By Taruni Kumar
“We regret the unfortunate experience the customer had. We have zero tolerance for such incidents and the driver has been blacklisted. Safety of customers is our top priority. We are extending full support to police in the probe.”
This entire statement could well have been issued by Ola in response to a mechanical failure due to negligence by one of their drivers, but it wasn’t. It was in response to an “unfortunate experience” that a 26-year-old woman had in Bengaluru on 1 June where her cab driver molested her, forced her to strip, took pictures of her using her phone, transferred them to his mobile phone and attempted to strangle her when she resisted. The actual severity of it doesn’t get encompassed in the word “incident”, does it?
Yet, this kind of response is standard. After a verbal shrugging of one’s shoulders through words of sympathy and condemnation and issuing a statement like this, it’s business as usual. The extension of full support to the police will probably simply mean cooperation when they come knocking on the company’s door.
But that’s really not enough, Ola.
Ola Cabs is a cab aggregator app, and the largest in the country. The Indian firm operates in 110 cities which is far more than global giant Uber’s 31 cities in India. Ola has been the bigger of the two for several years and has over a million drivers as compared to Uber’s 450,000. None of this could have possibly happened without a great deal of innovation by the company. Even the company’s premise of aggregating cabs instead of building its own taxi infrastructure and relying on the power of technology is an innovation in a country that has seen its kaali peelis running and overcharging for decades. From calling a neighbourhood taxi service when one needed to go to the airport to booking a cab on a smartphone to travel three kilometres, the game has changed thanks to Uber and Ola. So, where’s the innovation when it comes to dealing with sexual assault or harassment?
This is most certainly not the first time Ola has been in the crosshairs for sexual assault. A 29-year-old Ola cab driver was arrested in Telangana for sexually assaulting a woman on 5 January. On 1 May, it was reported that a 30-year-old professional singer had accused an Ola cab driver of molesting her. On 8 August 2017, a 31-year-old woman visiting Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh was molested by an Ola cab driver who was then arrested. On 3 Dec 2017, an Ola driver allegedly harassed a 23-year-old fashion stylist in Bengaluru. He activated child lock in the cab and tried to touch her inappropriately, and the next day made several calls and threated her with dire consequences because she complained to the company. No prizes for guessing what Ola’s response was:
“We regret the unfortunate experience the customer had during their ride. We have zero tolerance to such incidents and the driver has been suspended from the platform as an immediate action upon receiving the complaint. We have also urged the customer to lodge a formal complaint with the authorities. Safety of customers is our priority and we will continue to extend our full support to this investigation against the said driver.”
Despite the stock phrase Ola uses, it doesn’t seem like the company really prioritises its customers’ safety after all. In the most recent case in Bengaluru, Additional Commissioner of Police Seemanth Kumar Singh has said that the police has issued a notice to Ola Cabs because police verification was not carried out for the accused driver. In fact, in the Telangana case from earlier this year, it was revealed as part of the investigation that the culprit was a repeat offender. He had assaulted nine others in the past, including a 10-year-old girl. Where was the background check?
Ola has an SOS button on the app, which I’m sure is the first line of defense that will be used. The SOS button, if pressed, sends an automatic message with the ride details to Ola’s safety response team who then try to get in touch the passenger and the driver via phone calls. The passenger can also choose to send the ride details to their emergency contacts. But in the case of the 1 June molestation, the cab driver snatched the survivor’s phone away. What then? Even if she had managed to send an SOS message, would phone calls really have deterred a man who threatened her with dire consequences when she tried to raise an alarm?
Worse, what if it doesn’t work? A Twitter user has shared the story of a time when she tried to use the SOS button and it didn’t work. In response, another Twitter user Shruthi Padmanabhan mentioned how she had tried the button once when she was pregnant with her daughter and they had just launched the feature but how it’s terrifying to think it may not work when it’s needed.
This is not an argument that Ola can somehow bring to a halt all sexual assault or harassment for those using their services (though that would be ideal, of course). But it is an argument in favour of thinking more innovatively about solutions to a problem that seems to be recurring. At the very least, Ola should set up a desk to facilitate the process of initiating a police inquiry. Make the post-assault ordeal just slightly easier for the survivor instead of sitting back solemnly and shrugging.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to put in place rules to hold app-based cab aggregators accountable for crimes involving their drivers or vehicles. Senior advocate Indira Jaising had argued that app-based taxi operators didn’t carry out background checks on drivers and thus, commuters were left vulnerable. Despite this, clearly nothing at all has changed.
For a company that’s revolutionised the way that urban India travels, Ola doesn’t seem to be focusing too much on revolutionising security for the women who use their services. In a market where cab drivers are predominantly male and women do use Ola services alone during the day and night (despite what some of the country’s political leaders may think), the only strategy that Ola seems to have developed to handle sexual assault and harassment is the phrasing of their response.
Co-published with Firstpost.