Stranded on the road

Between taxi aggregators, hungry to make a fast buck, and a government machinery that still prefers to move on a bullock-cart, the consumer is caught right in the middle of the road. Meanwhile, prices keep surging...

For all the technological prowess that Indians provide to the world, the response of the lawmakers in the country to technological developments appears to be as slow as a bullock cart. It is not unusual, as has always been the case, for the formulation of law to follow societal changes.

But the speed with which the bureaucracy responds to technological changes surprises even the common man. It is not that the administration in the country is bereft of technological know-how. To the contrary, many graduates from the best of technology institutions have, over the years, joined the civil service.

So, it is beyond comprehension as to why in the digital era, the administrative machinery at both the state and federal levels appears to be lost in defining an online marketplace. For some years now, e-commerce companies have been having a running battle with the commercial tax authorities in many states. The state governments have served several notices to e-commerce companies for payment of value added tax (VAT) on products that are sold to consumers.

The digital companies insist that they are only keeping the products supplied by their vendors at their warehouses for the distributor to deliver to the consumer. In short, the digital companies are saying that they cannot be taxed by the government. Strangely, every state appears to be waiting for another state to formulate a law which can be comfortably copied so that ‘those Internet companies can be brought under control’.

The quote is a common to officials of a few states who speak, as is the norm, on a condition of anonymity. In the same way, officials are now fighting a similar kind of a battle with those who have globally become a ‘nuisance’, as one senior official put it to this writer recently. His reference was to the taxi aggregators who have received a mixed response from the travelling public.

The contrast in response is glaring. Commuters using the Web-based taxi services do not know whether to think of the service as a relief or a pain. The relief comes from the fact that the passenger does not have to haggle with recalcitrant drivers of the three-wheeler autorickshaws or wait endlessly for public buses.

It boils down to the simple use of mobile app-based technology to book a taxi and, if necessary, pay for it in advance through an e-wallet. The painful part of this journey begins when the mobile app shows surge pricing of 1.1x or 1.9x going up to 4x. Some say passengers have even paid more than four times the normal fare.

This pricing comes into effect when the demand increases during the peak hours and prices shoot up. The taxi aggregators, Uber and Ola, claim that such pricing is only because more taxis are put on the road as the demand increases.

But, why does surge pricing happen with such regularity every day at the same time? There is no clear answer to this question from the taxi operators except to point at their respective algorithms and say that it is not something in their control. Interestingly, the algorithms did not function when it rained heavily in some cities last year or when floods invaded the southern city of Chennai.

In fact, it stopped functioning in Australia when the lone ranger of a terrorist had held several hostages in a Sydney café. It was social media criticism that made Uber even provide commuting without collecting fares from that spot. Dynamic pricing and an approach of do-what-you-may towards regulations have made taxi aggregators appear like villains not just in the corridors of power but also among the commuters.

The two states of Delhi and Karnataka have banned surge pricing but there is no stopping the aggregators. The algorithms work as they did before the ban, at least, in the southern state. At the same time, it cannot be denied that there have been times when the commuter has paid less for travelling in a taxi than in an autorickshaw. This does not mean that the commuter will feel very pleased about paying four times the normal fair when demand increases.

The commuter is not really asking for a cheaper price but a fair price. Even in the case of the e-commerce companies, consumers expect a fair pricing. The response of the government to surge pricing, however, is rather irritating. If the commuter has paid more, he or she should immediately complain to the police.

In turn, the transport department will impound the vehicle. Well, if the passenger did have the time and the inclination to go through the process of complaining to the police and the follow up action was seizure of the vehicle, s/he could have very well done so with the badly behaved drivers of individual taxis or autorickshaws.

The point is that the government still leaves the onus to act on the citizen instead of bringing into place regulations that would make the aggregators fall in line. So, between the taxi aggregators, hungry to make a fast buck, and a government machinery that still prefers to move on a bullock-cart, the consumer is caught right in the middle of the road.

Sort of stranded between two warring parties. One which shows the arrogance of the technology it possesses to browbeat all and sundry. And the other floundering about how to deal with that technology. It is only when the administration figures out how to deal with that technology can it look into the future and think of bringing in regulatory mechanisms. Until then, the commuter will have to, unfortunately, be at the mercy of money sharks.

Salman for Rio

Sometimes it is really amazing the way some administrators take decisions. The latest decision to appoint actor Salman Khan as the Goodwill Ambassador for the Rio Olympics falls into a slot that raises more questions than answers.

In the first place, why the Indian team needs a goodwill ambassador is itself a question that has gone unanswered. India’s legendry sprinter Milka Singh, indeed, asked the right question as to why the team required an ambassador when every athlete in the team was an ambassador for the country. Invariably, when such things happen in any field, there is always a feeling that there is some ulterior motive behind such an appointment.

Why should there be a Bollywood star as an ambassador when there are enough and more well-known sportspersons or athletes in the country? Milka Singh, himself, for one could have been an inspiration for the young people in the contingent to Rio.

Or, better still, it could have been a woman like P T Usha. There are many other names among sportspersons who could have taken Salman Khan’s place. The reasoning that he was doing it for free appears rather frivolous for an organisation like the Indian Olympic Association.

As the debate raged, participants on social media indulged in their favourite past time. If some found it ridiculous others hit rather hard, below the belt.

For those who are reading them, some comments would be better understood with this backgrounder: Salman Khan is still fighting a case in the Supreme Court for having run his car over some pavement dwellers in Mumbai.

Just like another where he has been accused of killing black bucks. So, one tweet said, ‘Good to see Bhai (Hindi for brother as Salman is affectionately called) as goodwill ambassador for Olympics. Our athletes should be inspired to run over their opposition’. Or, another one which said, ‘Salman is a great choice for our Olympics ambassador and if the organisers agree to set deer as a target, he may fetch us gold in shooting’.

But the best was, ‘Salman Khan becomes India’s ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ for the Olympics. Doesn’t Salman need a Goodwill Ambassador for himself?’

Tailpiece

It is well known that the views of people have got polarized. To some it has reached intolerant proportions as seen in various incidents during the last two years.

For some others who do not assess the mood of their co-passengers, it could well be dangerous to evoke a chat with a simple discussion on the extremely high temperatures most parts of India are facing this harsh summer.

Heat waves and drought have affected a large proportion of the country.

The following reflects the political divide in the country. “One train passenger told a co-passenger: Brother, the weather has been quite hot this year. Brother burst out saying: What makes you think it didn’t exist during the Congress regime.” Just a two-degree rise over the normal temperature is making people see red this year!

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]

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