Conference life is indeed a carbon life. Trains, planes, automobiles and, more specifically, taxi rides punctuate my time. This instance, it was a cab ride to the International Delhi airport. The cab driver and I started to talk. He told me how work was hard to come by since the rise of Uber. The last two days, he hadn’t gone home. He had a wife and two boys. Both in decent schools so they don’t have to be like their father, he said. He hoped that one day he would be able to buy good things for his parents who have sacrificed so much and who have now moved back to their village in Haryana.
He slept in his taxi the past two nights, hoping to give someone a ride even if late at night. I was his lucky break with my red eye flight. I asked him if he was tempted to join Uber. “Definitely not,” he exclaimed. “I would feel unsafe, because who knows what kind of passengers you get. They might be drunk. They could take you to a strange area and steal your taxi. You never know. Also, who knows whether you as a passenger will be raped, madam? Delhi is not safe. Our taxis are.” While he was saying this, another cab, as if on cue, passed us by with a bumper sticker saying: “this taxi respects women.” What about reviews, I asked. “This is India, madam.” That seemed to sum up his argument. Trust is a privilege. Predictability is for the affluent.
He paused. “Do you mind if I ask something, madam? Why are rich people cheap? Even if they can afford it, they still don’t want to pay more. Even if drivers can’t make any money with so many Uber cars on the road. My friends and I joke that rich people should be called Below Poverty Line people.” He gave a hearty laugh.
This moment was a humbling experience. I teach about precarious labour, I don’t live it. I make my students debate about the gig economy, but few will ever witness the perverse and desperate outcomes of such innovation beyond the classroom.
Humility helps us grow. It expands our range of consciousness beyond our worldview. Yet, few of us venture outside our routines and our people.
Making a familiar moment unfamiliar, by engaging with our surroundings, may be a step in the right direction.
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication