The car and the informal sector in India

Aditi Surie of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru writes:

The story of economic aspiration in India can be told through the history of one automobile: the car. The car has been the signpost of a middle-class dream of settled success and wealth. The hero Mangal from the film Taxi Driver (1954), played by Dev Anand, sees the car as an object of luxury and aspiration: to own a car is a sign of achievement.

But the use value of a car is in owning it for one’s self and not in order to drive it for another. For those who are unable to own a car and its symbolism of luxury, it is an object whose value has to be extracted by labour upon it/with it. Driving the office cab, the long-distance holiday taxi, the airport taxi or the kaali-peeli (black and yellow taxis), the taxi driver in his (and it is usually his) many avatars has struggled to extract the full use value from the car and his labour. Extractive fleet operators, unorganised systems of operating and no enforcement—or very weak enforcement at best—of labour laws have conditioned the precariousness of these urban workers.

Car ownership is the basic premise for Uber’s business model. Platforms like Uber and Ola are predicated on individuals owning an asset so that the company does not have to. While the Indian middle class is the world’s largest customer base for automobiles, the taxi driver has been at the periphery of this consumption until now. The taxi driver has entered the asset-owning class by driving Uber and Ola cabs. He navigate this new asset-ownership class with loan payments, dropping incentives and a mismatch between the supply of drivers and demand for rides. There are layers of precarity that Uber and Ola have the potential to add to these informal sector workers.

It is necessary to investigate this feature of precarity, produced by the Ola and Uber model of work, for taxi drivers by looking at their experience of work.

Read the full article in Economic and Political Weekly