Uber's expansion prompts a taxi strike in Mumbai, India

A taxi strike in India’s second largest city spilled into a second day Wednesday as a powerful union protested the expansion of Uber and other mobile cab-hailing services.

Many of Mumbai’s familiar black-and-yellow taxis – known as kaali-peelis – remained off the roads, making the notoriously congested city slightly more manageable for some, but also stranding commuters who rely on the aging, rickety fleet.

The striking union has demanded that the state of Maharashtra, which includes this city of 15 million, ban San Francisco-based Uber and an Indian competitor, Ola, saying local authorities have allowed the companies to operate without the necessary permits.

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Uber and its competitors pose a major challenge to Mumbai’s tens of thousands of traditional taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers, who have a reputation in many cities for arbitrary pricing, bad attitudes and derelict vehicles.

But Indian authorities have largely failed to regulate the fast-growing mobile cab companies, prompting objections from the politically well-connected taxi unions who say the new arrivals are allowed to charge lower prices while not holding the necessary permits.

“These people are illegally running on the road,” said Nitesh Rane, head of the Swabhiman Taxi-Rickshaw Union. “So the state government should come clean on the policy, and at the same time it also needs to secure the future of kaali-peelis which have been running in Mumbai for generations.”

Uber blamed the strike on “a group with vested political interests” that it said has resorted to “mindless violence, vandalism and threats of intimidation.”

"I understand these taxi drivers have been in the trade for decades, and their interests should be kept in mind, but there are other ways to do it instead of impacting our operations," said Shailesh Sawlani, Uber's general manager in Mumbai.

"We've been pretty open that we want to be regulated so that we don't have to go through this over and over again. You can have smart regulations that facilitate us as well as bear the taxi drivers' interests in mind."

Uber has announced plans to pour $1 billion into India, which it sees as its largest potential market after China.

But its expansion here has faced hurdles, beginning late last year when a customer reported being sexually assaulted by her Uber driver in the capital, New Delhi. The city banned Uber cabs, but a court overturned the ban in June.

Several Uber drivers have been attacked in Mumbai in recent weeks by assailants who smashed their car windshields, snatched the smartphones they use to ply the streets and threatened further harm if they did not quit their jobs. The incidents prompted transport authorities to warn Rane’s union against violence, although Rane denied involvement.

“The attacks on Uber cabs are spontaneous,” Rane said. “The cabbies in Mumbai are agitated. They have families. They want security from the state.”

Taxi unions complain that Uber’s cars usually hold permits meant only for carrying tourists, not operating regular cab service.

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Not all taxi unions were observing the strike, but many drivers said they were staying off the roads to avoid attacks by “hooligans” linked to Rane, the son of a prominent politician from the Indian National Congress party.

Mushtaq Khan, a driver who was chatting at a taxi stand on a street corner in central Mumbai, said he would not run the risk of driving while the strike was on. If a mob attacked him, he said, replacing his windshield would cost him more than twice what he makes in a good day.

Although not a member of the striking union, Khan said he supported its demands because Uber fares were nearly half what he and his colleagues charged.

“What are we supposed to do?” Khan said. “The strike will go on as long as the state comes up with a concrete decision.”

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

For more news from India, follow @SBengali on Twitter

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

6:09 a.m.: This story was updated with comments from Uber in Mumbai.

This story was originally published at 3:28 a.m.

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