Earlier this week, Kolkata-based model-actor Ushoshi Sengupta and her cab driver were chased and harassed by a mob in the heart of the city. Even as her social media post continues to grab attention, not much is being said about the driver who was severely beaten by the mob during the incident. This was not a one-off incident. Earlier this year, a couple was prosecuted for robbing and murdering a cab driver in Delhi. The same week, a leading orthopaedic was held for chopping a driver’s body in Madhya Pradesh. These cases of violence against drivers might come off as being isolated incidents for some of us who do not place passenger safety and driver safety as equally important priorities.
My own experience with the biggest international cab aggregator begged me to question how we have long ignored driver safety. It was a night before a big workshop, when I sought the comfort and convenience of a cab at 9.30 pm. After the first twenty uneventful minutes, I noticed my cabbie decelerating and looking at the rear view mirror for reasons best known to him. Shaken out of my lassitude, my brain went into the hyperbole of emergency dial-ups, self defence moves, and escape strategy in a moving car. My patience gave in after three long minutes and I curtly asked the driver what was he up to. “I suspect that the SUV driver behind our car has been following us and I am letting him speed ahead so that we are safe,” came the reply. My lack of preparedness for this answer left me quiet.
Finding sudden relief in a situation I wrongly presumed to be ‘unsafe’, I still felt a peculiar discomfort lingering. This discomfort was to do with my own rushed assumptions about the harmless cab driver. The driver being cognizant of my safety wasn’t clearly one of the many things I had told myself he was. As I continued having a carefree chat with him, deep inside I was inspecting my biases which impacted my behaviour. I began recounting instances where I have witnessed drivers being disrespected and what I did about that. I also thought of stories some of them told me about their odd experiences on trips I made earlier. My discomfort continued and questions quadrupled.
As an inherently class-conscious society, it took India decades to outwit the menace of untouchability, caste oppression, religious ostracism et al. As an educated neo-liberal Indian, I would love to believe that these practices are bygones. The faculty of my observation tells me otherwise. We may penalize these practices now, but have we completely uprooted our deep biases? Our behaviour with a regular working professional is contrastingly different from our conduct with a driver. That is because most of us do not consider drivers as working professionals. We continue classifying jobs, some reverential and some menial.
A former colleague of mine threatened to get the driver’s cab impounded when he requested her to not throw eatables in his car. I know that my cab driver is more vulnerable to instances of road rage than a private vehicle owner. “The yellow number plate on my cab is an invitation to unwarranted hostility”, a cabbie once told me. Another said, “the driver of a private car in Delhi can be a bigshot’s son but I can be harassed and be beaten up to a pulp because I am nobody’s son, I am just a driver”. When it comes to drivers, our classism can take the color of unapologetic aggression, mistreatment and taking driver respect as a triviality.
As an active policy professional in the domain of road safety, I am almost a walking toolkit on road crash statistics, risk factors behind crash deaths and traffic laws. I am yet to trace an organisation or research which is focused on Indian commercial drivers’ security and dignity. However, a welcome step was taken by an app-based ridesharing platform’s recent policy on rider accountability. The riders can raise complaints which in extreme cases could cost drivers their job.
Drivers, on the other hand, could be at the receiving end of unacceptable behavior yet the defaulting rider would go scot-free. In a bid to make the platform fairer, the aggregator claims that it will offload misbehaving riders who fail to rectify their behaviour. This is great because the accountability will now be equally shared between drivers and riders. If the driver is expected to observe a code of conduct, why shouldn’t we be subject to the same? It is safe to say that deterrence has always worked well for Indians.
Stern consequences for violent riders can definitely set the course right for vulnerable drivers. This a good start for us to unshackle ourselves from one of our deepest prejudices- that of not treating a driver as another professional worthy of respect.