22 APRIL 2016
Reasons and excuses for violence
The provocation for violence is often very different from the underlying cause. After days of unrest in Jammu and Kashmir's Handwara town, in which five civilians died, it now emerges that the trigger for all the moral outrage and protests - the report of a molestation bid on a young woman by a soldier - may not have had any basis in fact. She submitted before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Handwara, that she was assaulted by a local youth, and not by any of the Army personnel stationed in Handwara. The facts of what actually happened are still contested, but the manner in which the rumour of the involvement of an Army man in the attack spread through the town points to the widespread distrust of the armed forces in the area. The dismantling of four Army bunkers at the town square was thus a necessary, and welcome, response to bring the situation under control and to restore normalcy in the area. The larger reason for the protests was precisely that: the high level of resentment in the town against the obtrusive presence of the Army. Reports, factual or rumoured, of the assault on the young woman provided a spark to draw attention to what is locally perceived as the larger problem: the repressive force of the Army against civilians. The deaths of young people in subsequent protests further aggravated the local population's anxiety about failing to keep young men and women out of harm's way. The dispiriting takeaway is that if it had not been the assault on the young woman, it would have been some other issue.
The response from the locals, including government servants, holds out a lesson for the Centre. It is that such incidents will tend to recur as long as a deeper political engagement eludes Kashmir. However much the Centre may defend the deployment of the Army citing strategic reasons, it remains an inescapable fact that its obtrusive presence adds to the political alienation of the people as well as sporadic human rights violations and harm to civilians caught in the crossfire. In fact, Handwara is one of the areas relatively free of militancy, one that witnesses good turnouts in elections. That the Army demolished four bunkers instead of asking for reinforcements in Handwara following the violence is partly on account of this reading of the situation. Street protests, and violence against the armed forces on some emotive issue or the other, have unfortunately become a part of everyday life in Kashmir. Given the persisting militant activity in the Valley, reducing the Army presence in any substantive manner is not an immediate possibility. But steps such as reducing the Army deployment in densely populated areas, and ensuring accountability for the actions of the security forces, should help keep the fragile peace in the Valley.
A misguided ban in Delhi
The Delhi government's decision to ban surge pricing by taxi service aggregators, which follows a similar ban imposed by Karnataka, is misguided. In Delhi's case, the surge pricing ban has flowed from the imposition of the odd-even licence plate rule, which has increased the demand for taxis. The odd-even scheme may be a welcome intervention to reduce traffic congestion in the Union Territory, but the decision to clamp down on surge pricing by aggregators such as Uber and Ola, which is set to continue even after Phase Two of the odd-even scheme ends on April 30, is counterproductive. As expected, after the ban, the number of taxis plying on Delhi's roads has dropped. Arbitrary interventions in the demand-supply market are pointless in the absence of alternative solutions. If Uber and Ola are charging their customers unscrupulous sums, the only long-term solution for the Delhi government is to provide its residents with cheaper and better public transport. The rapid growth and popularity of taxis ‘managed' by aggregators across India is a testimony to the fact that public transport and transit facilities remain hopelessly inadequate. Surge pricing, essentially an algorithm-based mechanism that determines fares based on supply and demand, exists in slightly dissimilar forms in other areas, including that of transport. Airlines have the flexibility to raise fares depending on demand, subject to a cap. And the Railways sets aside some seats for those willing to pay more, based on the knowledge that demand generally outdoes supply when it comes to train tickets.
In general, aggregators have helped customers - with more taxi options and reduced prices. There is evidence to suggest that drivers of taxis and autorickshaws who ply under an aggregator's brand earn more on an average than they would otherwise. There has also been substantial competition from domestic players in the aggregator market, allaying fears about monopoly operations by multinational players. Some regulations of course are both necessary and welcome. For instance, guidelines have been released by the Ministry of Road Transport to ensure that taxi commutes are safe and that aggregators cannot be owners of fleets unless registered as operators. Aggregators are part of the new economy; they use modern technology to disrupt the traditional, and often moribund, market. They have succeeded by bringing in efficiencies in both cost and convenience, which have been central to their popularity. Obtrusive regulation of these new players would work against the interests of both the commuter and the driver. Instead, governments can do more in the medium term to enhance options in terms of better modes of public transport, greater frequency of bus and metro services during rush hour and perhaps even adoption by mass transport of applications using similar algorithms to allow passengers to plan their commute better. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has invested significant political capital in the odd-even scheme. Tilting at windmills will not help. A more useful intervention would have been to enhance public awareness about how these algorithms work in commuters' favour, and at the most cap surge pricing to a predetermined multiple of the regular rate.