

These are just two stories of the 133 Uber drivers in a paper titled: “India’s ‘Uber Wallah’: Profiling Uber Drivers in the Gig Economy”, narrated by Nimmi Rangaswami and her students Shantanu Prabhat and Sneha Nanavati from the Centre for Exact Humanities, IIIT Hyderabad.

The paper published recently in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) proceedings sought to understand the typical uberwallah as well as the employment that Uber offered in the Indian context.

After entering the Indian market, Über, the San Francisco-based cab aggregator quickly realised they would have to tweak their economic model to suit the local conditions. Unlike the West where typical Uber drivers are part-time workers looking to make that extra buck in their spare time, most Indian Uber drivers work full-time. Similarly, it’s a case of owner-driven taxis vis-a-vis driving on behalf of someone else.

Consequently, Über had to roll out many India-specific initiatives. These included introduction of cash as a payment option, a panic button, tracking feature as part of security measures, and an option to hail a cab without installing the app by dialling a number.

Profile of the Uber Wallah

The authors used immersive study in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai and the NCR region, with bulk of the interviews (111 of them) being in Hyderabad. Contrary to expectations, traditional or licensed drivers with long histories of driving did not dominate the respondent pool. While many of them had worked as drivers with private parties prior to joining Uber, some of them were former truck drivers, others hailed from rural backgrounds as either farmers using land as collateral to purchase vehicles to sign up with Uber or as having past experience in driving tractors.

A prominent trend was of “marginalised groups and the religious minority using the platform to participate in an occupation that eschews social discrimination in their work life”.

Driver ownership; driver inclusion

With incentives aimed at encouraging ownership of vehicles, Uber drivers are increasingly taking loans to invest in this direction. However, the study found that this is not always easy, especially for rural migrants who use farmlands and other immovable property as collateral.

In 2016, the Government of Telangana and Uber started a vehicle subsidy scheme for Uber drivers, which was associated with the Backward Classes Welfare Corporation and the Tribal Welfare Corporation. It was found that a large chunk of the applicants under this scheme came from SC/ST, Other Backward Castes, the religious minority groups, demonstrating that Uber is perceived as a caste-free, bias-free platform.

The researchers found that all Indian Uber drivers have been in an informal or gig economy until now and actually find Uber bringing in structure or formality in terms of employment.

“This is like turning around the whole discourse that the developed world is trying to project,” exclaims Rangaswamy. Referring to the lawsuits against Uber and the critique of it exploiting contractual labour in the US and Europe, she asks, “Why is only Uber being singled out? How many other companies are taking care of their employees even when all rules are in place? Or is this some sort of Left Liberal idea where Marxism is coming back into vogue?”

Published on January 06, 2020
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