08 January 2021
Krishna Akhil Kumar Adavi
It is a slow Sunday afternoon on the 4th of November. I am hopping from one stationary Uber to another along the same road in central Delhi. By the time I conduct my fourth interview for the day, I pick up on the fact that there aren’t too many requests for a cab ride coming in this afternoon and that drivers know that this particular road always has enough empty spots to park. I walk up to one of the cabs and tap on the window. The driver, disturbed from the video he was watching on his phone, lowers it with a long press of the button on the door by his side. I open with my ready-to-go first sentences that I use with a potential interviewee, “bhaiyya main idhar Sonepat ke Ashoka University se hoon. Dilli mein Uber pe jo chala rahe hain unse baat karke unpe ek chota project kar raha hoon. Aap mujhe pandra-bees (15-20) minute baat karogey?” (“Bro, I am from Ashoka University in Sonepat. I am working on a small project on Uber drivers and for this, I am speaking with drivers in Delhi. Will you speak with me for 15-20 minutes?”)
He replies, “aarey bhaiyya kabhi bhi booking aa sakta hai. Phir aapka bhi nuksaan mera bhi nuksaan. Kya fayeda hua?” (“Bro, I can get a [cab] booking at any time. It’s a lose-lose for both of us. What is the benefit in that?”)
Almost instantly, I say, “bhaiyya abhi do (2) ghanton se driver yahein hai. Duty nahin aa rahi.” (“Bro, the [other drivers] have been here for two hours. Duty [cab booking requests] isn’t coming.”) He smiles back, “aadmi ummeed toh rakh sakta hai?”
“A man can hope, right?”
LIVE BY THE MAP, DIE BY THE MAP
The smell of unwashed rexine, cheap car perfume and sweat is familiar as I sit shotgun alongside the Uber drivers I speak with. A towel on their own seat, an old water bottle – always with the original brand sticker peeled off – and a notebook for their manual tallying of rides are the drivers’ companions through the day. If other Indian vehicles have a Ganapati [a prominent Hindu God, often worshipped for an auspicious start and good luck] double-taped onto their dashboard to pray to, these drivers seem to worship the source of their bread and butter: their always charging phones. Car honks, barking dogs, irritated parking attendants, and the YouTube videos they watch on their second phone fade into the background through the constant interruptions of a notification on their main phone: ‘New Ride. Click to Accept’. Their right hand shifts rather quickly from the steering wheel as they hurry to grab their next ‘duty’. Once the driver does this, on the other end, as Sunil Kumar put it, a customer sees, “driver ki saari janam kundali aa jayegi. Naam aajayega, photo aajayega, gaadi ka number, license ka number aajayega” (“The entire horoscope of the driver will show up. The name, photo, car number, license plate number will show up”).
In contrast to traditional fixed-route jobs (working for a call centre, or a private citizen), the lack of predictability of the sawari (customers) drivers pickup is means that each of the drivers has the chance to “understand” Delhi. Kisan told me, “Main Dilli mein nau (9) saal se raha hoon aur Uber pe chhe (6) maheeno se chala raha hoon. Jitna Dilli humnein pichle chhe (6) maheeno mein dekha aur seekah, utna pichle aath (8) saalon mein nahin pata chala.” (“I have been in Delhi for 9 years and have been driving on Uber for the last 6 months. The Delhi I have seen and learnt about in the last 6 months, I did not get to know in the 8 years before that.”)
One driver encountered for the first time the toll booths that drivers cross when going across state borders from Gurgaon to Delhi (and vice versa). Another speaks, presciently, about how the bigness and smallness of buildings helps one characterize a part of the city as a rich or poor area: “Gurgaon bada hai, Wazirpur chota hai” (“Gurgaon is big, Wazirpur is small.”).
Through this process of moving around the city, the Map [Google Maps based navigation system built-in to the Uber App] serves as the guide. Firstly, “navigation ko follow karna” (“following the navigation”) is important because they are instructed by Uber to adhere to the route displayed on the Map to the dot. Drivers speak of a fear of repercussions and loss of pay as key reasons why, even if they have local knowledge of routes and by-lanes, they don’t use it . In this aspect, they are being forced to focus on the navigation and nothing else. Their use of Google Maps even spills over into their personal time – drivers say they use it on their off-days and family trips to avoid the traffic and pick a faster route.
If drivers come to rely on Google Maps so much, what stands in stark contrast is their lack of faith in the Uber heat map – a map visible to drivers that shows them where the demand for cabs is high and where they stand a chance to increase their earnings through Uber’s surge pricing. Shyam Yadav tells me, “abhi dekho yahaan dikha raha hai surge. Wahaan pahunch jayenge phir kahin aur dikhayega surge. Aur wahaan pahunch bhi jayenge tab humein trip nahin dega, kisi aur gaadi joh teen-char (3-4) kilometre door hai usko dega. Bas ghumaate rahega aur CNG (gas) phooktein rahenge hum” (“Look, it is showing a surge here [pointing to a location on the phone]. If we drive there, it will show [the surge] somewhere else. Even if I drive there, I will not be assigned the trip. Some other car that is 3 or 4 kilometres away will be assigned the trip. It will keep making me loiter and I will keep burning through the CNG [fuel]”).
Drivers would rather spend their time waiting in one place for long periods of time than moving about too much in the search for a ride. He added, frustratedly: “kabhi toh bajegi, kahin toh bajegi” (“at some point I’ll get a notification, at some place I’ll get a notification”). On the micro-level, the day is reconfigured and revolves around the hours the drivers spend “online” (logged-in) with Uber. Some begin their day at 4 AM and stay online as long as 14-18 hours driving around Delhi. Even during their meal breaks, drivers often forget that they’re logged in to the App.
stuck in the middle with uber
I book a ride. The driver tells me he is eating breakfast at a chole kulcha stall by the road. He asks me if I mind waiting for five minutes before we begin the trip. I am happy to wait but he laughs and refuses to answer my question when I ask him if he forgot that he was logged in or was not expecting a booking that morning! American driver Herb Coakley is perhaps referring to this trance-like condition of being online, “in that state, they are just listening to the sounds [of the driver’s apps]. Stopping when they said stop, pick up when they say pick up, turn when they say turn. You get into a rhythm of that, and you begin to feel almost like an android” (Hook 2017). Sunil Kumar summarizes his routine of being online this way: “Din ke barah-chaudah (12-14) ghanta main issi pe mehnat karta hoon. Chahe ek (1) rupai banaun, sau (100) rupai yah hazaar (1000), yah kuch bhi nahin banaun bas kismet ki baat hai” (“I work hard on this App for 12 to 14 hours in a day. Whether I make 1 rupee, 100 rupees or 1000 rupees, or I make nothing at all is just a matter of luck”).
Waiting is an extremely normal part of their day. But this waiting is not similar to the waiting (the pass of time) that drivers say is characteristic of their previous jobs as employees of companies, or private chauffeurs or drivers for tours and travels companies – where they often too had to wait – but this particular wait is filled with anxiety and uncertainty of whether or not they will get another ride, and when that might be. Even while drivers speak of watching films on YouTube or scrolling through their WhatsApp and Facebook feeds, I notice they constantly keep toggling back to the Uber App to see if they get a ride and a chance to make money.
At common meeting spots like tea stalls, when they are talking to other drivers, very often, they will immediately compare is their daily earnings, how long they have been waiting, and how many more trips before the nearest incentive target is achieved. Below, I list the range of responses around what waiting means to them and how they cope with the potential boredom:
Baboo: *laughing* “nahin hum bore nahin hote. Kuch bhi ho jaye, kaam to karna hai toh bore nahin hote” (“No, I do not get bored. Whatever happens, I have to work so I do not get bored”).
Sunil: “Kabhi YouTube dekh liya, kabhi cartoon dekh liya. Dekho time pass toh karna hai […] Bahar khade rehte hain ek doosre se haal chaal poochte hain kaam kaisa hai…. Aise hi ek doosre se poochke santusht ho jaate hain ki chalo iska bhi kaam nahin hai!” (“Sometimes, I watch [something on] YouTube. Other times, I watch a cartoon. Look, I have to pass time some way. We stand outside [our cars] and ask each other how the work is going. We get happy talking to each other and knowing that even this other guy isn’t getting any rides!”– They say misery loves company. Drivers often show a kind of dark humour about the situation they find themselves in.
Kisan: “Duty chhoda toh yahaan so raha hoon. Duty bajegi toh jayenge varna yahin sote rahenge […] kabhi YouTube pe film dekhta hoon […] South ki love story ko chhodkhe koi aur film nahin dekhta […] kabhi ghoom lete hain. Bas phone ko leke ghoomte hain jahaan bhi jaa rahe hain” (”I completed my last ride and am sleeping here [in the car]. If I get a notification, then I will go there, or else I will just sleep here. Sometimes I watch films on YouTube – I watch only romantic films from South [India]. Sometimes I just drive around. Wherever I go, I make sure I have my phone with me”)– As distinct from the other drivers interviewed, Kisan is not the owner of the car but rather receives a fixed amount from the owner for driving it. His income thus does not vary depending on his fares. He is unconcerned about his rating and earnings on the platform and looks forward to citywide general strikes because those are occasions for his chutti (vacation)!
Pradeep: “Wait karna hai toh, wait karna hai. Ghanta, do ghanta wait karte hain. Nahin mila toh ghar ki taraf nikal lete hain. Sir, kya fayeda hai wait karne ka?” (“If I have to wait, I’ll wait. An hour, two hours I’ll wait. If I don’t get a ride, I start driving towards home. What is the use of waiting [endlessly]?”) – Pradeep has been driving the longest on the platform (over 3 years) and speaks with a battle-hardened tone throughout the interview.
The fluidity of waiting is astounding – for some, it is 20 minutes, for others, a couple of hours. One driver recounts spending a whole night waiting near the airport to complete just one ride to close out his target for the week. I would hesitate at this stage to make a very strong claim about how normal waiting has become for Uber drivers at large. However, this is a period characterized by deep anxiety about the future – and a hope for some certainty and regularity in their income.
Initial work on the platform economy in India argued that “drivers’ perceptions of security and strategies of income security are crafted on the varying timelines of daily incentives, daily or weekly payments, and the uncertain longevity of these platforms […] income security takes precedence over other forms of security like unionization and collective bargaining” (Surie and Koduganti 2016). Yet, this research was conducted during the fabled season when incentives were aplenty and the driver pool was relatively smaller. A burgeoning driver pool is finding themselves spending more of their days just waiting, experiencing a drastic decline of earnings across the platforms matched only by the precarity that characterizes their digital time and incomes.
Hook, Leslie. 2017. Uber: The uncomfortable view from the driving seat Financial Times. October 04. Accessed December 22, 2020.
Surie, Aditi, and Jyothi Koduganti. 2016. “The Emerging Nature of Work in Platform Economy Companies in Bengaluru, India: The Case of Uber and Ola Cab Drivers.” E-Journal of International and Comparative Labour Studies 1-36.
 How drivers refer to work on Uber. This usage is common to refer to an individual job (a single ride on Uber is a duty) or their employment writ large (driving on Uber is them going on duty).
 A situation of market imbalance where the demand (riders requesting for rides) vastly outnumbers the supply (drivers online on the Uber platform). To incentivize more drivers to come into the area to offset the imbalance, Uber makes the rides more lucrative for drivers, and expensive for customers, by creating a surge fare.
 I am using ‘waiting’ here as the gap between one Uber trip and the next.
Krishna Akhil Kumar Adavi is a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bangalore, India. His current research interests include the platform economy and technology startups in India. Find Krishna Akhil on twitter @paranoidhydroid