Uber’s problems with women’s safety in India – my 2 rupees worth

In its mindless rush for scale, Uber leapt into the Indian market with their “hassle-free” service of hailing a car with a push of a button on your smartphone. I call this mindless because “will it scale” is an unquestioned imperative for a startup, not something that is thought through. Nobody asks should it scale, or, is this the right place to scale? Neither does anyone look at the compromises made, to the brand and to the customer experience, in this drive to scale. Thus, its no different from the mindless growth of an amoeba, responding to the instincts imprinted on its DNA.

I’m due to arrive in New Delhi next week. Would I use Uber? No. I’d rather walk across teh street to the Sardarji sitting in his tent at the local taxi rank and ask him for a car and a reliable driver. It could be for the day or for the week but I’ll insist on the same guy showing up, without extra company in the front seat, and register my home address and phone number with the taxi rank. For additional peace of mind, I’ll walk back across the road to the guardhouse at the entrance to our apartment complex and point out the taxi fellow responsible for driving me around.

In the neighbourhood where our apartment is located, we are recognized as original owners, not newbies, and the local taxi standwallah isn’t going to risk his future business and his reputation if there’s even a peep of complaint from me. The eyes of the community should be sufficient to keep the animal instincts of the average Delhi eve teaser under control. A little further down is the auto rickshaw stand, under the shade of a large tree where the chaiwallah makes his brew. More strangers come and wait here unlike the taxi stand, but one can still spot a regular or two. At least, that’s how it used to work back when I was taking a scooty to work every morning.

In neither case would I think of wandering around after dark, if I was alone in the vehicle.

Uber arrives.

Why do we hear of women taking these cars at night all by themselves?

Things might have changed in the last couple of years since the horrific news of the bus rape in New Delhi, what do I know? So I did a little digging to see if my premise on why Uber was enabling women to lower their barriers to conventional common sense in India.

“To the extent that the Uber brand name induces a sense of security and this is used as a business strategy, a proper legal regime should allow the Indian woman’s strategy to succeed,” source

Because it needs a smartphone, knowledge of English, and an internet connection, is there an implied raising of standards of who’ll show up at your doorstep? Implicit here is that education and data plans imply greater security?

On the other hand, this knowledge hasn’t helped this lady in Chennai whose Uber driver kept trying to ‘cancel trip’ in the middle of a secluded location.

The internet’s explosive growth in India, coupled with smartphones, mobile wallets and e-commerce, seems to have lowered the barriers to services such as these, which probably leads to a greater acceptance of an app driven service along with the perception that it’s somehow “safer” than hailing a regular taxi on the roadside.

Yet, the very same internet has always provided trolls with the anonymity and impunity with which to harass and abuse women without consequence. This element of the web seems also to have now transferred itself onto the app driven sharing economy.

SOS buttons in a context where the police aren’t likely to jump in their vehicles and race over to save you, nor can they be trusted not to molest you, is a technological solution meant for the VCs back home.

Taking a taxi ride is not the same thing as purchasing a book or making a restaurant reservation.  Can you scale trust and local context as instantly as you do an app?

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