Kumar, Mithilesh, ‘Before the Gig Economy: Tracing the Transformations in Delhi’s Taxi Industry’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 57, Issue No. 12, March 19, 2022
Among the many studies conducted on platform economies, Mithilesh Kumar’s article, ‘Before the Gig Economy: Tracing the Transformations in Delhi’s Taxi Industry’ draws attention to the transition of taxi services from traditional to radio and finally to app-based services. It highlights the intricate changes that came about in the owner-worker relations and focusses on the ever-pervasive nature of platform economies and the way it has modified and refined the systems of surveillance to control labour.
The study conducted between November 2013 and January 2014 at various sites in Delhi focussed on Mehram Nagar, a colony close to the Delhi airport. Most of the residents there depended on the airport for a livelihood as many of the taxi drivers and owners hailed from the colony and the strong kinship among them played a major role in the management of the flexible yet hierarchical work culture.
Before the advent of radio taxis, the ‘kaali-peeli’ (black and yellow) taxis dominated the sector in Delhi. These local cabs could be seen parked around hotels, airports, and railway stations haphazardly. At Terminal one of the Delhi airport, taxis parked on PWD roads without even a formal permit formed queues. Each taxi that came in reported to the designated office and was then allotted space and passengers. Despite the seemingly chaotic nature of the system, it functioned smoothly even during rush hours.
Mehram Nagar was the anchor that connected the owners and the drivers, and this umbilical connection provided them with the impetus to form an association strong enough to negotiate with the authorities and operate a service quite independent of the functioning of the airport. The flow of workers into the taxi industry in Delhi was for long managed informally by similar associations and unions.
The call centre-based radio taxis attracted many drivers as the system promised more profit. However, in the final analysis, it wasn’t very different from the old system except that now the companies controlled the drivers who were expected to pay a daily lease on the assurance of a minimum number of assignments. Drivers had to pay an initial deposit for the cars as well as pay for the fuel cost.
The scheme wasn’t as rosy as it was initially presented. The advanced technology-based method of gaining customers stopped providing drivers with the number of assignments they had been promised. The GPS tracking devices were also used to record their earnings, and the company made sure that once the drivers had earned a certain amount, they were not assigned new passengers, lest they make more profit and work for lesser hours. Deposits, rents and passenger rating systems were used as disciplinary measures, giving passengers and companies more power over the drivers. The fair wages and protection that existed in the traditional system were replaced with new parameters wherein the surplus generated was extracted instead of being distributed between labourers.
The transition of radio-taxi services like Meru to an owner-driver system — the precursor to the gig economy model — saw new changes as it attracted drivers with the incentive of independence as they ‘owned’ the cars. However, the bank loans facilitated by the company which eventually led to the drivers working until they could pay off their debt and additional interest was a well-concealed trap which ensured constant supply of labour for such radio-taxi services.
In the article, the author substantiates why the payment of bank interest should not be looked at as mere debt payoffs, but as living labour-power monetised while always being a captive of the capitalist who ensures a constant supply of it (labour) through methods of surveillance. It was the relation to wages produced and the already existing commodities (assets) that changed with the coming of radio taxis, as the workers’ share of the commodity produced — the security deposit — was used by the capitalists to increase the intensity of work by the drivers.
The exploitation of drivers by taxi companies saw retaliation. As unrest spread throughout the country, drivers began to unionise. Strikes were held in all major cities with the demand that they be recognised as workers who deserved minimum leisure hours instead of being branded as entrepreneurs.
The introduction of app-based aggregators such as Ola and Uber and the awakening of the platform economy however muffled the labour militancy. New hopes within the technologically-advanced services led to newer forms of struggles and associations in the platform economy. Though the innovation in the new form of economy was the platform’s ability to monetise non-monetised assets and link the owner to consumers willing to pay and share assets, the chances of such monetisation largely depended on labour. The app-based aggregator perfected the form of surveillance and control of labour by removing the labour-driven call centres with algorithm-based applications, increasing their profit at the cost of labour.
Tracing the transition of taxi services from the traditional to app-based aggregator model, the author explains how the grip of the traditional industry, which was based on the owners’ native ties to the city and a strong association-based political economy, was first disrupted by alienating the driver and was then perfected with the coming of the gig economy.
Though the paper dwells deep into the transformation of work arrangements caused due to the transition in taxi services, the changes in wages that came with this transition do not come into the folds of its core arguments.