Bombay Diary

24th June 2016

Many years ago, a British literary magazine held a contest for the most boring headline. The winner went something like this: SMALL EARTHQUAKE IN CHILE/ NOT MANY INJURED. What would be a boring headline for Mumbai? FIRST RAINS OF MONSOON/ RAIL SERVICES NORMAL. It`s a boring headline Mumbaikars pray for each and every year, yet we never see it. Instead, it`s always ‘Rail services disrupted’. It`s such an unfailing annual ritual that a monsoon would be no monsoon without it.

This year was particularly bad because both of the city`s suburban lines, Western and Central Railways, went out of commission. To compound commuters’ misery, the kaali peelis, Mumbai`s ubiquitous cabs, went on strike. Did they plan it deliberately on that day to cause the maximum inconvenience? You bet they did, for even if S-Day had been planned in advance, the taxi union could have called off the strike when the railway system went kaput. It could have, but didn`t because the last thing on the union`s agenda is commuters’ welfare: the union`s unstated motto seems to be ‘Screw the commuter’.

Mumbai citizens have a love-hate relationship with the kaali-peelis: citizens hate the cabbies while the cabbies love the citizens’ money. That`s actually being unfair: the one good thing about this service is that any time of the day or night, you are sure to get a taxi wherever you are after only a few minutes’ wait. On the hate side, the list is long: many taxis are rickety and old (the union opposed a government proposal to phase out old vehicles); all taxi drivers, like Nature, abhor a vacuum – a slight opening between two cars, and they will create an extra lane; all cabbies, without exception, drive badly; all of them, with a few exceptions, will take you for a ride in the sense of going by the longest possible route unless you intervene… And, finally, although they live on the road, they seem to have no idea where anything is.

With Ola and Uber, the kaali peelis have got their first stern test against their hitherto unchallenged monopoly (Meru cabs and others only made a small dent in their business). But as this week`s breakdown of the rail services showed, at maximum demand time, the new entrants’ surge pricing kicks in, making taxi travel unaffordable for the ordinary office goer.

Incidentally, the taxi-strike was to protest against Uber and Ola (the strike, ironically, helped the taxi aggregators’ business!). The kaali peelis wanted Uber and Ola drivers to compulsorily wear uniforms and badges (a sartorial demand!); that they could continue to have surge prices, as long as the prices only went upwards (I told you the taxi unions have the commuters interests at heart); that there should be no share-a-cab scheme for these services (commuters interests at heart etc).

Over the years, the taxi unions have done nothing, absolutely nothing, to improve their services. You would have thought that when news of the Uber phenomenon began to go around the world, they would have seen faint outlines of the writing on the wall, and would have taken quick measures to upgrade their cars, the quality of driving and so on. No such luck – the taxi unions’ only response is to call a strike and thus arm-twist the government via the commuter.

On recent trips to London, I have noticed that three services co-exist in the city, presumably quite happily. First, the traditional London black cabs, extremely roomy and comfortable, with their drivers knowing every nook and cranny of the city. Second, the so-called ‘Mini Cab’, an unmetered service started years ago (but cheaper than the black taxi), which works by ordering cabs by phone. I found most residents knew their local drivers and would book a car in advance for a specific time to take them from A to B. The third, of course, is Uber, which is now everywhere. One of the reasons that this co-existence is without rancour is that London didn`t have an excess of taxis to start with. Mumbai does. Why? Because politicians keep giving licences for more and more cabs. Why do they do that? Silly question. Politicians own taxis too..