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     Volume 4 Issue 16 | October 8, 2004 |

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Cover Story

Taxi Cab Service:

Shamim Ahsan and Imran H. Khan
PHOTO: Zahedul I Khan

The memory of her ordeal is still fresh in her mind and every time she gets in a car she is seized by panic. Ayesha Karim, who works in a private firm, was going home in a black cab. It was afternoon and the VIP road from Farmgate onwards was not very busy. The driver suddenly pressed on the accelerator, speeding away madly swerving all over the road. When it reached near the Bijoysarani road a big Pajero jeep came in front out of nowhere. The cab driver couldn't stop in time and rammed into the jeep. Ayesha's head banged against the back of the front seat and she scraped her right leg against some metal. The windshield was completely shattered the bonnet completely compressed and the driver was bleeding from injuries on his head. It was a close call and Ayesha is not yet over the trauma even though she came out of it with minor bruises. Dhaka, a dangerous city to travel in, is hazardous if you are in a black cab. "These drivers, many of whom are former baby-taxi drivers, think they are still driving their three wheelers. They know little about driving, follow no traffic rules and don't give a damn about the safety of their passengers," says Ayesha. "Many times I have tried to tell the driver to drive more slowly but either he gives a cocky response or just pretends not to hear me," she adds.

"Still, whenever I can I try to get a yellow cab," admits Ayesha. "Usually they are quite comfortable enough for me to fall asleep or read a book. But getting hold of a cab that will take you to your destination is another challenge."

The list of complaints from cab-goers is long. Over the last three or four years since taxicabs hit Dhaka's already burdened streets, much of the enthusiasm among the commuters along with many of the promises on the part of the cab companies have dwindled. While the addition of taxicabs to the Dhaka traffic has made commuting a little more comfortable and relatively safer (in terms of not getting mugged), the overall standard of the taxi service is still far from satisfactory.

When, about three or four years ago, taxicabs first started running on the Dhaka streets, many city dwellers were relieved. Finally their commuting troubles would be over; or so they thought. The spacious, shining air-conditioned yellow cabs were a refreshing sight for Dhaka's commuters for whom the best option until then was the noisy, bone-shaking baby-taxis, which with their ear-deafening roars and dense plume of smoke made going anywhere in Dhaka a nightmare.

Commuting, in Dhaka, means inhaling thickly polluted air and getting bathed by frequent dust storms. With the arrival of the air-conditioned taxicab (the yellow ones that is) people now have an opportunity to dodge both the polluted air and thick dust of Dhaka. Such comfort comes at a high price though. But even then many are prepared to part with a substantial amount of money for a tolerable journey. "I don't mind spending Tk 125 on a taxicab to go to my workplace. At least I don't have to enter my office exhausted, sweaty and dishevelled," says Saidul Islam, a mechanical engineer, who lives in Gopibagh and has to come all the way to Banani to get to his office.

But sometimes even if you can afford a cab you don't necessarily get one, even if it's right in front of you. Ask any taxicab passenger, regular or occasional, everyone would say how uncertain catching a taxi becomes. "If you want to get on a bus you can go to the nearest bus stop, but there is no taxicab stand where you can go and get a taxi. One has to just depend on luck and keep waiting. On a bad day one might have to wait for as long as half an hour," points out Anwar Hossain, a thirty plus teacher at a private university. The phone numbers written on the chasis of the taxicabs hardly help. "Sometimes I call five companies one after another but meet with same negative answer," he adds.

Tania Tahmina, who teaches English at Independent University, has a solution for this. She has made permanent arrangement with a taxicab driver who takes her to her university in Banani and her 8-year-old son to his school in Uttara and brings them back home. " I have to pay Tk 7,000 a month, but at least I don't have to wait indefinitely in the street and get to office late. I also don't have to worry about who will take my son to school and pick him up after school," she elaborates.

But one of the most common grievances against taxicabs is that the drivers are often reluctant to go to some particular places. Most drivers don't want to go to Old Dhaka or Motijheel for example, because of traffic congestion, while some drivers won't go to places like Cantonment area because, as they put it, they will have to return empty. Manan Morshed, an artist who works as an illustrator for a national daily, doesn't see any logic in this excuse: "The yellow cab charges Tk 8 for one kilometre and since one has to pay Tk 20 for the first two kilometres the passenger is already paying an extra 4 takas. The extra amount should compensate in case the taxi is to travel some distance without a passenger". Cab drivers often refuse a journey outright if the distance is short. "It's very frustrating. You are in a great hurry, you have even got hold of an empty taxi, but it won't go because you are not going far enough," says Ferdous Alamgir, who owns a house in Mirpur.

Another allegation against the drivers is that they keep the cab dirty and don't behave well with the passengers. "Sometimes they stare at you through the rear view mirror to see what you are doing particularly if the passenger is a woman," says Fahmida Khan. And if there is a couple, their curiosity crosses all boundaries. Some of them just switch on the cassette players without bothering to ask if the passenger is in a mood to listen to music. "Clearly they are not given any training about how they should behave with the passengers," Ayesha points out.

Junaid Iqbal, a resident of Banani, feels strongly about cabs that do not deliver the promises that they make. "I once boarded a yellow cab and told the driver to turn on the AC as it was a very humid day. He said his AC didn't work and I had to sweat during the whole journey," says Iqbal. Without any monitoring, the fitness and functionality of the cabs are questionable, the companies and their drivers take a lot for granted at the customer's expense. "After my journey, I had to pay the metre price of an AC cab, though the service was the same as a black cab's," says Iqbal.

While passengers have numerous complaints about taxi services, the cab companies aren't prepared to accept all these allegations. Farhad Malek, Administrative Officer of Anudip, one of the leading Yellow Cab companies in Dhaka that has a fleet of about 400 cabs says that there is a gap between the demand and supply. Another problem is that Dhaka is already too crowded with all sorts of vehicles and the number is increasing every day. Many of these new vehicles don't have a road permit. So, for practical reasons, it is not really possible to multiply the number of taxis, or any vehicles for that matter," he explains.

Cab company owners also refuse to accept the allegation that the taxi drivers do not have proper training or original licenses. "We follow a particular procedure while recruiting drivers. Drivers have to appear at the driving tests, which is conducted by a panel of our own examiners. We also verify all the documents, especially the license before we appoint someone as a driver," says Md. Emdadul Haq, Deputy Manager of Administration of Salida, a well-established cab service. Haq also claims that Salida is careful about the maintenance of their cabs: " The cars go through maintenance checks as soon as problems appear." This is hardly the case with black cabs, which become dilapidated and battered within months of running on the roads due to ill maintenance and reckless driving.

While some of the bigger and more reputed companies may truly follow some regulations, many of the smaller companies don't bother to verify whether or not the driver they have appointed possesses a valid license. "It requires Tk 5,000, not to mention the great hassle, to acquire an original license, whereas one can purchase a fake one for Tk 300 only. The only problem a fake license holder faces is he has to pay Tk 50 to Tk 200 every time he is caught by the sergants," reveals Ismail Hossain, who drives a black cab, called Cab Promise, which is owned by an individual. Though Hossain knows the 'easy way out' about getting fake licenses, he claims to have an original one himself.

Cab drivers have their own tales of woe. Usually a cab driver has to deposit a large amount of cash, sometimes as much as 1000 taka a day, as security money. Whatever they earn on top of that they can keep. But if business is slow, then drivers find it hard to pay the deposit let alone make extra cash.

Cabline, a black cab service, takes a security deposit of Tk 3000 from the drivers and then allow them to take out their cabs for Tk 700 a day. Cabline, along with its mother company, Cab Express Bangladesh, boasts a fleet of about 500 cabs, according to SM Rofiqul Islam, Manager of Accounts and Finance at Cabline.

Abdul Motaleb (not his real name) has been driving Black Cabs for more than a year. His cab is owned by Star Gate. "Star Gate, Cab Bangla and Cab One are all under the same owner, but he has some partners I think, I'm not too sure," he says. Consisting of a fleet of about 200 cars, many of the local cab companies go into joint ventures, taking different routes of the country. Even though some drivers are always agreeable, most of them refuse to take certain customers or go to some locations. "Certain places are totally jam packed and we don't want to go there. Sometimes, the customers get out of the cars in the jam and pay us off. After that, we are simply stuck in the jam for hours," says Motaleb.

When the drivers go to cab companies to hire cabs, the first thing that they need to submit is a certificate issued by the chairman of the Union Parishad. This document verifies the fact that the person is a member of a certain voting area. Other documents that are vital are the driver's licence and photo of the driver. The drivers have to pay a fee for hiring the cabs. For the Black Cabs that run on gas, the fee is Tk 700 per day, and for the cabs that run on petrol it is Tk 400 per day. A day usually starts at 7a.m. and lasts until 12 in the morning.

Security while on the road is also a problem that the cab drivers constantly face. Enayet Mia has been driving for more than two years. "I was nearly robbed once," says Mia, a yellow cab driver, curiously looking at the rear-view mirror. "I think there were three of them. One was on my right, one was in front of my cab and the third almost got a foot into the passenger's seat beside me," he goes on. Luckily, he had the engine still running and put down all his weight on the accelerator. The guy never managed to get in and was hurled out. Enayet also ran over the foot of another robber. "After the incident, I never looked back because I knew that if they caught me, they would surely kill me," he nervously says. The memories of that dreadful day still haunting him.

Illias had worked for a certain Yellow Cab company for quite some time now. He had to deposit a certain amount as a security. Once a private car had hit him from the back and had bent his bumper. After he had returned the car and told his owners about the incident, they wouldn't hear his side of the story. What ever he said, he was at fault. Finally, they cut a large portion of money from the security deposit he had previously paid. "If I had hit the private car, then not only would I have had to pay my owners, I would also have to pay some compensation to the other car owner," says Illias,. "There is no gaining in our business."

From the commuter's point of view going in a black cab is not much better than going in a CNG run three-wheeler. Cars used by black cab services are very lightweight and get easily crushed in even low impact collisions. These vehicles do not adhere to even basic passenger safety laws; instead of the bonnet and engine taking the impact the force falls on the people inside as it is the main chasis of the car that gets crunched.

"Even though these Indian models are not too reliable and don't last long, the government still tells us to get these cabs", says the manager of a cab company requesting anonymity. "There are other cars that cost about the same but are much better, yet we are not allowed to import them."

There is little incentive, therefore, to improve the taxi cab service. The number of yellow cabs, which is the more acceptable option for cab goers, have not expanded with the rise in demand. But the cabs that are in the roads are not considered enough or a reliable mode of transportation as their availability often depends on the whims of the cab drivers. Unless the cab companies get their act together and provide the service they had initially promised, there is little hope for this business to survive. For the commuters who are becoming increasingly disillusioned by the quality of service from the cab companies, switching to CNG three-wheelers and public buses are the only alternatives.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004