What Drives The Uber Wallah?

Ethnographic study by IIITH researchers provides new insights about the ride-sharing workforce in the Indian gig economy that is fundamentally different from that of the West. 

Driving for Uber is viewed as a permanent, full-time livelihood option in India. 

Religious minorities and nomadic communities find it non-discriminatory in providing employment. 

Uber drivers see themselves as independent, small business owners. 

Despite being exhausted after driving for 36 hours straight, 22-year-old Raval accepts yet another ride request saying, “It’s very difficult to pull away when I’m making money!”. He typically makes up for these long hours by taking the next entire day off. Belonging to a nomadic denotified Banjara tribe with little to no education, property or history of farming, Raval and four of his five brothers are now Uber drivers. It was only since they began driving for the ride-hailing app that they have acquired 10 acres of land with visions of buying some more. For Mudassar, who hails from a family of glass bangle makers, working for Uber provides him with lucrative employment opportunities, ruling out instances of discrimination he would otherwise have faced with respect to the religious minority group he belongs to.

These are just two of the 133 Uber drivers profiled in a paper titled: “India’s “Uber Wallah”: Profiling Uber Drivers in the Gig Economy” by Prof. Nimmi Rangaswamy and her students Shantanu Prabhat and Sneha Nanavati from the Centre for Exact Humanities. The paper which was published in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) proceedings 2018 sought to demographically profile Uber drivers to understand their backgrounds and explore the narrative of employment that Uber offered in the Indian context.

It was when Uber entered the Indian market that the San Francisco-based cab aggregator quickly realised they would have to tweak their economic model to suit the local conditions. Unlike the West wherein typical Uber drivers are part-time workers looking to make that extra buck in their spare time, most Indian Uber drivers work full-time. Also, unlike their western counterparts who drive their own private cars, the Uber wallahs don’t own personal vehicles but are, instead, driving them on behalf of someone else. There were many India-specific initiatives that the company had to roll out such as the introduction of cash as a payment option, a panic button and tracking feature as part of security measures, an option to hail a cab without installing the app by dialling a number and so on.

Profile of the Uber Wallah

In a bid to understand the backgrounds of those workers that Uber is employing or attracting in India, the authors of the study profiled the drivers through an immersive study in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai and the NCR region. The bulk of the interviews however (111 of them) were in Hyderabad where the authors reside. Contrary to expectations, traditional or licensed drivers with long histories of driving did not overly dominate the respondent pool. While many of them had worked as drivers with private parties prior to joining Uber, some of them were former truck drivers, others hailed from rural backgrounds as either farmers using land as collateral to purchase vehicles to sign up with Uber or as having past experience in driving tractors. Then there were those who were involved in small and medium scale businesses. And still others who were previously employed in the semi-skilled sector. A prominent trend that emerged from the study was of “marginalized groups and the religious minority using the platform to participate in an occupation that eschews social discrimination in their work life”.

Driver Ownership; Driver Inclusion

With incentives aimed at encouraging ownership of vehicles, Uber drivers are increasingly taking loans to invest in this direction. However the study found that this is not always easy especially for rural migrants who use farm lands and other immovable property as collateral. For most respondents of the study, their own social networks helped with the collaterals in vehicle ownership. It also helped, for instance, that in 2016, the Govt of Telangana and Uber started a vehicle subsidy scheme for Uber drivers, which was associated with the Backward Classes Welfare Corporation and Tribal Welfare Corporation of Telangana. It was found that a large chunk of the applicants under this scheme came from SC/ST, Other Backward Castes, and the religious minority groups demonstrating that Uber is perceived as a caste-free, bias-free platform.

Human Computer Interactions (HCI) and The “Un-Gig” Economy

The researchers discovered that all Indian Uber drivers have been in an informal or gig economy until now and actually find Uber bringing in structure or formality in terms of employment. “This is like turning around the whole discourse that the developed world is trying to project,” exclaims Prof. Rangaswamy. Referring to the lawsuits against Uber and the critique of it exploiting contractual labour in the US and Europe, she asks, “Why is only Uber being singled out? How many other companies are taking care of their employees even when all rules are in place? Or is this some sort of Left Liberal idea where Marxism is coming back into vogue?”

As a human computer interactions (HCI) anthropologist, Prof. Rangaswamy is understandably interested in studying how Uber drivers interact with the ride-hailing interface and how those interactions influence their behavioural responses. Her team led by Masters student Namit Sawhney and supported by Ujjwal Sehrawat, IIIT Delhi, who is currently spending a semester at IIITH under Prof. Rangaswamy, has just completed another study on the HCI aspect of this new-found form of formalisation and is in the process of collating all the data recorded. “The interface seems to play a huge role in the manner in which the drivers plan their day. The drivers talked of navigability in the app that allowed them to charter their way through unfamiliar parts of the city. There are those who have understood the benefits of not interfering with the platform. It is this temporality which again provides structure and ‘un-gigs’ the driver,” she says.

To read more about the research, click here:India’s “UberWallah”: Profiling Uber Drivers in the Gig Economy





Sarita Chebbi is a compulsive early riser. Devourer of all news. Kettlebell enthusiast. Nit-picker of the written word especially when it’s not her own.


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