The iconic yellow taxis of Kolkata that are dwindling in numbers and fighting for survival after the introduction of app-based cabs may get a new lease of life with the launch of the West Bengal government’s new app — Yatri Sathi.
With Yatri Sathi, a brainchild of the Department of Information Technology & Electronics, the West Bengal government, intends to bring all the yellow taxis in Kolkata under one umbrella where passengers could pay directly to the drivers with no surge charge, no commission or middlemen involved.
The government has initiated the service at “no profit, no loss” mode, and a small amount will be charged – Rs 10-12 per ride — app from the driver as maintenance charge.“This app connects drivers and passengers without any platform charges. So far, more than 22,000 cabs are on board, including yellow taxis. More than 5 lakh people have already downloaded the application. The app is recording 5,000 average rides daily. The drivers on board are Aadhaar-verified and they go through a certain level of background check,” IG (Traffic) Sukesh Jain said.
Launching the app on Monday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said it would be of great help to the people.
In its three-month pilot project phase, the app completed over 4 lakh rides with 21,000 listed vehicles on board.
“The large-scale rollout of this app will benefit both the drivers and the passengers. Not only will it help the yellow taxi get a new lease of life, but it will help passengers book cabs at a reasonable rate,” said Asim Bose, general secretary of the Bengal Taxi Association (BTA).
“Every year 600-700 yellow taxis are going out off the road. Private platforms like Ola and Uber are taking commissions, and making money. They take exorbitant amount of money in the name of surge charge, as high as 30 to 40 per cent. Also, a high commission. For example, if someone is making Rs 250 a ride, the private apps take Rs 100. If a taxi runs for 4 km, it gets Rs 64. But under Yatra Sathi, the taxi drivers will get Rs 110 approximately. It is also cheaper for passengers… It is a very positive move, keeping in pace with the changing times,” added Bose, who is also a councillor of the ruling Trinamool Congress.
“Our union welcomes the initiative to save the taxi trade and protect them from being exploited by foreign companies like Ola, and Uber. Since this app is regulated by the government, there is no risk of unfair financial transactions and wrongful financial manipulation,” said Naval Kishore Shrivastava, convenor of the West Bengal Taxi Operators’ Co-ordination Committee (AITUC) and secretary of the National Federation of Indian Road Transport Workers.
The increased popularity of app-based cabs, Covid-19 lockdown and other transport-related restrictions forced many yellow taxi drivers to quit their businesses. After the pandemic, many yellow taxi drivers sold their cars to make ends meet. According to an estimate, the number of yellow taxis in Kolkata dipped from 18,000 in pre-pandemic times to a mere 6,000 today, while the total number of app-based white cabs could be six times more, around 36,000 in a city where 1 lakh rides take place every day on average.
“The new app will be a blessing in disguise for the yellow taxi drivers who are slowly going out of business,” said an official.
Rambali Das, a Jharkhand resident who has been driving a yellow taxi for the last 15 years in Kolkata, said the Yatri Sathi app has given him some hope. “Earlier, after dropping one passenger, we had to drive for another a kilometre or so without any passenger to get another ride. Now that will be resolved if more and more people start using the new app. Also, every other app takes huge commissions from drivers. Here, whatever the passenger pays will come into our pocket. There will be no fight over the fares since there will be a standard rate chart beneficial for both the drivers and passengers,” said Das.
Sanjay Kumar Yadav, 43, said he bought a new mobile phone for Rs 15,000 to use the Yatri Sathi app. “Yellow taxi doesn’t assure any profit. Sometimes, we earn Rs 300-400 a day. With rising fuel prices and the cost of maintenance, we are left with no money. I have been using this app since July… I get 8-10 rides daily on average and I can already see the difference. It is a government app. Therefore, it is secure and reliable and also doesn’t charge huge commissions from us. I hope this app will instil some hope in yellow taxi drivers,” said Yadav.
It was back in 2016 that the Bengal Taxi Association (BTA) had given the proposal to the state transport department to introduce such an app. It was followed by a series discussions and consultations with leading tech companies.
Expanding the service to inter-city is also in the pipeline of this project.
“We want safe ride for customers and safe ride for the drivers too… Our purpose is to provide cheap, comfortable and safe transportation beneficial for both customers and the drivers,” said IG (Traffic) Sukesh Jain.
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The app has been designed by Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) which is providing technical support to the state for its seamless execution. However, the app needs some improvement, which the government and its technical team will look into them.
While the app has now been made mandatory at railway stations and airports, many senior citizens are having a tough time booking a cab. “I was standing in the queue of the prepaid taxi at Sealdah railway station, but was told that I could book one after I downloaded the Yatri Sathi app. It took me 20 minutes to download the app. Even after an OTP is generated, we had to wait as there are not an adequate number of taxis under the app,” said Ashish Thakur.
“They need to work on their navigation,” said Hooghly resident Suparna Das. “Also, yellow taxi drivers are known for refusing customers. Even on this app, they do so. They should work on these areas to make more people use it,” she added.