Uber in India: Unaccountable and Unsafe

Supporters of Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) shout slogans as they participate in a candle light vigil during a protest against the rape of a female passenger, in New Delhi December 8, 2014. U.S. online ride-hailing service Uber has been banned from operating in the Indian capital after a female passenger accused one of its drivers of rape, a case that has reignited a debate about the safety of women in the South Asian nation. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

When the international Uber taxi hire firm opened in India last year, it was seen as a potentially efficient and easily accessible alternative to creaky unreliable rival cabs.

That image was shattered late last Friday evening when an Uber driver allegedly raped a young woman in New Delhi.

This demonstrated how little has changed since rapes hit the international headlines two years ago, when a young woman died after being gang raped in a bus in New Delhi. Death is now the ultimate penalty for those convicted of rape, but that has not deterred young men and there are a stream of rape reports in the newspapers virtually every day.

The incident also showed how there is little respect for laws and regulations, and how they are appallingly applied in a society where institutional controls are frequently inefficient or even inoperative.

The 32-year old Uber driver, according to media reports, has told police that he was accused of rape in 2011 and spent seven months in prison, though was later acquitted. Yet Uber, whose operations were today banned in New Delhi, apparently did not do sufficient checks to discover this, and it has no call center for emergencies.

Rapes are common in India, where sexually repressed young men often regard the act as an assertion of male superiority. They happen in villages, where women at the bottom of the caste system are regular targets, and they happen in cities, where young men (probably like the taxi driver) are envious and aroused by the burgeoning wealth and social life around them that is beyond their reach—especially in an economy that is not providing jobs.

The woman, in her mid-20s, was returning home last Friday after spending the evening with friends in a New Delhi pub, according to media reports.

One of the friends drove her part of the way and she then called up an Uber taxi on her mobile phone app to complete the journey from the friend's home at about 10:30 p.m. She fell asleep in the back of the car and woke to find the driver fondling her. She resisted, but has told the police the driver raped her and dropped her at her home at 1 a.m. She then called the police, despite his threats that she should not do so.

The institutional failures were demonstrated when the New Delhi police did not have contact details for Uber. To track the company down, a deputy commissioner of police downloaded an Uber application onto his mobile early Saturday morning, ordered a cab and then told the driver to take him to the head office.

Operating in the virtual world of the Internet, Uber has no telephone call center and has been running without full taxi approvals. It has also had regulatory problems with India's central bank. The company's website does have a support page, but it is uninformative and cumbersome and clearly useless in an emergency.

A company spokesman in Singapore told The Indian Express that all drivers were personally vetted and added, in answer to a question, "No call centre, but they [customers] can send in feedback/complaints on multiple channels, in-App after the ride, email [reply to their receipt], through our website, or Twitter."

2012 Street Protests

There were mass protests in New Delhi and across the country in December 2012 after the gang rape and battering by four young men of a 23-year-old paramedical student, who died days later from her internal injuries. Driven around New Delhi in a curtained bus, she was dumped with a male friend, virtually naked, on a dirt track beside a busy highway to the city's airport. This provoked a national outcry and intense international and local media attention on widespread atrocities against women.

Public demands for the death penalty were met last year with new laws that provided for the execution of repeat offenders and imprisonment for between 20 years and life before that. The four men in the bus rape case were sentenced to death, but the risk of severe penalties seems to have had little effect and the police are frequently unsympathetic.

Two weeks ago, a cab driver was arrested in New Delhi for sexually abusing a 4-year-old girl while ferrying her to school. A few days earlier, there was a report that police tried to set the husband of a rape victim on fire when he refused to withdraw allegations against men for raping his wife.

Rape is widely condemned across India, but there are sections of society, including leading politicians, who tend to see it as an expression of young manhood, often provoked by provocatively dressed young women.

"Boys will be boys… they commit mistakes," Mulayam Singh Yadav, a veteran politician and leader of the powerful Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, declared [in Hindi] during the general election campaign earlier this year. Saying his party would try to change the death penalty laws if elected, he added, "First girls develop friendship with boys. Then, when differences occur, they level rape charges."

Other politicians and rural leaders have suggested that the young should be married without any minimum age limit, so that, as one put it, their "sexual desires find safe outlets." Village councils sometimes suggest a victim should marry the rapist because, they argue, no other man in the locality will have her. Women are often blamed for being provocative, or the intercourse is dubbed consensual—a line often taken by the police.

The masses of demonstrators who took to the streets two years ago expected tough government action and improved policing. The last government responded quickly with the new laws, but there has been little improvement in police habits. This is the sort of problem Narendra Modi was elected prime minister to tackle, so pressure will now build up for him to deal with the institutional failures, and generate the economic growth that will improve employment opportunities for India's frustrated youth.

Many of the issues raised by this story are discussed in John Elliott's book Implosion: India's Tryst with Reality, which has just won Asian Publishing Convention's non-fiction Gold Award 2014 for the "Most Outstanding Project in Best Insights into Asian Societies." He can be read at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Uber driver had been convicted of an earlier rape. He was accused of rape.