It is difficult not to notice a large number of scooter taxies operating even in the smaller cities of Indonesia facilitated by aggregators like GO-JEK or GRAB. Motor-cycle taxies have been operating there even before but the aggregators and the widespread use of apps for this purpose are part of the recent development. Most of the drivers are male but there is a small set of female drivers especially in big cities like Jakarta. However the customers or passengers are almost equally divided between males and females.

The benefits of such a transport solution are well known. Scooter taxies are cheaper compared to car or auto-rickshaws. It could be a little more expensive than public bus or share-vans (which is a common form of transport in Indonesia) but the former is a lot more flexible and can help save the time for the customer.  Moreover, the operation of an aggregator world enhance the capacity utilization of the fleet of scooters, and that may reduce the cost to the customer and possibly increase the revenue to the operator (through the increase in the number of trips per vehicle per day). This reduced cost would encourage more people to use these taxies and hence more people may become operators (and it may lead to an increase in employment). The easy availability of a scooter taxi, as and when it is needed through the aggregator, may reduce the number of private scooters or motor-cycles. This may discourage sections of people from buying/owning scooters for their own travel. Even those who cannot afford to buy/own a scooter can use it for transport. There could be some benefits for public transport as a whole due to the possible reduction of private vehicles.

Though cab-taxi aggregators have become common in India, scooter taxies (with or without aggregators) are not that common in the country. Ideally, India should have more of these taxies. The ownership of private motor-cycles and scooters is increasing in India. A major part of the road traffic in India is in the form of these private two-wheelers.

The absence of scooter taxies is hurting certain people in India. Who are they? As noted earlier, there may be some who cannot own a scooter but can afford to take a trip by a scooter-taxi. Similarly there are those who cannot afford hiring a cab but can hire a scooter taxi. A female or male software engineer can afford to hire a cab taxi in India. However a female garment-factory worker or a sales girl in a super-market is less likely to use a cab-taxi. Either they take the public bus which may require waiting for a substantial time and may be crowded during peak hours or may take the help of the husband/brother. These girls are less likely to own a private scooter. Such people could have benefitted (theoretically) from the availability of scooter taxies and their aggregators. The availability of this easier and cheaper transport would have encouraged (theoretically) many more girls to take up paid employment. In fact a major share of the users of scooter taxies in Indonesia is constituted by these kinds of workers. It can also help the male workers who are seeking a cheaper and quicker mode of transport. However such a transport that could have enhanced the easier mobility of a share of population (including girls from relatively poorer and lower-middle class families) is not functional in our country.

Is the lack of this service in India, a supply-related issue? In fact, India may have a greater tradition, expertise and capacity for the production of motor cycles and scooters. India exports these vehicles to many countries, possibly including Indonesia. India has much better capacity than Indonesia in terms of the software and back-office operations that are needed for a transport aggregator. Needless to mention that Indian software engineers must be manning globally the aggregator companies like Uber, Grab or even Go-Jek. Despite having these advantages in terms of supply, India may not have a scooter taxi aggregator in near future.

It is obvious that there must be demand-side issues. When I have told the GO-JEK story in Indonesia to my daughter who is riding a scooter to her office, her response is immediate: `it must be safe there’. This is one of the crucial issues. Many women in India may not find comfortable to be a co-passenger on a scooter driven by a stranger. There could be genuine concerns about safety here since sexual harassments even inside car-taxies are not that uncommon in India.

Travel by a scooter with a stranger is not socially acceptable for many girls especially those who come from rural areas. There is a need for a socially acceptable relationship (between the two passengers) to make such a travel normal in India. These social norms too, in addition to the concerns about safety, prevent girls from using a scooter taxi. This would reduce the share of girls willing to go for a scooter-taxi ride. This by itself can increase the probability of having an incident of sexual harassment (in a statistical sense).  The social norms and safety issues reinforce each other. Of course, the work participation rate of females is only around 25 percent in India, and the mobility issues influenced by social norms and safety concerns may have an important role. Such a lower rate would also reduce the demand for scooter-taxies.

These two factors work differently in Indonesia. Even before the arrival of aggregators, girls have used the motor-cycle taxies. The social norm which discourage a girl from travelling with a stranger is not that strong in the country. These are part of the other enabling conditions for girls in Indonesia, and some of these are described here.

There could be other issues as well. Are the issues related to class and caste preventing middle-class men from using scooter taxies driven by men from lower middle-class or poorer families (though the latter are acceptable as drivers in private cars)? The absence of a not strong middle in Indian economy and society could be yet another issue. There are many people who can pay 20-50 Rupees in a public bus, and there are those belonging to middle-class who can pay 200-300 Rupees for a cab ride. There are not many people in between who can afford to pay 50-80 Rupees for a scooter-taxi ride. This may be part of the overall failure of Indian economic growth discussed here. Is the possible physical touch between the driver and the passenger, somewhat socially unacceptable in our country due to the residuals of untouchability or due to the social `distance’ between the middle-class and the poor?

In essence, the presence and growth of GO-JEK in Indonesia and not in India represent two supply-demand equilibriums. The difference in these two situations is not much due to supply-related factors. However demand factors do play an important role. The equilibrium in India has negative implications.  A cheaper and more effective transport solution becomes unavailable to many people. It works against the easy mobility of ordinary people. It could have served as a liberating instrument for many girls enabling their participation in employment but that goal is not achieved in India.

The case of GO-JEK provides a couple of lessons. First, the level of economic activities – a concern of economists and others interested in economic growth – need not be shaped only by economic factors like investments or the easiness of doing business or how open the economy is or the availability of technology. There could be equally important non-economic factors. Needless to mention that the level of economic activities has implications on non-economic aspects of human welfare too.

This would mean that specific economic activities cannot be accelerated just by using one or other economic policy. There may be a need to work towards changing social norms and personal behavior. Economic policies may become ineffective in the absence of such a change in norms and behavior. It is also true that economic change may bring about certain changes in norms and behavior, but there is no chicken or egg issue here. We need to see these together as part of an equilibrium. Or there have to be changes on multiple fronts to move towards a higher level of a social and economic equilibrium.

There is also something important, in this story, for researchers and academics. Economists may not focus usually on non-economic factors either as determinants or implications of the level of economic activities. Non-economists (or other social scientists) may study these factors but they are less likely to connect these with the level of economic activity. This story indicates the need to understand the multiple dimensions of social reality even to understand a specific social or economic phenomenon. This is especially so if the research has a purpose to contribute to social change.