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What chats with cab drivers tell us about the taxi aggregation business, and India.

Illustration: Ajay Thakuri Illustration: Ajay Thakuri

Conversations with taxi drivers, especially those who drive for new-age aggregation companies such as Ola and Uber, reveal a lot about how e-hailing services are shaping up in India. Many were lured by the bulky incentives the start-ups doled out and filled in the demand for cheaper cab rides, which at times, were even lower than autorickshaw fares. While consumers got a steal deal, the drivers got a better life - income, in many cases, quadrupled. They got to be their own boss with flexi-working hours.

But things can change fast. The exuberance of many months is now ebbing. Our recent conversations with drivers point to an over-supply of cabs and low demand on the other side of the equation. The noise about high incentives made people join Ola and Uber in droves as drivers, but good times are short-lived.

Both the companies have re-calibrated their incentive structure and, according to the drivers, the goals are much tougher to achieve right now for a variety of factors.

Congestion on roads and the time it takes to complete a trip is the primary reason why many are struggling to make an incentive. However, for some drivers, the foul is fair...

1 Greed

Driver makes enough, but wants to make more - looks fair till he requires a helping hand; a tad illegitimate.

(October 5, 9.45 pm. Cyber City, Gurgaon. Uber cab heading towards Delhi)

GD: Where are you from?

Driver: Rothak.

GD: What did you do there?

Driver: I was a farmer; grew wheat and rice.

GD: Who told you about Uber?

Driver: My friends. All my friends are driving for Uber.

GD: How much do you make in a month?

Driver: Rs 70,000-80,000.

GD: What are the incentives like?

Driver: If you do rides worth Rs 1,100 a day, you get incentive of Rs 2,500. If you do Rs 1,700, you get Rs 4,000.

GD: Arre Wah!

Driver: Bhaisaab, it depends on how long you drive.

GD: Okay

Driver: You don't gain much in Pool services. Just cancelled a Pool request to Delhi. If I knew you would go to Delhi, I would have cancelled yours as well.

GD: If you get another rider, you will make more...

Driver: No, in Pool one used to make more earlier because Uber counted trips. Now they don't. The incentives are currently based on the money you make.

(Driver's mobile rings - a pool offer. He answers the call)

Driver: Bhaiya, I have already crossed the border (over to Delhi). Why don't you book another cab?

Customer on phone: (inaudible, perhaps insists)

Driver: If I return to cross the border again, I have to a pay Rs 100 toll. Sir, you will not be charged if you cancel. And you will get a cab in 2 mins. (disconnects call)

(Approaching destination)

Driver: Sir, can I ask you something?

GD: Sure

Driver: Can you book a return trip to Gurgaon?

GD: I did not get you.

Driver: It will be recorded as one more duty for me. You just opt for the cash payment option. I will start the trip and okay the cash collection option, and get Rs 200-300 in my account. You will not be charged.

GD: Are you asking me to book another trip after the present one is completed?

Driver: Yes, after a few minutes. Select the cash option, You will not be charged. Hamara kaam ho jayega.

GD: Haven't you done enough rides today? (10.25 p.m.)

Driver: I have done enough to get an incentive of Rs 4,000. Will drive till morning to get a bigger incentive.

(Destination reached)

GD: (getting down) Thank you.

Driver: Bhaisaab, will you book...

2 Trick

This Uber driver employs ingenious ways to dodge the system.

(October 7, 9.46 am. Block D, Chittaranjan Park, Delhi. Trip to Noida. Driver calls)

Driver: I can't find the location. Can you come to 617?

GD: (a bit miffed) Okay.

(This writer walks a short distance to find the cab waiting)

GD: The GPS isn't working?

Driver: It is. But during Durga Puja the gates are closed.

GD: Hmm. Do you know the way to Noida?

Driver: I don't. I will follow the GPS.

GD: Hmm

Driver: I am also a Bengali.

GD: Are you? Uber is not showing your full name.

Driver: My name is Binoy Pal (name changed).

GD: Do you stay around here?

Driver: I stay near Sarita Vihar with my father, mother, wife and child.

GD: How long have you been driving?

Driver: I was earlier working as a private driver.

GD: What made you switch to Uber?

Driver: My whole family had dengue. I needed a job with higher pay.

GD: Is this your car?

Driver: No, I drive for someone else. I get a salary of Rs 18,000.

GD: Don't you want to get your own vehicle?

Driver: I do. I am planning to get a leased vehicle from Uber. I have to deposit Rs 30,000 and the vehicle is attached for three months. They are giving a Ritz (Maruti).

GD: Hmm

Driver: I heard Ola leases Datsun.

GD: Have you considered working for Ola?

Driver: I learnt the quality of customers at Ola is not good.

GD: Quality of guests?

Driver: Yes, they keep cancelling rides.

GD: I have also heard of drivers committing fraud?

Driver: The problem is I might get stuck just for Rs 20...

GD: Beg your pardon...

Driver: Rides of Rs 1,700 gets an incentive of Rs 4,000. Say, I manage get to Rs 1,680, but it is nearing midnight with little hope for another ride...

GD: So what do you do?

Driver: (Turns towards the writer and smiles) I keep four or five phones. (shows the phones on the front seat).

GD: Can you elaborate?

Driver: I have created multiple e-mail ids with different accounts (fake ones). I use a different phone each time to book rides and select cash as the payment option...but only when I am stuck for Rs 20 or Rs 30.

(Phone buzzes with a pool request; driver accepts)

3 Despondency

There are honest drivers, of course. But many are struggling with low demand, and long wating time.

(October 7, 5.06 pm. Film City, Noida. Uber cab picks up the writer for Delhi)

GD: How long have you been driving for Uber?

Driver: Five months.

GD: Where were you earlier?

Driver: I was a private driver.

GD: How is it going for you?

Driver: Number of vehicles has increased. So, there is less work. I have to often wait for long (to get customers).

GD: But the incentives are good...

Driver: If I work for Rs 1,200, they pay Rs 2,500. Then they cut 20 per cent commission.

GD: But if you do rides worth Rs 2,000, the incentive also increases?right?

Driver: We cannot complete trips worth Rs 2,000. We don't get that many trips. We keep sitting around. I got this duty after two hours.

GD: Is that so?

Driver: Yes. I was waiting near Mall Of India (Noida) for one and a half hours. Then I came to Film City as offfices close around this tme. I waited for 15 minutes.

GD: Where was your earlier trip from?

Driver: From Sector 97 in Noida to Botanical Gardens.

GD: How much do you make in a month after gas and maintenance?

Driver: I make Rs 50,000 in all. Gas is for Rs 600 a day.

GD: Is this a new car?

Driver: Yes. Have bought it on loan (Rs 4 lakh). I have to pay an instalment of Rs 15,000 a month. I pay Rs 10,000 for room and food. I stay with another guy.

4 Stress

Driving for long hours can take a toll on health and family time; it gets worse when a driver picks up a bully.

(October 15, 4.55 pm. Block D, Chittaranjan Park, Delhi. Ola cab picks up the writer for a Gurgaon trip)

GD: Can you switch on the AC?

(Driver switches it on)

GD: What did you do before driving an Ola?

Driver: I used to drive a truck.

GD: Do you earn more now?

Driver: Kuch nahi hai. They give very stiff targets. They want 12 trips a day.

GD: Okay.

Driver: Today I got five trips. The day is nearly over.

GD: How much incentive do you get if you complete 12?

Driver: Rs 3,500.

GD: Have you been able to ever make 12 trips?

Driver: Yes

GD: Today is a Saturday. Ideally, you should get more trips today?

Driver: There is too much traffic.

GD: How much do you make in a month?

Driver: Rs 40,000-50,000

GD: How much was it when you drove a truck?

Driver: It was much less. But, here, we also have expenses. Gas is Rs 600-700 a day. Lot of hard work - not everyone can do this job.

GD: I understand, it is stressful?

Driver: I wake up at 5 a.m., leave home at 6. Yesterday, I went back home at 2 a.m. It used to be great earlier - we had a target of six trips. Some drivers earned Rs 1 lakh-1.5 lakh a month, from both Ola and Uber. Now, the incentives are going down with each passing day.

GD: An Uber driver would also make Rs 50,000 now ?

Driver: Uber's (driver's) job is very nice.

GD: Why?

Driver: Whatever money you see (on the app, or whatever he makes), you get. You can have bharosa.

GD: Don't you get the full amount due in Ola?

Driver: We may do 12 trips, but if we make one mistake, or a customer complains, they deduct the incentive.

GD: Is that so?

Driver: It happens every day. Sometimes customers can be very bad.

GD: What sort of customers do you get?

Driver: About 10 days back, I was driving a lady from Faridabad to Azadpur. She did not know the address. She kept looking for the house, moving from one galli to another. The duty was on surge pricing. She kept saying that as a driver I should have known the took us half hour to locate the address. The bill was some Rs 700, but she refused to pay.

GD: Really??!!

Driver: She argued and ended up paying Rs 600. She lodged a complaint with Ola and they shut down my device for the day...Next day, I had to visit the Ola office to explain; then they switched on my device.

5 Hard times

Driving for someone else is not worth the pain. But bying a car on loan may not always be a wise decision. This driver is not sure whether he will be able to pay the EMI.

(October 15, 10.44 p.m., Udyog Vihar, Phase V, Gurgaon. Ola cab picks up the writer for Delhi)

GD: How long are you driving for Ola?

Driver: Six-seven months.

GD: What were you doing before?

Driver: I was with EasyCabs.

GD: Why did you switch?

Driver: The number of trips came down over time.

GD: Do you currently earn more?

Driver: No.

GD: No?

Driver: I don't own the cab. I am driving for someone else.

GD: What is your salary?

Driver: Rs 15,000 (a month).

GD: What about getting a cab yourself? You will be able to earn more...cabs are being leased?

Driver: Yes. They are leasing cabs. But it is not worth the pain.

GD: Why?

Driver: There are too many cabs now. Clients are fewer. Earlier there were more clients and less cabs.

GD: So, owning a cab does not make sense?

Driver: If I take a new car on loan, the EMI would be Rs 500 a day. If I don't get enough bookings, how will I pay the EMI?

GD: If you lease it from Ola or Uber, do they give you guaranteed business?

Driver: No. In the coming days, it will get worse. There are more cabs entering the industry. Earlier, I would work eight hours for the same income; now I have to work for 14 hours.

GD: How many bookings did you get from Ola today?

Driver: Eight.

GD: How much does the owner make at the end of the month?

Driver: He had one month's EMI pending?.it's due to the bank.

GD: He has not paid?

Driver: No. He has to pay an EMI of Rs 15,000 for the car.

But I have to work for it. If I don't complete the package, from where will he get the money?

GD: Hmm?so what do you want to do now? Continue as a driver?

Driver: If the situation worsens, I will do something else. I have two children; they go to school.

GD: Can you make do with Rs 15,000?

Driver: Yes, because I stay in my own house. If I stayed on rent, it would not have been possible.

GD: True that!