Bengaluru: About the size of a small garage, the cream-walled room looks just like a government office: Shelves piled high with paperwork, an old desktop computer, a printer, and a group of men busy tapping at their phones. But these men are not officials — they are tech-savvy auto drivers who hope to take on ride-hailing behemoths like Uber, Ola, and Rapido with their own homegrown app, called Namma Yatri (Our Traveller).
“The app has been downloaded over 50,000 times and we already have around 10,000 drivers,” said Rudramurthy, the general secretary of Bengaluru’s Auto Rickshaw Drivers Union (ARDU). He’s the resident expert in the room, helping fellow drivers enter data into the app and clarifying their doubts.
The app’s beta version was launched on 1 November, Karnataka Day, and auto drivers claim they are averaging nearly 1,000 rides a day, which may not be a huge number but is much higher than when they started.
Their main aim, the drivers say, is to “win back” customers and to earn better without the “deductions” imposed on their earnings by multi-billion-dollar valuation-driven startups.
“When Ola and Uber came in, they visited auto stands and onboarded us with free mobiles, data, and incentives… in the beginning, it was as high as Rs 1,000 on completion of 10 rides,” said auto driver Govindraj H.J. “But as the years went by, these companies started to charge more commission than the actual fare of the ride, which benefited neither the rider nor the driver.” The hope now is that via an app without an intermediary, drivers as well as customers will benefit.
Autos have of late been a matter of heated debate in Karnataka. After allegations of exploitative fares and “high commission fees”, the state government barred ride-hailing apps from offering auto services last month. The state high court has since stayed the ban, but has capped the convenience fee charged by aggregators at 10 per cent until the government and other stakeholders reach a decision on fixing fares for app-based autos.
Meanwhile, the auto drivers’ union decided to take take matters into its own hands by emulating the mobility startups that have contributed to the city’s reputation as the technology hub of Asia — but with a different business model altogether.
How Namma Yatri came together
Having tried in vain for several years to “build” their own app, the auto rickshaw union drew inspiration from an app-based ride service run by drivers in Kochi, Kerala.
To create a similar decentralised open-mobility service in Bengaluru, they turned to the central government’s nascent Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), an inclusive platform that seeks to level the playing field in e-retail by providing opportunities to small businesses with advanced technology.
With support from the Nandan Nilekani-led nonprofit Foundation for Interoperability in Digital Economy (FIDE, formerly Beckn Foundation), which provides an open source protocol to “build digital infrastructure as a public good”, the app was developed by a Bengaluru-based company, which requested not to be named for this report.
A person closely involved in the development of Namma Yatri said that the app is part of efforts by organisations like FIDE to build “mobility as a digital public good”— in essence, the building of digital infrastructure for use by everybody.
Further, the app will have interoperability as a feature, with the possibility of other modes of transport — including metro rail, buses, and taxis — being part of the platform; the aim is to provide end-to-end mobility or “trip stitching”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior executive closely involved in the development of the software said that the app will not operate under a “monolithic infrastructure”, wherein a company controls the platform, drivers, and business. Instead, it will create an open mobility network as part of “digital public infrastructure”.
But who will pay the app’s operating costs? According to the source cited above, the drivers will pay a nominal amount to use the software, but this will be a fixed daily fee rather than a per-ride commission — which is what most aggregators extract from drivers.
A significant portion of the cost goes towards the use of Google Maps, which can charge as much as $18 (about Rs 1,500) per 1000 searches.
“Good tech comes with good people and at a premium. Our goal is not to transfer this to a poor auto driver, but we are building this out as a SaaS (software as a service) model,” the source said. “We intend to charge them Rs 40-50 per day but this pricing is not scientific.”
“We are still testing the app and this is pretty much an evolving piece of tech,” he added.
‘Built-in mechanism for good behaviour’
The Namma Yatri app is currently available for download on Android devices. Any person with the app can book an auto rickshaw by entering the pickup and drop locations. The app notifies around 10 drivers within a 1.5 km radius and the options are shared with the customer or “rider”.
“The way this open mobility works, essentially, is that the drivers are in control. There is a government-regulated fare plus Rs 10 for the pick-up charge. The driver will eventually have the option to charge anywhere between Rs 10 and Rs 30, depending on the distance to the customer, to offset the pick-up cost,” said Satya Arikutharam, an independent urban mobility consultant.
In Karnataka, auto rickshaw prices were revised in 2020, after a period of six years, to Rs 30 minimum and Rs 15 per km. Previously, prices were at Rs 25 minimum and Rs 13 per km. The price of auto gas has gone up from around Rs 54 in 2013-14 to around Rs 65 today.
However, despite these guidelines, Karnataka and fare pricing have had a tumultuous equation. The onset of technology-driven and customer-centric solutions gave rise to competitive pricing, in which companies would discount and incentivise their services and reward drivers to edge out the competition.
But over time, these incentives to drivers and discounted prices to customers were gradually reduced, leaving both dependent on these companies and paying more for the same services.
Could Namma Yatri also succumb to similar pitfalls? According to Arikutharam, this is not likely.
“The app contains an inbuilt mechanism for good behaviour,” he said. “They will be [using the app] in the knowledge that they are competing with a pool of drivers. And if they consistently charge higher, their rating will also reduce,” he said.
He added that such “digital ownership”, in which the drivers will pay for SaaS, will negate the need for an aggregator and lead to reduction in the cost of delivery for these services.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)