A 22-year-old freelance web designer was allegedly raped by a bike-taxi rider and his associate in Bengaluru on the intervening night of 24-25 November.
The police later found that the rider, 26-year-old Shahabuddin, had a criminal record, and Rapido — the Bengaluru-based app-based bike-taxi aggregator employing him when the alleged rape took place — was unaware of his previous arrest.
The accused had been working as a Rapido bike-taxi rider — whom the company refers to as “captains” — since 2019.
The Bannerghatta police arrested the man on charges of assault and criminal intimidation in January. He even spent a month in jail before getting bail and resuming his role as a Rapido captain.
In the wake of the rape and the police’s revelation of Shahbuddin’s criminal antecedents, South First took a look at Rapido’s hiring process.
Getting on board
Thirty-one-year-old Thyagaraju sought a friend’s help to join the online bike aggregator Rapido’s team as a captain.
He uploaded scanned copies of his photograph, Aadhaar card, driving licence, and the two-wheeler’s registration certificate to the Rapido app he had downloaded from the Google Play Store.
“Soon after the app was downloaded, it instructed me to keep the documents ready for registration. The app then asked to key in my phone number, after which an OTP was sent for confirmation,” Thyagaraju explained the process to South First.
Once the scanned copies were uploaded, he received a message saying that a Rapido executive would contact him.
“I got the call in less than two hours, welcoming me on board. The executive asked me to go through a video to get myself familiarised with Rapido’s work etiquette,” he said, adding that no questions were asked.
The video instructed Thyagaraju, now officially a “captain”, to always carry a spare helmet for the passenger, to be polite, always wear a mask, and never get into an argument.
Lacunae in verification process
A Rapido spokesperson told South First that the startup’s third-party backend operators check the rider’s criminal antecedents and the veracity of the submitted documents.
“Any person wishing to register with Rapido as a captain has to upload his Aadhaar card, driving licence, valid registration certificate of his vehicle, and bank details. The documents are verified at the backend through various government portals,” said the spokesperson.
“The process of verifying criminal antecedents is done through e-courts. There are agencies that help us do this since they have mined the data at e-courts for years and keep updating it and have created their own vaults/databases,” the spokesperson added.
If the backend operators raise any red flag, the rider is immediately offloaded from the platform, in a process that takes 24-48 hours, said Rapido.
Here, however, is a loophole. E-courts can check for a person’s criminal record only after a charge sheet is filed.
If a person is arrested in a criminal case and released on bail before the charge sheet is filed, Rapido doesn’t have a mechanism to check the individual’s antecedents.
It also does not conduct checks on its onboarded captains, like in the case of the rape-accused Shahabuddin.
“The captain involved in the recent unfortunate incident got onboarded in 2019 and his record then had no red flags. He was booked in a case early this year and we are exploring options to have a real-time criminal record check for all our captains,” the spokesperson said.
The co-accused in the rape case, Aftaab was also arrested earlier, when the police foiled a dacoity bid.
A few bad apples?
Bike taxis became popular as they are convenient and cost-effective, and can zip through Bengaluru’s heavy traffic.
Several riders joined the aggregators since they are paid a decent amount and are allowed flexible timings so they can work according to their convenience.
“Earn up to Rs 30K per month with zero registration fee with instant earning. Free insurance and more… . Flexible timings and services. Enable multiple services and work any time of the day,” the Rapido app said.
Thyagaraju and his friend Manjunath, also a captain, admitted that there are a few people among them who tarnish the image of the entire fleet of riders.
“The aggregator takes a 10 percent cut, and the remaining fare comes to us for every kilometre (point-to-point). If we have to ride an additional distance, the customer is charged ₹9 for every extra kilometre, and we get ₹7. If we work during peak demand hours, we get incentives, too,” Manjunath said.
The bikers often take a detour to avoid traffic blocks, he added.
“Most of us have taken up this job to earn a living. We earn around ₹800-1,200 daily. If we work during peak hours, we get incentives from app-based wallets, which also give cashback offers,” Manjunath said.
He added that they also deliver food and gadgets, and are in partnership with almost all online ecommerce portals in the city.
Rapido said it has approximately 89,000 riders registered with it as captains.
“All captains working with Rapido are independent contractors having a principal-to-principal relation with Rapido,” the spokesperson said.
The Karnataka Transport Department, meanwhile, has said that bike-taxis are illegal in the state.
Karnataka has a bike-taxi scheme, which allows electric two-wheelers as taxis. However, most bike-taxis in Bengaluru are petrol-powered private vehicles.
“What is happening is illegal, and we are constantly conducting drives [against it],” a senior Transport Department official told South First.
“Once we confirm that a bike is being operated as a taxi, we seize the vehicle and send a show-cause notice to the registered owner. The owner will have to pay a penalty and the vehicle’s registration certificate will be suspended for a period of time as decided by the regional transport officer,” he added.
The aggregators approached the high court after the transport department started cracking down on captains.
“The Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka has granted interim protection to Rapido and has directed state government, including transport and police departments, against initiating any coercive action against Rapido.
Similar orders have also been granted to Ola and Uber for operating two-wheelers in Bengaluru,” the Rapido spokesperson said.