Why Mumbai needs Meru? And, why there’s more to it than meets the eye?

On Feb 4th, major newspapers in Mumbai carried a fervent (and a rather long one as well) appeal from Meru Cabs, asking the lay public for support, something that went like, we served you now, support us. Saying it in short, the ad talked about how hoodlum practices had forced the company to stop its operation and how in spite of almost all the drivers wishing to return to work, they were not let to, by a “handful of people with ulterior motives”. At the end, there was a business plea, to let a corporation carry out its business unhindered by political machinations.


For many of us in Mumbai, the current Meru fracas is certainly not a new one. Over the past year or two, it has become a regular affair. Over some trifle issue or the other, the olive-green taxis will be off the road, and after some reconciliation they will be back. Only for the same cycle to repeat all over again. In fact, the ad itself mentioned that the company has suffered such “strikes” 6 times in the past two years. None of the competitors, the Mega, the Easy or the Tabs, have faced such issues. So, what exactly is the company doing so wrong that it’s facing such backlash again and again?

Curiosity finally, got the better of me, and I started Googling on the subject and asking my friends in the industry to find out how and why things had come to such a pass. And here’s how the story unfolded. Starting off in this very city of Mumbai in 2007, Meru today is India’s largest radio taxi operator and world’s 3rd largest company, operating some 5500 cabs in metros like Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, in addition to Mumbai. Statistically, Meru serves more than a million passengers a month; executing over 20,000 trips on a daily basis (it even holds a Limca Book of Records for the same).

Now, just as Redmond is synonymous with Microsoft or Atlanta with Coca-Cola, or even closer home how Bangalore is synonymous with Infosys, Mumbai and Meru have an intrinsic connection. In fact, it should be a matter of pride for all of us that in a short course of half-dozen years, a start-up from the city attained such success that it was even featured in WSJ or even as a Wharton case-study. Meru’s success is symbolic of Mumbai’s entrepreneurial acumen, where if you have a great idea and a determined will nothing can come in the way to success. Except possibly for politically-aligned trade unions.

Time for flashback. When Meru started operations back in 2007, we Mumbaikars were completely at the mercy of the city cabs (referred locally as kaali-peeli). Hyper-inflated bills, rowdy behaviour, rash driving, and others were all the calling cards of the kaali-peeli. Commuters were helpless in front of these cab-wallahs, who ran according to a writ of their own. In this mire, appears Meru, a professional run-taxi operator, that delivers a swanky sedan at your door, with a civil driver and a mechanism to ensure no over-charging. While over the years, Meru added a lot many features to their cabs, like web-booking, credit-card payment, etc., the earlier 3 were its only USP.

Little wonder, in a short period of time Meru was ferrying customers up and down the island city and people were readily changing their travel patterns, namely start planning in advance rather than ad hoc yelling Taxi–Taxi on the roads. The other big thing that worked in Meru’s favour was the security factor. Ladies could travel late and safe, one could forget even laptops and recover it (I did my smart-phone). Predictability brought with it a sense of security. And while Kolkata had got the Metro first, and Delhi the swanky roads, Mumbai had the first radio taxis in the country and Mumbaikars simply loved it.

Seeing the success of Meru, more operators jumped into the fray. In a very short while, the sector was buzzing in business, numerous operators, numerous hoardings, numerous short-codes and numerous other things. And when there is so much of numerous’ity in terms of meaty-prey how can you keep the hyenas away? Come they did, in a large flock and decided to hound and bite the poster-boy of this business, which incidentally was Meru.

meru2I vividly recall one-day some 2 year back, when boarding the olive-green sedan from my home I spotted a familiar roaring-tiger sticker on the back of the car. Born and brought up in this city, I was much familiar with this tiger, and somehow while sitting comfortably in the car, I could but not help dread that things won’t be hunky-dory anymore. And they certainly were not.

Apparently, Shiv Sena — another of Mumbai’s political-prenuerial success — started a union at Meru, even when it wasn’t recognised or supposed so, as the drivers were not company employees at all. It got together a few politically aligned drivers, and unleashed its strong-arm tactics. Over some issue or the other, it would call out a strike. Caring little for the 1000 more drivers that made an honest living from this business. But then it had an axe to grind, who cares about hungry mouths, or unpaid fees?

Now, calling a strike and enforcing it in Mumbai is a pretty old sport. Consider this, there is a bandh called, and you run a shop or travel in a car. If perchance, you went against the tide, did not follow the diktats and opened your shop or took out your car. As not many shops will be open or cars plying, the possibility of you being spotted and waylaid by a few bandh-enforcers is pretty high. Now for this small bravery, the cost could be as high as a damaged shop or a vandalised car. Certainly not worth the risk. Result: we Mumbaikars are cowering bandh-lovers.

Something similar happened to Meru as well, and while it was just a few that called and enforced the strike, it effected the whole operations of the company. The professional management, even though it was completely unwilling, was forced to the negotiation table and coerced into some concessions. The union-wallahs were elated with the success. And so, it set off a frequent chain. On some issue or the other, a strike would be called, some cars vandalised, negotiations done, operations resume and then again. Not just that, sniffing an opportunity other political outfits or “social welfare” (one led by the son of Maharashtra government minister) groups jumped into the fray. Result, when one group was not waving a red flag, the other one was hurling a stone.

In this entire fracas, Meru from being the city’s most dependable and trusted service, slipped down on the commuter’s trusted list. One wasn’t sure anymore that by just calling on 44224422, one could get an olive-green cab. Over a period of time, from being the first choice, Meru slipped to being a hallowed backup. The other operators, since they did not have the necessary numbers could not match up to the demand. Thus in small time-frame of few years, the radio-cab business was becoming a victim of its own success and collapsing down. It almost seemed that the era of the kaali-peeli would be back.

But then, there was a small twist, instead of the olive green there appeared a knight in red & white. One fine day, we the Mumbaikar’s woke up to the Tab Cabs. These were swankier Toyota Etios boasting of the same efficiency and same fares. And there would be little hassle as the promoting company had the right lineage and the right connections. The company behind Tab Cabs , SMS cabs is owned by the Sancheti Family, the BJP Bigwig and Nitin Gadkari’s pal. The company is also apparently backed by the Vasai-Virar strongman Hitendra Thakur, whose son is a director. And then there’s the NCP MLA Dilip Mohite, another director. And finally the MD is Jagdish Purohit, who was apparently an associate of Satej Patil, the state-level Congress Minister. Thus, Tab Cabs is a very unique collaborative effort, between the BJP, Congress, and NCP. Little wonder then, it did not face any hurdles or troubles that plagued Meru.meru3

After all, how could Meru — a corporate-entity backed by a venture capital funds (IVFA) that was invested in by HDFC, Ambit Corporate Finance, investment bank Impala Partners, along with Gary Wendt, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric Capital Corporation — face up to the hooliganism of Mumbai’s political class. Meanwhile, its competitor not only got all the clearances in a jiffy but faced none of the goondaism. Little wonder, the olive-green was overshadowed by the red and white. An entrepreneurial corporate entity was brought down on its knees by political machination of the worst sort. So, when another strike was called some days back, the operations were yet again shut down.

In this light, Meru’s advert, an appeal for support makes most sense. The management is now at the end of its tether, it’s a do or die for them, and they have taken the fight to the very public that once loved and hailed them. By taking it public, through ads, social media, the company is in fact pleading for a level-playing field. It is asking the public for support, so it can face up to the high-handedness. The prey is now turning the tables, and making one last stance. One can almost hear the Meru yell, enough is finally enough.

I really don’t know how the game will play out; whether Meru will survive this crisis, negotiate again with the ‘strikers’, shut-down operations, or what? What I do know is that, were the city to lose Meru (because of any other reasons except business), it would be a big setback for Mumbai. It will be a chilling reminder to all, that the days of yore when an Ambani, Bachchan or Tendulkar could create an empire with nothing more than their own will-power, were well and over. In this city of dreams, where millions pursue their dreams, excellence was no more a guarantor of success. It’s only the well-connected, the political-backed, the proctectees that could succeed in this city. A business run on ethics and professionalism would not be able to function any more. Meru’s loss will be that omen.

And hence, for this and very this reason, Meru needs be saved. Meru is symbolic of Mumbai’s dynamism and entrepreneurship. A place, where it does not matter who you are or where you from, except that you believe in your own self and your ideas. Mumbai, wasn’t called a city of dreams for nothing, it really was. Sadly, there are signs that this dream might be turning into a nightmare. And all we need is to look around for the fast-disappearing olive green to remind us of that.


Images used in this blog have been randomly downloaded from the Web, I own no copyright on them

27 thoughts on “Why Mumbai needs Meru? And, why there’s more to it than meets the eye?

  1. Pingback: Not a Meru fan but will defend their right to do business….

  2. I agree with you..in fact I was hoping the Meru team would come with the idea of Mero autos too.I am tired of being bullied to the frequent whimsical fancies of autowallahs..They behave so., because in a city like Mumbaithey know we cant do without them..Dont lose heart guys
    .show interest to get back and we will support U..

  3. The simplest solution, which all the ambani’s to other big businessmen do – and which the suits in Meru didn’t think of : getting one of the political strongmen into the Meru ownership chain. May not be the shining way to do it, but better than bankruptcy.

  4. I have been following up the Meru and transport industry in Mumbai and infact was there for the launch. Meru the second company to be a part of the Maharashtra government’s Fleet Taxi Scheme 2006. The first one was Mega Cabs that shut shop.

    The union at Meru was formed by Congress minister Narayan Rane’s son who runs the Swabhimaan Sanghatana. He has been reportedly fighting for the cause of Meru drivers and causing all the problems.

  5. Politics will always try to subvert the genuine entrepreneur and the enterprise to its own gain.We should all be vocal in support to Meru and all such political victims.

  6. Thank you for this article.

    The truth used to describe Mumbai’s “city of dreams” tag has so much evidence behind it. Every person in every organization in Mumbai; be it a business or service, knows that their dreams, excellence & hard work come second to he so called “Pehchaan” or influence.

    The fate of which this city eventually end up is more likely to make for an exciting, ticket selling bollywood movie script, than that of a harbour of fulfillment for the educated class’ labour.

  7. I have never been able to take a Meru cab.

    Not that I’ve not tried. I stay at Andheri E and have called on at least 3 occasions for a drop to the airport. All cabs busy. A minute later, calling from another number, they are prepared to give me a cab to Taj Hotel, at the same time.

    Go figure.

  8. The only one solution I have for this is impose a blanket ban on Politicians or their kin entering into any business….this is the only sacrifice a politician has to make as he or she is supposed to serve the country and must look beyond such gains!! If these guys are involved anywhere you have a huge mess. Customers should teach them a lesson by using only Meru cabs to the extent possible.

  9. I truly dislike this article. While the concern it raises are correct. I have always found that MERU cabs were the worse in operation. One particular time the driver was so rude that i got off half way and hailed a kaali peeli. On complaint the Meru folks at the phones would just not tell me what action they would take against him. Other times there were various other issues such as not reaching on time, overcharging on wait time, not giving a receipt, not confirming the booking for a 5 am flight in the morning, not turning up for morning flights. Overall MERU’s management lacked the customer service at heart. So why should customers get kind on them now. The problem is corporate or political all organisations in India treat customers like shit primarily because of the demand supply gap….Seriously no sympathy for MERU.

  10. Isn’t the IPL vs ICL issue the same thing? ICL started the concept in India but BCCI realising the money-making potential usurped the idea, and in effect banned the ICL destroying the careers of many players like Shane Bond. I personally don’t follow the IPL for that reason and wished more people would do the same.

  11. Thank you for this post. A lot of people need to read about this and I have posted it on my Twitter feed and FB. I hope others do too and this issue gets as much coverage as possible.

  12. Pingback: An Apology, and a Promise. | Not Just The Talks.

  13. Time for flashback. When Meru started operations back in 2007, we Mumbaikars were completely at the mercy of the city cabs (referred locally as kaali-peeli). Hyper-inflated bills, rowdy behaviour, rash driving, and others were all the calling cards of the kaali-peeli. Commuters were helpless in front of these cab-wallahs, who ran according to a writ of their own.

    Really? Didn’t you get a bit carried away? I lived in Mumbai for several years, and I have to disagree with you here. (I will not debate whether politics got behind Meru or not — very likely it did if you have researched well — but it makes no sense for this article to act so unreasonable).

  14. While I must appreciate your interest in such a subject, I feel that your article is misleading, half-baked and flawed. You fail to look into the reasons why the drivers would be compelled to strike.

    Politically-backed unions exists, of course. But, your piece fails to realise that these unions can only fester discontent which is brewing in the drivers. You must speak with drivers and know some of the conditions that they are compelled to work under. Some of their demands, be it of leave or of not being made to pay Meru a fixed sum even when the car is under repair in the MERU WORKSHOP itself, are quite valid. To dismiss all this as just political gimmickry is dangerous.

    The truth is that the State’s Fleet taxi policy doesn’t have solid provisions to protect the interests of drivers. Meru, for all your sympathies, remains a corporate group which has solid funding sources and not a start-up with limited resources. Hence, the battle between its drivers and the management has to be looked at from such a prism, rather than such a black-and-white approach.

  15. If meru’s service was half as good….it would not be in this situation. So many times my drop to the airport was cancelled last minute…..complaints raised were not answered….i have no sympathy for them.

  16. Loved the article , However I felt there was a great big void in it – that of dealing with the 1st Strike, and the original battle for forming Unions at Meru, which is the reason for the stalemate today.

    Meru first had its brush with Unions when Mr.Nitish Rane formed a union through fear & force. Unhappy at no progress in their conditions, Meru drivers first went on strike in 2008, A group of drivers gravitated to the BKS of the Sena, but no union was formed. The 1st Meru Drivers strike hit Mumbai hard, and if people will recall it was Mr.Raj Thackeray on 8/7/2008 who brokered a fragile peace for the Meru drivers with the Meru bosses at his dadar Rajgadh. That event was widely publiscised by TV.

    As is common knowledge that all Political outfits love to form Unions at Public Services, So what one Sena could do, the other Sena could do Better – hence the SS got involved and formed its Union, and since Meru was dealing with MNS, they were hardballed by the Sena.

    Ever since then the battle for Meru has raged on between the Sena, MNS & Congress backed Rane unions. The split between the 3 groups is the reason for the prolonged impasse and unless the MERU management placate all 3 groups, the company is as good as doomed.

    This is a great lesson for dashing entrepreneurs that in a growth service sector in the Public domain, your strongest department MUST be Industrial Relations, so that you can actually be functioning to serve the customer (not on strike, because of Poor HRD/IR) our Indian Public Sectors have handled this pretty well, and so have some of the privately run Hotels in Mumbai, all of whom have buttered Political Unions, and never had a Strike. I speak with more than a little experience with both – the Unions & Political outfits.

    In the end its up to people at the top at Meru to create a relationship with the political party or foster better Industrial relations with its employees to get them back to work. None of us can help them

  17. Isn’t it our fault – voting these wicked political class. And now that people have an alternative in form of Aam Admi Party – they have all excuses not to vote them. It all comes down to our mistake. It’s hi-time vote the right people to power. Once the root gets refined, whole system will be better, if not worse.

  18. Meru has always been there for me whenever I needed them the most. And so Meru has my support for sure. But the story of any business reaching great heights and being crushed down because they were not willing to bow down to political support isn’t unheard of. It has happened before and will happen again. Freedom and Equal Rights is a myth…the system has well crafted the strings to control the puppet show. So either you choose to become Pinocchio or continue to being dangled along. All the best MERU…

  19. This completely matches what I learned from my Meru Cab driver a few weeks back. Though he did add, that Meru was looking to promote Meru Plus over plain old Meru and that was one genuine cause for concern for the drivers. Other than that, he blamed Tab Cab for causing the increase in strikes at Meru.

    Terribly sad.

  20. The article only says the drivers are on stike or made to go on strike. It doesn’t say what the reasons are? What are the demands. I know a travel company, that takes away 40% of the billing, leaving only 60% to the driver/ owner, who had to foot the fuel bill as well as maintenance. Try out an Orix taxi some time. They will tell you. And, to start an union, you don’t need to be employees of the company. An union is just a mean for collective representation. This article sounds more an attempt to kill competition in the bud, just because they are politically connected.

  21. Welcome to the situation in Delhi. Finally the willpower of the political class has brought you down to our level. Its new for you we have seen the politically connected rule the roost since times immemorial.

  22. The issue is eye opener and warning to so called tolerant breed of people. We never collectively thought or protested against the so called glorified democracy which is looting our country. The solution is simple let the news be spread to nook and corner of the country. Put the norm that no unions will be entertained. Let the labour laws be made acceptable in legal and social terms by Labour commission. Those who can abide the law can stay , others can join other cab services. Those who enjoyed Meru should come forward as a group and show the support . Otherwise tomorrow if you have a profitable venture politicians will start the same in different name and ensure that you lose.

  23. I fear that Meru would have to shut their ops in mumbai. Worse still, some random politician will try to play the same game here in Bangalore or elsewhere. Or may be they are already at it?

  24. Good article. We traveled last year to Mumbai with my family (2 young boys) .. Initially we were planning to rent a car but were impressed with Meru and service. We used them a lot (almost everyday). It is sad the Government cannot control law and order in Metros not allowing such politically motivated folks to disrupt business and services. Labor issues can be resolved without calling strikes and stopping folks who do not want to participate. Law and Order needs to protect such people and those who cannot work peacefully on agreements should be severely punished.

  25. Meru is doing a wonderful job in Bangalore. Though i am from Mumbai staying in Bangalore. Most of the people here prefer Meru and City cabs as they have well reputed Customer Service and good behaviour. I would use their service any given day.

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