Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ola and the market economy - it works!

I am an unabashed fan of the Ola revolution. As you know I am in Chennai, India, right now. If you are not from somewhere in India you probably don’t know what I mean. Well Ola is our local answer to Uber. If Uber is the forerunner then Ola is the copycat which has risked intellectual property infringement to rake it in. During the recent Chennai floods, Ola put its app to good use to advance its brand while also sponsoring rescue boats. Needless to say it is now ubiquitous and the first word out of the mouth of babes and dames on the move.

I am not an unabashed capitalist and yet I believe here is one instance where market forces have trumped all regulatory efforts. If you have even taken a ride in an auto in India over the past decade you will know what I mean. Let me back up a little more. When our parents grew older they gave up driving and then hired cars for when they needed them. These cars came with drivers and you had to pay a set amount for a minimum number of hours. So the tourist car was a worthy option if there were many stops but not to and from destinations. This was often hit or miss. I have had drivers who were drunk or who even snuck out to get sauced while waiting around for us! We were at their mercy. Taxis were a rare sight and did permanent damage to the back as they rode over potholes with no shock absorbers. So the other options were public buses or autos.

If we did not drive our parents’ cars we had to rely on these alternatives. Luckily for me, I have a generous sister whose car and driver were available to me most times so I am spoiled and it is on the odd occasion that I am left without options. With the overcrowding in ramshackle buses we had to reluctantly settle for the auto. Now what was so terrible about hitching a ride in an auto? For one, it was not the most comfortable given its centre of gravity is low and there is a risk of it turtling with the slightest provocation. But worse, auto drivers would never put on the meter and haggling with them resulted in immense tension and strain. You had to negotiate with at least 3 before one would agree on price. In addition, you could wait several minutes before one would agree to take you to your preferred destination. They wanted to take you to where they would rather be going!

On one visit back home I was told the government had introduced legislation that required autos to put on the meter. However, to my utmost chagrin I found that the meters were rigged so the fares escalated without rhyme or reason, or drivers simply flouted the rule giving me no option but to pay their asking price.

So what has changed with Ola? Well it is an App and I can get a mini cab, a share cab, an auto among others. Given drivers bid on rides and are required to cover a minimum number of rides per day, I get an instantaneous response to my request. I can track their progress and pay cash at the end of the ride. They actually put on the meter. You are asked not to tip. And ..drumroll …here is the reason why it works! You actually rate your ride at the end and submit it. And this rating shows up when a driver responds to your call. They have an incentive to maintain their autos (which are mostly new for now), to put on the meter, their best behaviour and not ask for a tip. I almost fainted today, when I got back exact change from the driver- I cannot remember when that ever happened! The cab and auto drivers like this system too since it takes out the guesswork for them, organises their day and guarantees them returns if their reflexes are quick and they put in their hours. It is all so civilised. Now I find reasons to go out just to ride the Ola.. Who would have thought?!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

India's new smart phone generation

I have spent the day fruitfully (I think) showing my aunt, in Chennai, around her 6 month old smart phone. She has invested the princely sum of Rs.7000 on it. She has 3 other plain old unsmart mobile phones. Her ardent wish is to master this one to browse Google and Facebook, use Whatsapp to send and receive messages and make free overseas calls, to send and receive emails and book cabs through Ola or Uber. She is fascinated by her device and spends hours swiping it up and down. However, she is an octogenarian. Her body and mind are agile and sound but the logic of our digital devices and apps defy her. So she has to memorize the steps relating to opening apps and getting back to menus and her retention capacity is somewhat diminished. It's therefore frustrating I am sure but she persists undeterred trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! But I love her curious mind, her fascination with this unknown wonder world and the mystique it holds for her right there in the palm of her hand - so I patiently walk her through the steps over and over again.

Everywhere she goes, she carries her phone and asks for help using the device. She is not alone. My mom and I giggle over stories of others who do the same! Even as she flashes it, she gets the indulgent " Do you need this at your age? Why did you not settle for something simpler? " A logical question. However, the answer is not straightforward I realize. It slowly dawns on me that it is not about using a smart phone at all. It is about not wanting to be left out of this virtual world that holds the younger generation captive and through which they communicate to the exclusion of all other modes. There is fear that not fitting in and using these channels means becoming even more irrelevant! I empathize. As I enter my fifties I hear from my daughter's generation that Facebook and other apps I use are passé. I have no time to enquire and fear being left in the dust! It could be me in her shoes soon! I love my aunt and her generation's youthful exuberance and courage embracing and tackling the complex world of smart phones and am determined to help at least one among them ease their anxiety over the use of their device by teaching her the little I know!