EVERY DAY Amjad Khan (42), leaves for Nashik at 2 pm to work as a helper for a vegetable truck and returns home in Mumbai at 2 am. The gruelling 12-hour schedule earns him a daily wage of Rs 1,000, which is nearly double of his previous income as a cab driver with India’s two largest cab aggregators, Ola and Uber.
For Kondal Reddy (40), the shift has been stark. Forced to sell his car that he had bought in 2016, Reddy now makes a living by driving tractors. “Living in a village is fine for now as my daughter’s school is holding online classes. Once the school re-opens, I will look for a job in the city to ensure she does not have to skip classes,” he said.
Khan and Reddy are among a bulk of the over 24 lakh drivers associated with ride-hailing apps across India, who have been left without any income security and forced to look for alternatives during the pandemic. Most of these drivers, also referred to as “partners” by taxi-aggregator firms, are saddled with debt, having taken loans to buy cars with the sole purpose of collaborating with these platforms.
According to Shaik Salauddin, the general secretary of Indian Federation of App-based Transport workers (IFAT), at least 10 per cent of drivers in Telangana have taken up odd jobs during the lockdown. “Around 300 drivers were helped by the Telangana Four Wheeler Drivers’ Association to work as fruit and vegetable vendors for survival,” he said.
While cab-aggregator firms are finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat, poor demand, rising diesel prices, ambiguity in rules and regulations coupled with high commissions have become major deterrents for the drivers wishing to return to the business.
“Rising fuel prices as well as the new cost involved in maintaining hygiene, are eating into the already paltry earnings of drivers,” Salauddin said.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Ola has reported a drop of 95 per cent in its revenue, while Uber noted an unpredictable nature of recovery by laying off employees, including drivers. Uber has shut down its Mumbai office asking its employees to work from home till December.
According to economist Ajit Ranade, the cab-hailing companies are dealing with a demand and supply ‘shock’, which may revive over the next six months with the gradual lifting of lockdown and consequent increase in mobility. During this period, Ranade added, the companies along with the drivers will have to work together to build commuters’ confidence by way of putting up plastic separators and sanitising vehicles regularly, instead of putting the onus of maintaining hygiene exclusively on drivers.
Salauddin, however, claimed that the “anti-driver” policies of these companies were aggravating the issues faced by drivers. “Far from any relief, these companies are putting the drivers off-road if their vehicle papers were not in order, despite a relaxation granted by the government until September 2020 for such cases,” he said.
He added that the aid provided by the companies was grossly inadequate and meaningless, especially in light of the commissions charged that account for 25-30 per cent of each trip. Recently, Uber had announced one-time financial aid of Rs 3,000 for drivers, while Ola had offered a loan of Rs 2,500 to drivers.
“As a possible solution to mitigating some of the concerns allayed by drivers, the government can recognise them as entrepreneurs and include them as Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSMEs) to avail benefits of government schemes,” Ranade said.
While Uber refused to comment on the matter, officials from Ola said they need more time.
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