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Uber's catastrophic failure in India

Police escort the Uber driver accused of rape as he leaves a New Delhi courthouse
Police escort the Uber driver accused of rape as he leaves a New Delhi courthouse
(Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Image)

The Delhi city government has suspended Uber’s operations in the Indian capital in the wake of an accusation that an Uber driver raped a female passenger last week.

This represents a catastrophic failure for Uber, because the company was never just selling convenience: it was selling safety. This rape case suggests that Uber either did not take the steps necessary to provide a safe service (by failing to conduct sufficient background checks), or, perhaps more worryingly, cannot do so because India’s background check system is too easy to game.

A 26-year-old woman alleges that last Friday, she used the Uber smartphone app to book a taxi from a restaurant in the Vasant Kunj area of New Delhi to her home in Inderlok, an area of the city more than 15 miles away. She fell asleep during her ride and woke up in a secluded area of the city, where, she claims, the driver beat and raped her.

The driver, 32-year-old Shiv Kumar Yadav, was arrested on Sunday. Delhi police have accused Uber of failing to run proper background checks on Yadav, who was arrested three years ago for rape, though was not convicted. Over 7,500 people have now signed a petition demanding that Uber perform in-depth background checks on its drivers in India, as it does in the United States.

Yadav had apparently presented a clean "character certificate" from the Delhi police to Uber, but Delhi's Police Chief claimed that the certificate was a forgery. Regardless of whether the failure was Uber's or the police department's, however, the result was the same: a system that failed to reveal Yadav's full history, and enabled him to drive for Uber.

This alleged rape is an appalling crime. The woman claims the driver threatened that, if she cried out, he would rape her with iron bars — the method used to murder the victim of the high-profile Delhi gang-rape in 2012. But it is also an indictment of Uber's ability to deliver on its core value proposition: a safe, convenient transportation network.

That's true of any taxi company anywhere in the world, of course. (Without some assurance of safety, taxis would just be a more expensive way to hitch-hike.) But it's an especially significant issue in India's sprawling cities, where safe transportation is a major issue. In recent years, rural-to-urban migration has resulted in the growth of huge suburban conglomerations that require long commutes for work and socializing. For the majority of people who can’t afford their own vehicles, that means relying on a patchy network of public transportation, private buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws, and walking.

All of those methods of transportation have safety issues, particularly for women. The 2012 Delhi gang rape took place on a bus. Auto-rickshaws are slow, flimsy vehicles that are unsafe in crashes and leave the rider exposed to pollution and leering passers-by. Walking is impractical for long distances, and in some areas is unsafe for short ones.

For women, that's not just a safety problem, it's a restriction on their lives. As Indian writer Nupur Sharma tweeted over the weekend, these safety problems become prohibitions for women, demands that they avoid activities from education to travel in order to remain safe from sexual assault:

I saw this effect firsthand during trips to India in the past year. Everyone had different advice for me about how to stay safe, which meant that in the aggregate I was warned against using every possible form of transportation. (Only use radio taxis, they're safer, never use local taxis. Don't use radio taxis, you don't know who they'll send, better to rely on these local taxi drivers, we know them. Don't take autos during the nighttime. Don't take autos during the daytime. Come with us in the auto, it's safer than going on your own. Don't walk, take a bicycle rickshaw from the train station. Don't take bicycle rickshaws. Don't take the train.) Given the choice between taking all of that advice and never leaving my apartment, versus selectively ignoring it and getting on with my day, I chose the latter. But finding safe and reliable transportation where and when I needed it was still always a challenge. That challenge is of course far more significant for Indian women, who have to face it every day, usually without the resources that I had at my disposal.

That was the problem that Uber needed to solve. But the facts surrounding this alleged assault suggest that they have failed to do so.

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