App-based ride-sharing policy: A critique

Nashir Uddin | Published: March 24, 2018 21:54:26 | Updated: March 25, 2018 21:34:46

There is no doubt about the growing rate of people's interest in app-based transportation and ride-sharing services in a busy city life these days. The number of such transport service providers is also on the rise in line with the commuters' growing need and interest. In our country, particularly in the capital Dhaka, it started with Uber's taxi service; then came Pathao, Bahon, Ezzyr, Amar Ride, Dhaka Ride, Hellow and some others. Although these companies stepped in with app-based taxis as their predominant services, eventually they made foray into other relevant areas of service like bike-sharing. Lately, CNG-run auto-rickshaw start-ups like Goti have also joined the bandwagon.

Following huge demand and fast expansion of the app-based transport services, the government, of late, has made the ride-sharing service policy effective. In this regard, the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry issued a circular last month. Before that, the cabinet nodded the draft of Ride-sharing Service Guideline 2017 in January this year, more than a year after the global giant Uber started operation in the country. However, with the latest move, the app-based transport services across the country have been brought under a legal framework.

The existing law does not allow vehicles registered against private individuals to be used for commercial purposes, but the new policy lifts that prohibition. But the car or motorcycle owners will be required to seek permission and obtain registration from the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) before using their vehicles for commercial purposes. However, a newly-registered vehicle has to wait for a year before it can be used for ride-hailing services while the operators will be allowed to provide the service in major cities across the country maintaining 11 conditions.

The new policy stipulates that the app-based service providers have to operate as a public or private limited company and will have to pay taxes. These companies, under the Ridesharing Service Guideline 2017, will have to get a 'Ridesharing Services Company Enlistment Certificate' while the motor vehicle owners have to collect 'Ridesharing Motor Vehicle Enlistment Certificate' from the government's regulatory authority BRTA. Also, the policy requires Uber and other local ride-hailing services to get registered with the BRTA, but there are no details available in respect of qualifying for registration.

The policy said BRTA will fix the coverage area of these ride-hailing services according to passenger demand, road network capacity, number of vehicles under a company and its technological efficiency. The companies will not have to share their revenue with the government, but the one-year term enlistment certificate will cost Tk 100,000 with an annual renewal fee of Tk 10,000. The new policy also stipulates that the ride-sharing service fare will be fixed in line with the existing Taxicab Service Guidelines.

Analysts and industry insiders, however, criticise that the new policy is so incomplete that it seems BRTA has little knowledge about thye app-based service providers. They say, the provision that new car buyers have to wait for a year before availing their vehicles for ride sharing is perhaps the only notable feature of this policy along with the responsibility vested on government authorities to fix the scope and coverage of each ride sharing company in terms of areas in accordance with the company's actual enlisted vehicles, technological coverage etc.

As per the ride-sharing policy, detailed information only about the driver is required, but there is nothing mentioned about the passenger. Under such circumstances, a passenger might commit crimes and remain outside the purview of the law enforcement agencies.

It has been gathered that the San Francisco-based Uber, operating in 700 cities across the world, usually pays the authorities on per ride basis. In Bangladesh, allegation is rife that after taking permission for a certain number of vehicles, the owners of vehicles are making business with more vehicles and still remain untouched while the per ride basis payment to the authority hasn't even been inserted in the policy here. As a result, the fact that stands now is that in Dhaka alone, Uber received 1.5 million ride requests in the first year with 9,500 daily trips, while local operator Pathao claimed to have 300,000 registered users and riders. In another analysis, it was observed that Uber with over their 3,500 vehicles would earn more than Tk 2.0 million here every day.

Criticism is also there hinting that the BRTA will lose control over the app-based companies. Critics say it's not unlikely that if the ride-hailing service authorities like Uber charges unreasonable fare, the government agency will have nothing to do. Some even say the new policy has been drafted only to favour ventures like Uber, which faces stricter EU regulations after the European Court of Justice ruled it as a transport company recently. Uber officials, however, maintain that services in Bangladesh were legal despite the absence of a regulatory framework. At a media briefing weeks ago marking its first year in Dhaka, Uber said more than 10,000 active car drivers operate under its network every month to cover the city with nearly 20 million inhabitants.

Reports say Uber has for long faced criticisms from government regulators in many countries. In almost each of the cases, however, the company has managed to get the upper hand after some minor setbacks. Hence the policymakers here need to look further into the recently framed policy that has hardly shed any light to address the problems Uber has given rise to, in other parts of the world.

Besides, there has been the springing up of new ride-hailing services almost every other month with the relatively lesser known, if not hardly credible, entities entering the scene. Authorities should also keep an eye on this. Because, the new investors and drivers may not shy away from packing the already car-choked Dhaka roads with more cars and bikes in the hope that they can generate good business through app-based on-demand transport service. Hence, limiting the maximum number of vehicles for each ride-sharing service provider is also a matter to be taken into consideration.

Some other suggestions may include strict background checking of private car owners and drivers along with mandatory keeping and updating of their personal details. Police report on drivers can also be made compulsory while filing their some other personal documents. Also, the government can fix the fare rates according to areas. Another good idea can be to introduce guidelines for covering accidents during rides - thereby securing the interests of drivers and passengers alike. The app-based ride-sharing services should have the system in place so that the driver or anyone else cannot get access to personal details of passengers under any circumstance. It is of paramount importance for passengers to feel that their data and privacy are secure and well protected.

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