Enough of the Uber bashing: Company tried to get it right in the latest Gurgaon incident

Uber again. That’s pretty much been the headline response to the report of an Uber driver accused of trying to kiss his female passenger.

Sandip Roy June 03, 2015 10:40:19 IST
Enough of the Uber bashing: Company tried to get it right in the latest Gurgaon incident

Uber again.

That’s pretty much been the headline response to the report of an Uber driver accused of trying to kiss his female passenger.

A better headline might be “Indian man again”.

While it might be satisfying to blame the big bad corporation, and often they deserve all the blame they can get as they try to duck responsibility, this sounds like another "Indian man" story rather than an "Uber" story.

It’s not like this is the first molestation case to hit the headlines after the infamous Uber sexual assault story from December 2014. Pretty much every day some newspaper or the other carries a story about molestation, harassment or rape. Let’s not pass off a societal problem as an Uber special.

Enough of the Uber bashing Company tried to get it right in the latest Gurgaon incident

Reuters image.

The driver in the December case had at least four criminal cases pending against him in his home state. That quite appropriately brought into question the thoroughness of Uber’s much-vaunted background checks. This time around, however, the driver has a valid badge and commercial license issued by Delhi authorities.

Those screaming for Uber's head about how it has learned no lessons, should take a deep breath. A background check can reveal what’s on the record - pending criminal cases, fake addresses or sham employment history. But there’s no background check that will reveal if one fine night a man will suddenly think he can get away with kissing his female passenger.

Instead of leaping to righteous "how could this happen again?" finger-wagging on social media, it would make more sense to look and see if Uber's response to the incident has been appropriate. That’s the part that is far more in the company’s control than its driver’s hormones.

Here there appears to be some dispute. The victim’s brother took to Facebook to complain that Uber had taken “no action” and “no update” and there is “no mechanism in place” and that he was looking for “immediate, non-mechanical, machine oriented revert” and warned “Get the culprit punished or you are in heaps of trouble for shielding him”.

In a country where consumer is too often not the king, and used to getting the short end of the stick unless she is someone with VIP connections, it’s easy to pile on to the outrage. And social media gives us a readymade platform to name, tag and shame in the hope of forcing a corporation to act.

But it is a little hasty to blame Uber for “no action” this time around as if it has learned nothing from the December debacle. Uber's Anisul Haque responded on social media stressing about their "zero tolerance policy" and pointed out that Uber had talked to the passenger on the phone already and had apologized. Haque also insisted that they are following up with the driver and “immediate action has been taken with driver while the matter is being thoroughly investigated”. There’s nothing in that response to suggest Uber is trying to deflect blame and pass on the buck. News reports state the driver has been suspended.

It’s wrong to complain that Uber has a “template” response to the event. In fact it’s actually laudable that a company has a template/protocol in place to respond promptly to the event. There’s nothing in its response to suggest yet that it is trying to downplay what happened or blaming the victim. And it does not sound like they are trying to just throw money at the problem to make it go away, as Uber's head Eric Alexander was accused of doing last time around. Eric had said, "We would be happy to assist in her recovery. Financially, if there are things that we can do to help her, we will do."

The victim’s brother has been asking on social media whether Uber will just fire the driver or lodge an FIR. The victim has lodged one already. But this cannot be a trial by social media. Every story has two sides and a responsible company must investigate and listen to both sides and not just act based on impassioned Facebook statuses. And prima facie there seems to be plenty to investigate. The woman's side of the story has been reported in Business Standard where she says "midway" through the ride she felt unsafe.

She suspected that if some men (driver’s allies) got into the back of the car, she would be “stuck in the middle”. She decided to stop the car and sit beside the driver, in the front, so that in case of an emergency, she could pull the handbrake or somehow try and control the car. “I don’t know why I made that stupid decision,” she said.

The driver's side needs to be heard as well.

This does not mean Uber is off the hook. Or whether has more to do in terms of installing safety equipment in its cars though it’s worth noting this incident happened outside the vehicle. The victim is right in saying there should be an “emergency number” to call instead of just an email option in these situations. But right now Uber is actually quite correct in saying it would deal with the parties concerned directly instead of a trial by social media that would satisfy our collective voyeurism but achieve little else. We could save our self-righteous ire for companies that get rid of the victim who complains of sexual harrassment or politicians who downplay stories of rape as conspiracies and little incidents because boys will be boys. And there’s a long list of those.

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