The Centre’s guidelines for taxi-hailing apps Ola, Uber and others prioritise passenger safety while steering clear of interfering with market mechanisms.
The Centre has done well to come up with a set of guidelines for the regulation of app-based taxi aggregators like Ola, Uber, etc. Not only does it give much-needed clarity to these business about compliance, it is also a signal that the government is making efforts to catch-up with disruptive—from the point of view of government supervision, too, and not just the business environment—tech-enabled businesses rather than responding with bans or orders to curtail their operations.
At first glance, the guidelines issued by the Union ministry of road transport and highways seem to treat app-based taxi-hailing services at par with regular radio cab services. Many provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, would apply to the likes of Ola, in addition to the Information Technology Act, 2000, though the taxi aggregators are not required to own or lease any of the vehicles or employ any drivers unless they are also registered as taxi operators. However, the guidelines do mandate a 24/7 call-centre, apart from any web- or app-based customer service and grievance redressal mechanism that displays an operational helpline number and the e-mail id of the grievance redressal officer. While Ola has a 24/7 customer support number, Uber passengers have to rely on ‘call back’ (upon request by mail) option. The new guidelines mean that taxi aggregators now have to put aside money to create the necessary back-end customer support. They are also now required to undertake driver-training programmes—though they don’t employ the drivers!—to familiarise the latter with all applicable laws, including the Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961, and impart gender sensitisation. The government has also asked the taxi-hailing app companies to ensure that all vehicles that are registered with them to be equipped with real-time tracking technology, such as GPS—and these must be permanent fixtures so as to ensure inter-operability, i.e., if the driver of the vehicle registers with another company, or with multiple companies at the same time, the tracking system remains functional. This means that devices other than the mobile phones provided to the drivers by the aggregators will have to be fixed to the vehicle—much in the manner of radio cabs.
It is clear from the rules that passenger safety remains the chief concern of the government. Given the government woke up to the need for regulating taxi-hailing apps after a Uber driver was accused of rape by a passenger in December 2014, this was perhaps expected. As per the guidelines, the vehicle must have emergency safety buttons wherever these are mandated. The government also raises the bar for aggregators on driver verification—apart from obtaining and reviewing a police verification of the driver, the companies are required to maintain a record of personal details about the driver including a copy of his PAN card, his voter-ID card and the contact details of two family members. The drivers, for their part, have to hold a KYC-compliant bank account to register with the aggregators. The aggregators themselves must provide a safety-alert feature on their platform for the passenger to relay location and other particulars to both the police and at least 2 of their own contacts.
While the Delhi High Court ban on Ola remains—all diesel taxis are barred from making point-to-point metred rides within the national capital—the guidelines simply ask for compliance with local emission norms as prescribed. The guidelines do impose some stringent conditions on the aggregators but provide great relief to them by spelling out the conditions they need to comply with in order to operate. While the aggregators must make the necessary moves to comply with the guidelines, the states too must do their bit to shape the legal compliance ecosystem. In the national capital, for example, the state government had planned to issue a set of rules that, among other things, talked of capping fares. By steering clear of interfering with market mechanisms, while ensuring that passenger safety is given top priority, the Centre has set the tone for the states.