The usually busy junctions on Mount Road and OMR wear a deserted look. Almost two months into the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, most vehicles have been off the streets, with only emergency travel and essential services permitted in Chennai. The spread of coronavirus has altered, at least for the near future, how we commute and the kind of travel we consider essential. While the pandemic’s implications for health have prompted extraordinary precautions, the economic impact of these measures have been devastating for many, even in the short-term. One section of people adversely affected by this have been auto and taxi drivers who are part of the gig economy. With most of their regular customers working from home or forced to stay indoors amid government restrictions on commute, many have not had any income for close to two months. “When you say the virus came from abroad, one of the first people those returnees make contact with are cab drivers, who have been largely ignored in discussions about its impact,” says Jude Mathew of Independent Taxi Drivers and Owners Association.
Crisis in waitingThe precariousness of the gig economy has been apparent for many drivers for some time now. The attractive packages that once lured them to take the job up full time, purchase cars on loan and even move to Chennai for a living, have all but dried up in the recent past. “The situation has been steadily deteriorating over the last few years. The commissions we have to pay have increased, and the incentive structure that once looked so promising has not brought much supplementary income. Most drivers were working for close to 12 hours a day to merely make ends meet even before the pandemic. We have staged protests to demand better outcome for the drivers, but not much has changed. Now things have become worse,” says Prashanth, a cab driver with Ola. Though the lockdown was formally announced on March 25th, many firms opted to work from home starting almost a month before that. Income of drivers plying autos and cabs for Ola and Uber dried up right from the beginning of March. “I used to make Rs 800 or so a day, but as the coronavirus scare appeared, income dropped to Rs 250 – Rs 300 as more people started to work from home. As early as that, I got worried about what would happen in the coming months,” says Sakthi* an auto driver with Uber.
Funds for driver-partnersAt the start of the pandemic, when grounding their fleet became a reality, Ola and Uber announced measures to aid their drivers:
“Ola has taken several initiatives to support the driver community which include financial support through Sahyog loans, which is an interest-free credit, and waiving lease rentals. Ola’s driver-partners have access to free doctor consultation for themselves and their families. Drivers and their families also get a provision of essential supplies and medical emergencies through the ‘Drive the Driver Fund’, a crowd-sourcing initiative by Ola Foundation. Ola is looking to raise a sum of INR 50cr towards this long-term contingency fund with the company and its employees having committed a sum of INR 20cr towards the fund over the year.“ Official statement from Ola CabsOn their efforts, a spokesperson from Uber said:
“To help drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, we created the Uber Care Driver Fund, with an initial commitment of INR 25 crores from Uber. Over the last two weeks, we have disbursed grants to more than 75,000 drivers. As Uber raises additional money, we’ll continue to distribute grants to as many drivers as we can, as quickly as possible..Other forms of our support to drivers during these challenging times include a waiver of lease rentals, facilitating EMI relief, rolling out an additional insurance policy and offering drivers access to online medical services, such as DocsApp, at no charge.“