On Monday, the Delhi government issued a notification banning the services of the taxi-hailing mobile phone app Uber in Delhi. This follows a horrifying incident over the weekend in which a woman travelling late at night from south Delhi to her home in the north was allegedly beaten up and raped by the driver of a taxi that she had hailed through the app. Above all, this should serve as a reminder that not much has changed, particularly with regard to the safety of women in the city of Delhi and since the events of December 16, 2012, in which a young woman was raped and fatally injured in a moving bus.
While Uber has serious questions that it should answer, particularly with regard to ensuring safety of the passengers using its services, the government's reaction in banning the service in Delhi raises several other issues. The government claims that Uber violates the norms that control radio taxi operators in Delhi. For Uber, this is an old and familiar argument; it works in dozens of countries around the world, where it has faced the same regulatory challenges. Whether Uber is covered by radio-taxi regulations when it is solely a taxi-hailing app that connects passengers to licensed drivers is a question that, presumably, the legal system will address. However, the government would have done well to have worked with Uber to ensure that it provides a safer ride, rather than simply banning the service, which under the current circumstances will also be difficult to enforce.
There are many things that Uber could and should have done when it started operating in Delhi, a city which is unfriendly to women - but did not. It should have been able to more carefully track taxis that go off GPS, as happened in this case. If drivers switch off the app while a customer is in the taxi, a phone call should come in automatically. Details of a taxi ride should automatically be forwarded to an SMS contact of the passenger, and kept on a server in Indian territory accessible to Uber India. These changes need to be made, and now. And the government on its part should encourage several such taxi services and taxi-hailing apps, all of which should compete to provide the safest ride to Delhi's residents.
The government should also do some introspection to assess how it has failed in its primary duty of ensuring safety and adequate policing in the city. The government must realise this, above all: Delhi is frighteningly under-policed. Its public areas are not lit well enough. It has vast areas of wasteland that need a police presence. And all of India needs better taxi-licensing procedures. It is important to hold Uber to account for the lapses that led to that horrifying incident, but equally important will be to take immediate steps that help provide a safe and an efficient taxi service to make Delhi more livable for its residents.