What made Ola driver Mohan Babu try to kill himself?

S Prabhakaran February 23, 2017 11 min

Story Highlights

  • Drivers get daily targets and incentives schemes on their phone — and this could change every day, adding to the uncertainty
  • Till early 2016, Mohan Babu earned Rs 60,000 a month (before expenses) but his earnings have dipped and last month he made just Rs 20,000
  • Mohan had thought his drastic act would force Ola to listen to drivers and take some action that would benefit all of them

The night before he attempted to take his own life, Mohan Babu, a driver with Ola Cabs, was talking with his wife Kavya about his experience with app-based cab aggregators. He was not happy with the way drivers were being treated, he told Kavya.

That very evening (February 15), several cab unions had called for a strike and urged all drivers to switch off their mobile devices. Like several other drivers, Mohan agreed to follow the union leader’s suggestions. He switched his device off that evening. Later in the night, however, he switched it on and went out on the streets, but he failed to get any rides and returned home.

The drivers stood outside the Ola office and started raising slogans. Tempers were running high. There was a sense of frustration and anger over what they saw as Ola’s tepid response  

Next morning (February 16), Mohan started out early to join the protests against Ola at Maurya Circle (officially Anand Rao Circle) in central Bengaluru. He didn’t find anyone at the venue and thinking he was too early, he slept in the car for some time. Later in the day, he found out that the police had not given the drivers permission to protest at Maurya Circle or Freedom Park. Agitated with not getting a place to protest, the union had decided to march to Ola’s fleet office at Murugeshpalya in Bengaluru.

At this point, Mohan was completely dejected and dispirited. He had not eaten the entire day. He did not believe there would be a resolution between the company and the drivers. Just before leaving for Murugeshpalya, he bought a bottle of phenol from a shop near the Majestic Bus Terminus. He carried it with him to Ola’s office.

Some drivers suddenly raised a cry when they realised that Mohan Babu had taken out his bottle of phenol and taken several big gulps, collapsing on the ground soon after  

The drivers stood outside the office and started raising slogans. Tempers were running high. There was a sense of frustration and anger over what they saw as Ola’s tepid response. In the middle of all this, some drivers suddenly raised a cry when they realised that Mohan Babu had taken out his bottle of phenol and taken several big gulps, collapsing on the ground soon after. He was rushed to the nearby Manipal Hospital, and later shifted to the Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS).

A life of uncertainty and stress

The doctors at the hospital feel Mohan was brought in right on time. A doctor from the hospital who is aware of the incident told FactorDaily that Mohan’s condition was acute but not critical. He was stabilised immediately. Although he had injured his food pipe and the corrosive phenol had affected his stomach lining, his condition, after a few hours, was stable.

Police officers from Jeevan Bima Nagar police station met Mohan at KIMS hospital a day after the incident to record his statement. Allah Bakash, a police constable and a writer from the station, “I wanted to know if Mohan had attempted suicide of his will or if he was coerced to do it. However, he confessed to the police that it was his decision and nobody had provoked him.”

I met him a few days after his suicide attempt, while he was still in hospital. He was lying down on a metal bed and talking to me. When I asked him why he had taken the drastic measure — other drivers were going through the same thing. He told me about the stress he was under.

Mohan Babu at Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences. He was discharged on Sunday

Mohan’s earnings started dipping three-four months ago. For the past two months, he’s been under severe financial strain, worrying about making ends meet. He stays in a one-bedroom house in Peenya, about 15km from the central business district of Bengaluru, with his wife Kavya, 28, their four-year-old son Darshan, and his elderly parents. He pays Rs 4,500 as the monthly rent. He was worried about how he would take care of his family.

“Till early 2016, I was happy with the money I was earning — about Rs 60,000 a month (before expenses). But, over the past few months, my earnings (before expenses) dipped steadily till last month I made just Rs 20,000” — Mohan Babu  

He had started driving for Ola a little more than a year ago, before which he was working as an operator in a company that manufactured caps for wine bottles. Like many others, he was tempted by the lucrative earnings Ola and Uber drivers reportedly made in the city. In late 2015, he decided to quit his job. Since he couldn’t afford the downpayment to buy a car, a relative bought him a Tata Indica, for which he pays an EMI of Rs 15,000 per month.

“Till early 2016, I was happy with the money I was earning — about Rs 60,000 a month (before expenses). After paying all car expenses such as EMI, fuel, and maintenance, I would have about Rs 35,000 in hand. But, over the past few months, my earnings (before expenses) dipped steadily till last month they went down to Rs 20,000,” said Mohan.

When I tried speaking to Kavya all she could say was that she was shocked over her husband’s act. She later walked out of the hospital.

A steep earning curve

Ola and Uber incentivise their drivers for completing a certain number of rides, apart from what they earn from the trips (of which they give a share to the aggregator). Over the last two years, the incentive structures have changed. Also, the incentives are highly variable. Drivers get daily targets and incentives schemes on their phone — and this could change from one day to another, adding to the uncertainty. They can’t be sure of taking home a certain amount every day. Some drivers I spoke to also said that the structures vary from driver to driver, making it difficult for one to assess his income by extrapolating it from data shared by others.

Drivers get daily targets and incentives schemes on their phone — and this could change from one day to another, adding to the uncertainty. They can’t be sure of taking home a certain amount every day  

Out of 10 drivers we spoke to for this story, each one explained a different incentive structure. The closest to an average we could arrive at is this: till mid-2016, Ola and Uber drivers could easily make around Rs 60,000 a month. But in the past three-four months, drivers have been struggling to make even half of this.

Mohan says when he joined Ola, he used to get an incentive of Rs 6,800 for doing 12 trips a day. He would do around 10-12 rides a day easily, making about Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000. A year later, he still does 10-12 trips a day, but with a lot more challenges and much lesser money.

A shattered windscreen on February 16, the day drivers protested outside the Ola office in Bengaluru

The number of cabs on roads has increased. Drivers now struggle to get rides. Traffic in the city is forever on the rise. As per Transport Department of Karnataka, the average speed in Bengaluru is 9km/hr. At this pace, completing 10 or more rides in Bengaluru is a challenging task.

However, most of the drivers FactorDaily spoke to said they still manage to complete at least 10 rides a day. But, unlike last year, incentives have been slashed by Ola. Now, on completion of 12 rides a day, the driver gets a commission of Rs 3,700.

Out of 10 drivers we spoke to for this story, each one explained a different incentive structure. The closest to an average we could arrive at is this: till mid-2016, Ola and Uber drivers made about Rs 60,000 a month. But in the past three-four months, they have been struggling to make even half of this  

Recently, Ola once again changed its incentive schemes. Now they ask drivers to give a minimum business guarantee (MBG) which means that irrespective of the time taken and the number of trips made, the driver has to get business of a certain amount. Last week, Mohan was asked to run up a bill of Rs 3,500 every day, on which he was promised a bonus of Rs 7,500. He took about 18 hours to achieve the target. He did not go home that day, rested in the car and ate wherever he could.

When Ola started operations in late 2010 and its rival Uber in 2012, they roped in a large number of drivers luring them with high incentives. For obvious reasons, they wanted to grow their fleet sizes. Companies offered these drivers the opportunity to join as “partners” and earn more than Rs one lakh a month. They even introduced schemes where a driver could lease a car from the aggregator for a downpayment as low as Rs 35,000, charging drivers 10% commission on their trip billing.

When Ola started operations in late 2010 and its rival Uber in 2012, they offered these drivers the opportunity to join as “partners” and earn more than Rs one lakh a month  

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was not unheard of for professionals working with well-known companies to quit their jobs and join Uber or Ola. Some of them actually made more than Rs 1 lakh a month initially. Once the fleets grew to a significant size and more drivers joined, the companies reduced the incentives and increased the commission to 20%-25%.

“Now I struggle to even make Rs 20,000 a month. Incentives have become very low. Commission has increased. Companies have started penalising us for every small thing. Whether or not it is our mistake, penalties are deducted from our account,” says Mohan. “In a city like Bangalore, how do you live on such little much money,” he adds, tears in his eyes.

According to Uber’s incentive plan for February 20, 2017, drivers were given an ‘extra earning’ of Rs 600 for making 12 trips a day. The companies give these incentives only to drivers who complete at least a few trips during peak hours, when the demand for cabs is high.

“Ola is in the business of cab aggregation. And since it is a business, it obviously needs to make money, which is why it is reducing incentives and charging higher commissions,” an Ola official said in a meeting held between drivers and officials from the transport department.

He thought his act would benefit all drivers

At the hospital, Mohan explained to me why he took such a drastic step. “I had mixed thoughts. I thought if I did this, the companies would be forced to listen to us and take some action that would benefit all the drivers,” he said.

But why was he being the crusader? “I haven’t paid my car EMI for the last two months. My relative who bought me the car has been paying it. The anxiety of not being able to provide for my family, slogging day and night and injustice by these companies got me emotional. I am sure several drivers want to do the same thing. Our lives are at stake,” said Mohan.

“I had mixed thoughts. I thought if I did this, the companies would be forced to listen to us and take some action that would benefit all the drivers” — Mohan Babu  

Mohan has two siblings. His younger brother too drives for Ola. But when he was signing up, Mohan urged his brother Sunil to lease a car from Ola itself. The idea was to get more rides and higher incentives. However, his brother faced the same situation of declining rides and earnings.

Recently, Mohan’s wife Kavya decided to support her husband financially. She joined a garment factory in Peenya as a helper, making about Rs 5,000 a month. When I asked her about their family life, she couldn’t stop crying — she said he was constantly working and hardly spent any time at home.

Mohan said he had no idea who was taking care of his medical expenses. Later, I found out it was Kiran Gowda and Tanvir Pasha, both senior leaders of the Karunadu Cabs Association, who had paid the initial medical expenses. On Saturday, some Ola executives visited Mohan and promised to reimburse all his medical bills.

“I have learnt my lesson. Whatever happens, I will never do anything like this again” — Mohan Babu  

Mohan’s is the story of most cab drivers. Tough days spent in the city’s insane traffic, racing against time to meet targets, poor quality of life, uncertainty about income, and an inability to plan ahead — because in the gig economy, you never know how the gig is going to turn out.

“I have learnt my lesson. Whatever happens, I will never do anything like this again,” says Mohan.

Mohan was discharged on Sunday. After a few days rest, he is back on Bangalore streets today, once again protesting and demanding these companies to address driver demands.

Ola representatives refused to comment on the incident. FactorDaily is trying to contact concerned police officers for their view of the matter and we will update the story as soon as we hear from them.

Also read:

Ola’s culture problem

Uber says will not stop ride-sharing services in Bengaluru, starts online petition


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