safety

By Sanchita Khurana

I travel 18 km to work every day and I’m claustrophobic, so the Delhi Metro is not for me. Every morning, I find myself booking a cab on either Uber or Ola. These taxi services are quick, cheap, and convenient, and ever since they have been around, I have rarely travelled by other means in Delhi.

A week ago, as part of what has become my morning routine, I booked a cab on Ola to go to work. It was drizzling and Ola had surge pricing, but I was getting late for a meeting, so I agreed to pay twice the fare.

My driver was 15 minutes away, but by the time I called and guided him to my location, it was more than 40 minutes — despite the fact that the Ola app had my home address as the pick-up location in it. On boarding, I realised that the driver was not at all apologetic for being late. To my angry remarks about having to pay double the fare and still reaching late for work, he casually told me that he was new to Ola and to the city, and understood neither “this surge-pricing” nor the routes.

After a while, I got busy reading as I always do, but I noticed stray glances directed at me through the mirror, which I decided to ignore. The ride was uneventful, but I was surprised when the driver asked me for my personal number when I reached my destination. Naturally, I declined.

I thought that was the end of it. It was not. The very next day I received a friend request from a newly made profile of a Pardeep Kumar on Facebook, which, to my horror turned out to be the same driver. I immediately blocked him, in response to which he sent me another friend request from a fresh account, which I blocked again.

A couple of days later, I got a WhatsApp message from an unknown number.

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There was no mistaking it. The photo was right there. It was the same guy. He must have saved my number from when I called him to give him directions, I realised. And he also knew exactly where I lived. For a woman who lives alone in Delhi, a stranger who knows your name, your mobile number, and both your home and office addresses, is the stuff of nightmares. The situation seemed dangerous. I decided to complain to Ola Cabs.

When I called up Ola, the customer service executives heard me out politely and directed me to their Safety Response team. There was a woman on the other end of the line who asked me to repeat my story and tried to sound angry, apologetic and polite at the same time. Her constant refrain?

“We will definitely take action.”

“What action?” I asked.

“We’ll bar him from Ola.”

“That’s fine, but what about my safety? He still has my number and knows where I live and work,” I said.

“Why did you give him your number in the first place?”

I was shocked at the victim-blaming. A short while later, I got several apologetic calls from senior officials at Ola asking me to drop an email with screenshots of any harassment. “We’ll fire the guy,” they said. “This doesn’t happen with Ola.”

More than 24 hours after I sent that email, Ola has gone silent. There has been no update. In an industry obsessed with feedback and star-ratings, is it too much to expect that a company keep me in the loop about what’s going on, especially when a customer’s safety is at stake? I’m fairly certain that Ola has been quick to disassociate itself from this driver, but I have no official confirmation that this has actually happened. I have reached out to the Delhi Police and they have assured me that they have taken measures — whatever that means.

Is being stalked an inherent risk that female customers must take to benefit from apps like Ola and Uber?

Apps like Ola and Uber are amazing, but is being stalked an inherent risk that female customers must take to benefit from them? Is our safety the casualty of loopholes in these apps whose functioning relies on sharing precise and maximum information about ourselves? Is saying “this hardly ever happens on our platform” a good enough excuse?

Over the last year, both Ola and Uber have ramped up their in-app safety features. Both apps now let you send your location in real-time to designated emergency contacts with a single tap. They also let you broadcast your location to police control rooms in your city. But here’s the thing: those safety features are available only during the ride. What happens when a driver stalks you later? What good is a one-star rating if there’s no way to indicate to other customers that this driver has a history of sexual harassment?

Technology companies trying to disrupt public transportation around the world still have some thinking to do. FactorDaily has reached out to Ola for a comment and will update this post when we get one.

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Sanchita Khurana is an assistant professor of English at the University of Delhi. This post originally appeared on FactorDaily. Crossposted with permission. FactorDaily is a new media startup based in Bangalore, and can be found on Twitter here

Image Credit: Top image Sheila McClune under CC BY 2.0 and middle image by Sanchita Khurana