When the international Uber taxi hire firm opened in India last year, it was seen as a potentially efficient and easily accessible alternative to creaky unreliable rivals’ cabs. That image was shattered late last Friday evening when an Uber driver allegedly raped a young woman in Delhi.
The affair demonstrates how little has changed since rapes hit the international headlines two years ago, when a young woman died after being gang-raped in a bus. Death is now the ultimate penalty for those convicted, but that has not deterred young men. There is a stream of rape reports in the newspapers virtually every day.
The incident also showed how little respect there is for laws and regulations, and how they are appallingly applied in a society where institutional controls are frequently inefficient or even inoperative.
The 32-year old Uber driver, according to media reports, has told police that he was arrested on suspision of rape in 2011 and spent seven months in prison, though was later acquitted. Yet Uber, whose operations were today banned in Delhi, apparently did not do sufficient checks to discover this, and it has no call center for emergencies.
Rapes are common in India where sexually repressed young men often regard the act as an assertion of male superiority. They happen in villages, where women at the bottom of the caste system are regular targets, and they happen in cities where young men (probably like the taxi driver) are envious and aroused by the burgeoning wealth and social life around them that is beyond their reach – especially in an economy that is not providing jobs.
The woman, in her mid-20s, was returning home last Friday after spending the evening with friends in a Delhi pub, according to media reports.
One of the friends drove her part of the way, and she then called up an Uber taxi on her mobile phone app to complete the journey from the friend’s home at about 10.30pm. She fell asleep in the back of the car, and woke to find the driver fondling her. She resisted, but has told the police the driver raped her, and dropped her at her home at 1 am. She then called the police, despite his threats that she should not do so.
The institutional failures were demonstrated when the Delhi police did not have contact details for Uber. To track the company down, a deputy commissioner of police downloaded an Uber application onto his mobile early Saturday morning, ordered a cab, and then told the driver to take him to the head office.
Operating in the virtual world of the internet, Uber has no telephone call center and has been running without full taxi approvals. It has also had regulatory problems with India’s central bank. The company’s website does have a support pagehttps://support.uber.com/hc/en-us, but it is uninformative and cumbersome, and clearly useless in an emergency.
A company spokesman in Singapore told The Indian Express that all drivers were personally vetted and added, in answer to a question, “No call center, but they (customers) can send in feedback/complaints on multiple channels, in-App after the ride, email (reply to their receipt), through our website, or Twitter.”
2012 street protests
There were mass protests in Delhi and across the country in December 2012 after the gang rape and battering by four young men of a 23-year-old paramedical student, who died days later from her internal injuries. Driven around Delhi in a curtained bus, she was dumped with a male friend, virtually naked, on a dirt track beside a busy highway to the city’s airport. This provoked a national outcry and intense international and local media attention on widespread atrocities against women.
Public demands for the death penalty were met last year with new laws that provided for the execution of repeat offenders, and imprisonment for between 20 years and life before that. The four men in the bus rape case were sentenced to death, but the risk of severe penalties seems to have had little effect, and the police are frequently unsympathetic.
Two weeks ago, a cab driver was arrested in Delhi for sexually abusing a four-year old girl while ferrying her to school. A few days earlier, there was a report that police tried to set the husband of a rape victim afire when he refused to withdraw allegations against men for raping his wife.
Rape is widely condemned across India, but there are sections of society, including leading politicians, who tend to see it as an expression of young manhood, often provoked by provocatively dressed young women.
“Boys will be boys… they commit mistakes,” Mulayam Singh Yadav, a veteran politician and leader of the powerful Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, declared (in Hindi) during the general election campaign earlier this year. Saying his party would try to change the death penalty laws if elected, he added, “First girls develop friendship with boys. Then, when differences occur, they level rape charges”.
Other politicians and rural leaders have suggested that the young should be married without any minimum age limit so that, as one put it, their “sexual desires find safe outlets.” Village councils sometimes suggest a victim should marry the rapist because, they argue, no other man in the locality will have her. Women are often blamed for being provocative, or the intercourse is dubbed consensual – a line often taken by the police.
The masses of demonstrators who took to the streets two years ago expected tough government action and improved policing. The last government responded quickly with the new laws, but there has been little improvement in police habits. This is the sort problem that Narendra Modi was elected prime minister to tackle, so pressure will now build up for him to deal with the institutional failures, and generate the economic growth that will improve employment opportunities for India’s frustrated youth.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the lower right corner of the AS face page. His book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality has just won the Asian Publishing Convention’s non-fiction Gold Award 2014 for the "most outstanding project in Best Insights into Asian Societies”