If you're outside India and have read about the ban on Uber cabs in Delhi, it's likely that you'd think the taxi-riding app is out of business in the country. Currently in Delhi for my research work, I've been able to successfully hire Uber cabs for my travel needs without any hassle, making me wonder if the ban makes any sense at all.
Despite the Delhi government's ban on taxi-riding apps following the alleged rape of a 27-year-old woman by an Uber driver in December last year, cabs affiliated to the company and its rival Ola are very much on the roads offering rides to thousands of commuters every day. This ban, like several others in India, is confined to paper. Cops have impounded a few cabs for operating despite the ban but that hasn't deterred Uber and Ola from expanding their base in the rest of the country.
Bans have become the default reaction of the state and Central governments whenever something goes wrong. Be it Uber for compromising on the safety of its passengers or Maggi for its excessive lead content, bans have come to be the government's one-stop solution to diffuse all controversies. But the big question governments need to answer is-- have they been successful in enforcing these bans?
"The continuing success of Uber in India leads us back to the question we must ask of our government--why ban something when you can't implement it?"
In the case of the Uber, they clearly haven't. The Delhi Transport Board and traffic police are still sparring on sharing the responsibility of enforcing the ban. The idea of being able to hire a cab at one-fifth the cost of a regular taxi at short-notice is an extremely enticing prospect for commuters. Though safety remains a concern, most don't see rape as a problem of Uber alone, which is why the app-based taxi service is thriving in other Indian metros despite the bad press and ban in Delhi.
The continuing success of Uber in India leads us back to the question we must ask of our government--why ban something when you can't implement it? A ban is only as good as its enforcement. With barely enough resources to manage its existing challenges, the Central and State governments are in no position to enforce all the myriad bans they impose on things ranging from beef and liquor consumption to controversial movies and books.
There are several examples in India that illustrate the inefficacy of bans. Take, for instance, Delhi's ban on the sale of liquor for youngsters below the age of 25. According to the Delhi Excise Act, 2009 , sale of alcohol to a minor is considered an offence and can invite a penalty of Rs 10,000. But how often do we hear of action against bars and liquor stores for serving liquor to customers below the age of 25?
Then there is the ban on smoking in public places. It was prohibited nationwide from 2 October 2008. Failing to comply would mean a fine of Rs 200 under section-IV of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act-2003. But walk on the streets of any major Indian city and you'll find people smoking in public at any given point of time. The Health Ministry, which never bothered to enforce the ban, now proposes to increase the fine for smoking in public to Rs 1000.
"It is imperative for governments to believe in the wisdom of their citizens in making their personal choices. In a truly free society, a ban must become the last resort and not the first reaction."
Then there was the case of the saucy Hollywood movie Fifty Shades of Grey. The Censor board blocked the release of this movie citing sexually explicit content as a justification. Though in this case, the ban was strictly enforced, it didn't yield the desired results because thousands of young people watched the pirated version of the movie online. Similarly, in the case of Bollywood movie Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the Censor Board asked for the removal of the word "lesbian" from the film. In a country which boasts of free speech, how can officials ban a word from a movie? Does the Censor Board hope that a ban on the word "lesbian" will prevent a woman from becoming one?
State and Central governments have been using bans as a medium to address problems without giving alternate solutions a fair chance. For instance, the reaction to the rape by an Uber driver should have been to mandate the firm to come up with a comprehensive mechanism to conduct background searches of the drivers they hire. Similarly, the Kerala government should have taken up a sustained media campaign on the ill-effects of alcohol consumption rather than banning liquor completely. Such campaigns and efforts have longer lasting results leading up to a change in public attitudes.
In their urge to appear proactive and silence media criticism, administrations ban products, events, books, businesses and services without putting a comprehensive strategy in place on enforcing them. Most bans therefore end up becoming redundant. As evidenced through the examples of Uber and underage drinking, bans are not implementable because governments use them as a means of tiding over the initial phase of public outrage and conveniently forget about it when the controversy cools down. It is imperative for governments to believe in the wisdom of their citizens in making their personal choices. In a truly free society, a ban must become the last resort and not the first reaction.