Wheels of misfortune for Ola, Uber drivers

With debts piling up, cab-hailing app drivers stare at a long road of misery


July 9, 2020

/ By / Kolkata

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ola and uber drivers

Even after the lockdown was lifted over a month ago, most cab hailing app drivers have spent their time waiting for a ride (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Having remained off the roads for three months during the lockdown, drivers of cab-hailing apps say their debts are piling up while revenues stay close to zero.

‘‘Earlier my income through Uber used to be at least INR 25,000 per month and my total earnings for a month averaged around INR 45,000-50,000. My running expenses or fuel cost were around INR 22,000 a month. For the period between March and mid-June, or three and a half months, I did could not drive at all and hence to cut my expenses, I went to my village that it is nearly 100 km from Bhubaneswar. But there, too, I ran up debts just for me and my family to survive,’’ says Ranjan Karan, who has been driving with Uber for the past four years in Bhubaneswar, capital of the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Karan says it has been a nightmare for him to be able to take care of his small family of four, comprising his father and younger brother, besides his wife and a son. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck India, Karan had earned the coveted rating of a ‘diamond’ driver with Uber. In the good old days, Karan says, he would get many inter-city rides, that are much more lucrative than a normal ride within Bhubaneswar and he would get a minimum of 75 rides per week, earning him a fat incentive, often rivalling his income on rides.

But all that was before the pandemic struck and lockdowns arrived. Since then Karan says life has been more difficult than ever before. He also rues that while some of his friends, who are also drivers with Uber, have received calls from the company and some have even received financial assistance of INR 3,000 from Uber. However, Karan did not get even a call from Uber. Also, despite his repeated requests for inter-city rides, he has not received any. Instead, his earnings so far have been rather pathetic. Over the last two weeks, he has made only INR 6,100 in all, without taking into account fuel expenses. Despite being fully aware of the drivers’ pitiful situation, Uber has continued to take it’s cut of 20 pc on each ride, says Karan. Indeed a gesture by Uber and its rival Ola to cut or forego entirely their commission on the rides for the next few months could go a long way to help the drivers. Karan says that he also did not receive any assistance from the government, federal or state, during the lockdown or even afterwards.

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About 450 km north of Bhubaneswar, in the eastern megapolis of Kolkata, the situation is not better for Manoj Mondol, 38, who has been driving with Ola, the Indian rival of Uber, for over five years now. ‘‘The only help I got from the government in the three-month lockdown period was in the form of rations. We didn’t receive any help from Ola. They had called us and taken my address so they could send in assistance, but the help never arrived. A few days ago I got a message from them that you have to come to a particular location in the city where they were apparently distributing ration. But I couldn’t go as it’s very far away from my house and just the cost of travelling to the location would have cost me INR 300, which would have been more than the price of rations given to me,’’ he says.

Just as Karan, Mondol also remembers the good old days when he would make a handsome packet after each day’s work.

‘‘Earlier, Ola used to give us incentives for extra trips. So we used to work even harder sometimes 24-36 hours at a stretch. I myself had stayed online for 36 hours. But now even though we work extra hours the extra money we used to make in the form of incentives has stopped,’’ he says.

Both Uber & Ola count for over 2.5 million drivers all over India, one of the biggest markets in the world for digital services such as cab-hailing apps. Their drivers complain that the companies keep on raking in their share of margins from each ride, without worrying about the fate of the drivers, whose incomes have shrunk dramatically. ‘‘Before lockdown per day earning of the driver was around INR 1000-1200. After the lockdown, it is something around INR 150-200. Ola is taking its commission like it earlier used to. We can’t even complain as the head office is closed now,’’ says Mondol.

In desperation, most of them are trying their hand at other professions. Some have begun selling vegetables, others doing odd jobs and running errands. But for Mondol even that did not really work out. ‘‘I also tried selling vegetables, but I did not earn enough to manage,’’ he says forlornly.

Also Read Uber hits top gear in India; adds features to app.

Indeed, with huge loans on their cars yet to be paid off, a good income for each day is crucial for many drivers and for some it is the thin line that keeps them away from bankruptcy and starvation. The over 120 days that the entire 2.5 million-strong force of drivers has faced without any earning is taking its toll on many and there are reports of banks and other lenders foreclosing on the cars, putting the drivers’ miserable careers with the cab-hailing apps to an end, but without giving any alternative source of income. The drive out of misery will indeed turn out to be a long one for them.



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