In January last year, Jaki Ahmed bought himself a car. By his own admission, Ahmed was the last person you would expect to indulge himself with private transport. The car was an investment, a taxi for a late career change, which he registered with Uber. Forty years old, with slicked back hair, Ahmed usually dresses in all white, channelling his favourite childhood actor, Jitendra. But by the end of the year, everything around him had lost its shine.
Six years earlier, Ahmed had put together enough money to start his own garage in Rohini, fixing, servicing and customising cars and bikes. It wasn’t much, just a roadside shanty, with some regulars, locals who knew him from his days as a mechanic working in Shalimar Bagh. The servicing was time-bound, and he never took on more than two long-term projects, usually parking those cars in the market parking area. Business boomed. And then demonetisation arrived.
For many informal workers like Ahmed, monetary transactions were in cash, and whatever came in was immediately spent in expenses and covering costs. That November 2016 was harsh, and demonetisation arriving at the time it did, just after the festival season, meant he was left without much usable cash. Reliant on do-gooders and loan sharks, Ahmed tided over the next few months, taking on some loans before hitting the market again with renewed vigour. Over the next three years he managed to consolidate the garage, even bringing on two extra hands to work there with him — both of whom he paid a salary of Rs 5,000 a month. But when the next disaster struck, there would be no recovery.
As citizens, rich, middle-class, salaried, entrepreneurial and self-made retreated behind their Zooms and #WFH, Ahmed’s customers obviously disappeared. He had thought he’d be able to expand and perhaps get another small shop, but in those two months of lockdown, he couldn’t even open the place he had. As vehicles stopped moving, servicing became an obsolete skill. He struggled to make his Rs 10,000 rent and eventually let the two boys who worked for him go. He picked up odd jobs, first as a delivery boy for a small shop around the corner, then – with some tech support from his teenage son – with Dunzo. He had been without any concrete work for almost a year when he heard about a bank auctioning off vehicles seized because of unpaid loans. He bought one, the cheapest one, using his life’s savings and his wife’s jewellery to do so. “I didn’t want to take a loan to buy a car that was basically being sold because someone else hadn’t paid it off,” he says.
If he’d known then what he knows now, Ahmed says he might not have bought the car at all. “It’s like colonial times,” he says, in anger. “Some foreign company comes here, sets up their deals with the government, lures us in with promises of profit and then exploits us to no end.”
Even as Uber’s prices soar high for customers, driver’s returns remain low, almost to the point of being non-profitable. On an average, Ahmed says, the company takes about 30% of the ride fare as a ‘fee’ for allowing drivers on the app. In reality – from the author’s own observation and conversations with other drivers – the ‘fee’ lies between 25-26%.
“The only reason I’m doing this is because sitting at home is not an option,” Ahmed says. “My son [10 years old] attends a private school. And they have not let up on hiking their fees, or even asking for them, despite all the distance learning and whatnot… everything costs money.”
The sole earning member of the family, Ahmed increases his driving hours in the second half of the month, racking up rides in the hope that he can make ends meet when the bills come calling. “There is no profit margin for us,” he says. “You make it with one hand and spend it with the other.”
In the high rises of the Uber offices, where numbers are all that matter, these concerns hold little ground. In December last year, Uber reported a 7.1% increase in revenue (Rs 396.95 crore) from operations for the year that ended March 2022. Over the same period the company reported a total loss of Rs 216.42 crore — in the pandemic affected FY ‘21, they had reported losses of Rs 333.89 crore. It is clear that despite the doom, those at the top are raking it in.
The company commissioned a report that suggested that it had generated an estimated Rs 44,600 crore in ‘economic value’ for the country in 2021. “This includes both the impact of earnings of driver-partners and the wider indirect and induced multiplier effect created throughout the company’s wider supply chain,” the report said.
All this while, revelations about Uber’s working methods have consistently shown a darker, more insidious functioning. The first came in the form of the ‘Uber files’, an investigative series which disclosed how the company had worked hand-in glove with high level government officials, often bribing them, to bypass local laws. India was among the high profile companies named in the reports — one which heavily implicated French President Emmanuel Macron in helping Uber make its way into France.
The reports, which relied on leaked documents, showed that in order to secure favourable treatment, Uber often targeted big media houses to get favourable coverage for its company. Even now, it’s easier to find reportage of Uber’s profit margin data online than any about how it shares that profit with its chief stakeholders, the drivers.
It is also worth noting that while their losses might have diminished steadily, expenditure has too. According to an Economic Times report, in FY ‘22, Uber India reported a 44% year-on-year reduction in its employee benefit expense to Rs 150.96 crore. While Uber maintains that driver earnings have slowly returned to baseline and remain constant to pre-pandemic days, the truth is that there is now a significant gap between what was ‘advertised’ and what is real.
“Uber created a perception that spread by word of mouth,” Gautam Mody, secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative. “I know not just of drivers who left decent jobs, but of office employees – lower level accountants and bank clerks – who quit to earn better money as Uber drivers.”
Long before Uber became a verb, India’s urban commuting taxi economy was teeming with kali-peeli taxis, which adhered to regulations on fares set by the local governments and unions, and dependent on fuel prices. Uber works outside of any government laws — or as Ahmed says, “Works hand in glove with the government to exploit us” — and therefore does not adjust their fare charges to consider fuel prices, car maintenance, or any others forms of inflation.
In 2021, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport (IFAT) Workers filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, demanding social security benefits (such as pension and health insurance) for app-based transport and delivery workers in India. To bypass these demands, Uber exploited a loophole and stopped using the word “partner” in their driver agreement replacing it with “customers.”
“Everyone driving an Uber today,” Rajesh Kumar says, “is doing it because they’re helpless.” Kumar owned and ran a biscuit bakery in Seelampur, before an employee accident – resulting in death – forced him to go under and shut down the business in 2018.
Unable to get loans from the bank, after he had defaulted on the bakery, Kumar and his brother Suresh put whatever savings they had to get a car, and started driving for Uber. The first days were hugely profitable, Uber’s incentives always a huge draw for the drivers. “There were months where I earned close to Rs 60,000 a month,” Kumar says. It had become so profitable that the brothers invested in another car, but chose to rent it as an office taxi. It was the best decision they ever made.
Once the market had established, established – and then crashed – the incentives dried away. Now Kumar drives for Uber for a few hours everyday, to cover costs at home. The office taxi is bringing money that forms a large part of the family’s savings. “We lost everything after the bakery shut down, even went under debt, so we have had to start from scratch.”
“The ride fare is increasing, petrol prices are rising, CNG prices are rising, food prices are rising,” Kumar says, “and everyday I get passengers who complain about the same things as I do, but at a higher scale. Everyone isn’t a billionaire, and those that are, refuse to let others make some money either.”
A CNG price hike in April last year resulted in many taxi and autorickshaw unions staging a protest, demanding that fares be increased to compensate for the same. Uber and Ola increase their fares duly and yet, the driver compensation rarely reflects it. In the peak summer Uber drivers often refused to switch on the AC, complaining that doing so meant they would never earn any money to take home. “It’s true, and I even did so on occasion,” Kumar says in a subsequent conversation. “The rate of CNG has doubled, ride fares have risen but our earnings have remained stagnant. Putting on the AC means consuming more gas, and then you have to account for servicing. My ratings dropped because most customers don’t look at our side of things and only want their own comfort. You can’t fault them either, I guess…” A key feature of inequality, after all, is the inability of people to look beyond their blinkers at the world outside.
In this situation, driving an Uber has become a pursuit not of happiness or money but of keeping the mind and body occupied. Mama Singh aka Roshan, 35, rents a car to drive for Uber — a huge number of drivers in the capital rely on this even more exploitative twice removed mechanism to earn money — and drives a 10-hour shift everyday.
“I don’t do it for the money,” he says. “My mother gets a pension, my wife is currently living with her parents and we own a house in Govindpuri. I do it just to stay out of the house, and not get into fights.”
“Plus,” he laughs, while slowly drawing out a bottle from under the seat, “everyone hates my drinking habit, so I do it on the job.”
Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer. This story has been written as part of an assignment for Oxfam India’s Inequality Campaign.