Kerala Government auto-taxi service to roll out soon

The Kerala government is all set to launch its own online auto-taxi service, Kerala Savaari, on August 17 in Thiruvananthapuram. Implemented through the coordinated efforts of the state Labour Department and the Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Palakkad, the project is touted as a substitute for multinational ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Ola that currently dominate the cab aggregator market, and is expected to ensure both decent wages for drivers and stable prices for customers.

An initiative like Kerala Savaari assumes significance in the wake of the sub-standard state of Indian gig economy platforms. It may be noted that as per the Fairwork Foundation’s 2021 report analysing the working conditions of app-based gig workers in India, both Uber and Ola had scored zero points on a rating scale of 10. The rating was carried out based on criteria including fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation. According to the report, these ride-hailing services offer “indefensibly poor working conditions”.

The experiences of Dileep Kumar, an online auto driver from Ernakulam, confirm this. By comparing driving through ride-hailing apps to a game that children play, he says “there are chances of both victory and failure”. Platforms regularly roll out offers and introduce incentives. “Currently, a driver receives an additional Rs 75 on completion of ten trips. Subsequently, incentives worth amounts lesser than Rs 75 are given on completion on a set number of trips. But such occasional offers are not enough to make up for the losses the driver suffers every day,” Dileep says.

The government-approved rate for cab hire charges is of Rs 30 for the initial 1.5 km, with Rs 15 for each additional kilometre. In municipality and panchayat jurisdictions, drivers are permitted to levy an additional 50% charge when an onward journey alone is performed. Sabeer, a driver from Kakkanad, says that Uber pays drivers Rs 42 for the first 2 km. Customers are charged an additional platform fee, which will surge in peak hours. But oftentimes, drivers have to travel a few couple of kilometres to reach the customer’s pick-up point. They receive no compensation for these extra kilometres. Besides, if a customer cancels after making the driver wait at the pick-up point for five minutes or more, a meagre cancellation fee of Rs 11 is paid to the driver. 

The soaring prices of fuel including CNG is making the trade unsustainable, all drivers agree. Electric vehicles with battery swapping is the best way out, Dileep says. “The only concern is the frequent flooding in Kochi. The chances of this affecting the batteries are high.” When fuel prices went through the roof a few months back, Uber paid drivers a pick-up fee of Rs 20. After two weeks, the company rolled out temporary promotional offers and discontinued the pick-up fee.

Kuriachan, who runs from Kakkanad, says that rides from online apps are not profitable. He still prefers the stand-based system. “The only advantage of online auto services is that it is possible to get customers on return trips from locations far off from the auto rickshaw stand,” he says.

Ashiq Abubacker, who switched to online auto service six months ago, points out that the income from the conventional stand-based system had taken a fall after the pandemic-induced lockdown. The increasing number of people relying on online ride-hailing services has compelled drivers like him to completely switch to online mode. Ashiq uses four platforms – Uber, Ola, Rapido and Tukxi. “Remuneration and mode of operation are the same in all four apps. But Uber has more customers in Kochi. Rapido is slowly picking up. Even though the wage earned per trip is lower in app-based services, it helps us reach more customers,” he observes. In Dileep’s experience, people would rather pay an unfair amount to a multinational platform like Uber or Ola than let an auto driver take the benefits.

The Tukxi app was rolled out in Kochi in 2020, with the aim of addressing some of the shortcomings of existing platforms. Developed by Tukxi India Private Limited in Kochi’s Infopark, the app promised a model that prioritises drivers in the auto rickshaw stands nearest to the pick-up point. This was expected to help avoid long, unpaid rides to pick up the customer. But drivers from Ernakulam say that they haven’t benefited much from this. Tukxi, like other apps, gave attractive offers initially, but these were brought down after they gained a customer base, Sabeer said. “The rates they pay are better than the rest, but everything else including connecting with customers remains equally difficult,” Dileep says.

Sabeer differs from his peers in that he finds the online auto system more profitable than the traditional stand-based system. The aggregator platforms run on a chain system that connects the driver to a new customer near the drop-off point of every trip. “A driver who doesn’t break this chain will be able to maximise trips per day, while minimising the extra distance to each new pick-up point. Many drivers are not aware of how to use ride-sharing apps optimally, and hence call it exploitative,” he says.

Measures to educate drivers on overcoming technical difficulties are being planned, says Sabeer, who is the admin of a WhatsApp group of online auto rickshaw drivers from Ernakulam. He says that efforts to form an independent union of online drivers are also underway. “The general response to such efforts has been cold so far. I am hopeful that positive outcomes of our activities will attract more drivers,” he says.

Dileep awaits the launch of Kerala Savaari with much hope, but he feels that existing private players should also remain in the market to ensure a healthy competition. Kuriachan too expresses confidence that a government initiative like Kerala Savaari will bring positive change, starting with steady wages for drivers.

Ashiq is sceptical about Kerala Savaari being transformational in the field. “We will have to wait and watch. No matter whether it is a private company or a government initiative, the primary aim will be profit and not the welfare of drivers,” he says. Sabeer too echoes this view, saying that he suspects the government will eventually introduce mandatory pre-conditions that are disadvantageous to drivers to join the platform.

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