Do bans have regulatory value?

After over 10 years of working with governments across South Asia on regulatory reform, I’ve recently started wondering whether our regulatory frameworks are underpinned in any way by logic. This line of thinking emerged from my own personal experience with a few relatively draconian regulatory processes for expatriates in India – as a user of these regulations, I felt I was beaten into a state of compliant subjugation, rather than getting any personal value out of the process. Afterwards, though, I kept asking myself whether the government or society benefited or derived any value from the regulation itself. 

This line of thinking emerged coincidentally around the same time as the India federal and state government’s on-again, off-again attempts to ban services like Uber. The underlying events that triggered these efforts are certainly tragic, and there is no doubt that the problem needs to be addressed. Given the heightened emotion around rape in India, a ban might seem to be a good immediate regulatory instrument that can be popular. But a long-term ban on these services is problematic in itself. 

Do Bans Work?

A ban, theoretically, should be used to prohibit undesirable behaviors. But their application and success is limited, as far as I can see. 

On a recent visit to Bhutan, I finally discovered the office’s underground smoking room. Previous visits have involved a lot of suspicious sneaking around in an attempt to avoid offending anyone with my grotesque behavior in the only country in the world to have banned smoking and the sale of cigarettes. This time, however, I figured out that I needn’t have bothered with all the subterfuge. The smoking room is incessantly surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke – coming primarily from Bhutanese chain-smokers that seem to treat the room as a second home. 

I learned from these smokers that cigarettes are surprisingly still widely available – it’s just that buying and selling them requires a level of caution and discretion that wasn’t needed before the prohibition came into place. This isn’t surprising – the last attempt to impose a wide ban on an addictive substance failed spectacularly. Bans on products generally have one concrete outcome – the development of a strong thriving black market, particularly if enforcement is weak.

So why ban anyway?

Bans on cigarettes and alcohol consumption and sale arise from attempts by governments to cull behaviors they consider as bad, and particularly to improve public health outcomes. However, a ban on the product itself represents a gross over-simplification of the health outcomes that they intend to target. Smoking and drinking affect not only the user’s health, but, through second-hand smoke and negative behaviors from alcohol use, the health of others in the wider community. Plus alcohol and cigarette consumption by minors can greatly impact their long-term health. 

Therefore, bans that target these undesirable behaviors work better than outright bans on the product – banning underage consumption, smoking in public places and driving under the influence works better than banning the product altogether. Also, it’s easier to enforce – rather than trying to find every single member of the thriving black market, it’s easier to find people demonstrating the behaviors you want to avoid and penalize them. 

Extending these lessons to non-addictive goods

But we all know that the economics of addictive substances are significantly different from the markets for taxi services, which have demand and supply trends consistent with other goods and services. And therein lies the first problem – banning Uber first and foremost is a regulatory control on the market for taxi services. 

The fact that Uber exists in South Asia, where taxi services are still a luxury for most, shows that a sizeable market clearly exists and, furthermore, that the current taxi service model is not working. The market failure is due to both demand and supply failures. There is tremendous demand for services like Uber from consumers – on weekdays, surge pricing has become common at rush hour, indicating high consumer demand. Several drivers I have spoken to also prefer using Uber with their cars, because it pays better than regular assignments. 

So both demand and supply for such services exist – therefore, banning Uber means sacrificing both consumer and provider utility, by reducing supply in a market where the existing supply of taxi services does not sufficiently meet the existing demand. For the ban to be successful, therefore, the Government simultaneously needs to address the supply deficiency by providing alternative supply to consumers. 

Without such increased supply, a “black market” will emerge in the short term – just because Uber is banned from providing the service does not mean that consumers will not suddenly need to commute, and that drivers will want to give up the increased earnings they earned through Uber. 

A black market is also more difficult for governments to regulate and enforce. In the short term, a ban will only lead to the development of informal and therefore unregulatable alternatives. In the medium term companies like Uber, which pride themselves on being disruptive, will find loopholes in regulations to allow them to reintroduce services through some other mechanism. In the long term, therefore, the Government will find itself with a host of informal and semiformal alternatives to regulate, instead of the few known brands that currently provide the services. 

Public safety only compounds the underlying economic problem

There is no doubt that the government must eliminate rape – it is a heinous, despicable act, and it should definitely be a major priority of the government. And not just in India, where the media has generated such awareness, but also all over South Asia, where chauvinistic mindsets prevail and manifest themselves through such violent acts on a regular basis, but where such stories are not as widely known due to social stigmas and under-reporting.  

Banning Uber however is an attempt to eliminate only one insubstantial opportunity to rape. The fundamental problem the Government is trying to address is that Uber and related services do not sufficiently check the backgrounds of the drivers that provide services. A ban will not eliminate this problem, however – the black market that will emerge in the short term will introduce many more informal alternatives that will most likely include even fewer public safety safeguards. Therefore, a ban will not reduce the opportunities for rape, but rather might very well increase them in the medium term. 

Further, the inherent assumption behind banning Uber seems to be that the status quo situation of the taxi service market provides adequate safeguards to prevent rape. Therefore, in theory, consumers should be happy with sacrificing the utility they gain from Uber in the interest of protecting their safety by restricting supply to existing formal taxi providers. Recent events have shown quite clearly that this is patently not the case.

So what can the Government do anyway?

This post does not seek to prescribe regulatory instruments to combat rape – this requires much greater research and analysis than I am capable of. It is a societal problem that requires a coordinated societal solution – starting with addressing stigmas, mindsets, cultures, education and a whole host of other factor. Rather, this post focuses on microeconomics – regulatory tools that can ensure an effective market for taxi services while safeguarding public health and safety.

So what can the government do? One solution that negates the need for a black market is to replace Uber and associated services with a Government-owned and operated service that provides exactly the same service while incorporating stronger and stricter safeguards on drivers to ensure increased public safety. Alternatively, they can roll out more cabs with drivers who have undergone stringent verification. But both of these are expensive drains on public resources which could be better spent on addressing the constituent societal influences that make rape so prevalent in the first place.

Instead, the government could much more easily and effectively engage the industry – Uber, Ola and other such services that are emerging – and agree a stringent set of safeguards and checks that the companies must implement to ensure that the drivers are fully vetted to provide taxi services through these apps. This has the added benefit of attributing responsibility for any such future acts to the companies themselves – if such an event in the future happens because the companies did not comply, the company is also directly liable. Such efforts will in the short term constrain supply a little as existing drivers are vetted through the process, but this is a short term loss of utility that both consumers and providers will be happy to take on in the interest of protecting their own safety. 

It is therefore good to see that cooler heads have prevailed at the central government level. This not only indicates to me that governments still consider economic principles before rushing to regulatory decisions, but also reassures me that there is still some logic left in policy-making. It also demonstrates that governments are slowly waking up to the challenges of regulating innovation – as we move further into the 21st century, governments need to move towards proactive regulation that evolves along with technology and move away from reactive regulation that penalizes innovation and technology adoption by bringing them under the framework of already-obsolete laws and regulations. This will allow governments to facilitate innovation, instead of regulating it. And, at the end of the day, ensure regulations indeed have value for society as a whole. 


i lay in bed, staring at the patterns drawn on the wall by the headlights of cars passing on the road below. she lay in between my arm and my body, her shoulder biting into my armpit, her head resting somewhere between my shoulder and my chest, crying softly. she was crying so softly, in fact, that i hadn’t noticed until i felt the dampness on my chest. i pulled up her face to my mine and kissed her longingly, trying my best to put out whatever fire burned in her eyes and gave rise to those tears. she kissed me back, with a hunger that i hadn’t experienced before.

“what’s wrong?” i asked. “did i hurt you?”

“no,” she replied, “it’s just that…nevermind.”

“tell me,” i said, wiping away the tears from her eye with the hand that wasn’t pinned under her. “you know i can’t stand it when people don’t tell me things.”

she smiled. “it’s just that i never imagined anyone could ever love me again.” she said, her smile not doing a good job hiding the pain and hurt that had come to the surface.

what was there for me to say to that? i bet even you couldn’t come up with an appropriate reply. so all i did was hold her tighter to my body, and pray that the silence that had descended upon us was one of those that countless authors describe as comfortable.

* ** * ** *

i’d told many girls i loved them – mostly so that they’d say it back to me, and with that assurance in mind, i could begin the arduous task of pushing them away. the process seemed to work extremely well – by the time some poor unfortunate girl had gotten around to getting to know me well enough to tell me she loved me, i had gotten to know her well enough to realize that, no matter how amazing and perfect she was, she wasn’t the one i was looking for. who was i looking for, you wonder? i’m not absolutely certain myself. it was much easier to label someone as not the one than to figure out what would make someone the one.

this time, however, i had come across something completely different. i’d told her i loved her an hour ago, and already i was feeling the familiar pangs (push her away, hurt her, insult her, get rid of her). but something kept pulling me towards her at the same time. i was caught in a frantic tug of war between these two forces, and i wasn’t certain which one i should succumb to.

* ** * ** *

i had met her at the psychiatrist’s office – my second home, my confessional – where i vented all my emotions and was absolved for having them in the first place. i’d been going to see the doctor for almost four years – he would have told me that my mind was perfectly fine four years ago, had i not meant some extra money in his pocket each week. over those four years, the number of people with psychological problems seemed to multiply exponentially, and i spent longer and longer hours in the waiting room waiting for my turn. i had learnt long ago to take a good book with me to pass the time, much to the consternation of the other people waiting, who could barely contain their inquisitiveness as to what i was reading. when i try and remember my sessions now i can’t remember dates, but rather i remember what book i was reading that week, and what the people sitting next to me said about the book.

somewhere between rushdie (evil satanist, said the schizophrenic under his breath) and asimov (useless trash, wisely proclaimed the father of the drug addict with a maze of needle marks covering the insides of his arms), she walked in to my life. she was shrouded in a black anonymous burkha, and i took no notice. i sat up and started to take notice, however, when she dug out a kafka book from her bag and started to read.

how cliched is that, i asked myself. reading kafka in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. perhaps next week she’ll bring in some freud while waiting for her appointment.

it wasn’t her appointment, however. as i learned later, she’d come in with her mother, who was undergoing counseling for some anonymous ailment.

if one person reading a book was strange, two apparently were normal. people stopped taking notice of our avid reading week after week. eventually she finished with kafka and moved on to hemingway. and then to salinger.

i stopped counting weeks according to what i was reading. instead, i started keeping track of the weeks according to what she was reading.

* ** * ** *

after salinger came vikram seth, the beginning of her south asian fiction phase. throughout weeks of jhumpa lahiri and arundhati roy and hanif kureishi, i often found myself sitting opposite her, with my book perched on my lap solely for the purpose of camouflage. what i was really interested in, however, was her eyes – the only part of her that i could see – particularly the way her eyes skimmed through the pages of the book, the way they sometimes reflected joy, and sometimes sadness, and sometimes anger. i had read the books myself years ago, yet i found myself reliving each and every chapter through her eyes.

several times she caught me looking at her, at which point i quickly pretended to be engrossed in my own book for a few seconds, before returning to watching her. it took me several months of this delicate subterfuge to get up the nerve to talk to her.

one day, fed up at the interminable wait, i decided to get myself a cup of coffee at the nearby cafe. sure that she would reject my offer outright, i asked her if she was interested in a cup, too – her mother had gone in for what seemed a year’s supply of counselling. to my surprise, she agreed, and we made our way quietly to the cafe.

i was at a loss at what to talk about. but she led the conversation. “how’s forsyth,” she asked, much to my confusion.


“frederick forsyth, the author of the book you’re reading.”

“oh. good. i think.”

“which part of the book are you up to?”

“the…uh…part where…uh…the terrorist runs into the hero,” i fabricated.

she laughed, too polite to tell me that that never happens in this forsyth novel. “you aren’t concentrating on the novel much are you?”

“no,” i admitted, and our conversation took on a life of its own and proceeded from there.

soon it became a weekly ritual. i fidgeted anxiously for her mother to be called in for her session – she didn’t know about our burgeoning friendship yet, and was not to be told. and then we’d go off and have coffee and talk about everything and anything. after a couple of weeks of this, i stopped going in for my sessions; instead, i’d just go to the doctor’s office so that i could go out for coffee with her.

* ** * ** *

as she slept quietly nestled in my arms, i found myself tracing the scar across her body with my finger tip. from the first time she had shown me her face, i had been entranced by the scar she bore: black turned to white, night turned to day, evil transformed itself to good. my gaze was always drawn to the boundary between the two opposing forces – the no man’s land where black was white, dark met light, night segued into day and evil became good. this had always confused her – instead of being appalled by the grotesque (her word) remnant of what had happened to her, i seemed entranced by it. she had shown me her face in an effort to get me to understand that she wasn’t normal (her word again), and that my intense interest was being wasted on her.

seems like i’m not the only one who’s good at pushing others away.

but it was too late. i’d seen too much of her in her eyes and through that thick black burkha to care what lay directly beneath it. i was more interested and attracted to what lay further down, in her soul, in her consciousness, in her very being to be pushed away by a scar.

with my finger, i traced the scar down her face, down her neck, through the delicate valley of her shoulders, and down to her arms, where it slowly petered out.

* ** * ** *

when she was 12 years old, a guy in her village fell in love with her. when she refused to marry him, he got his revenge by throwing acid on her face, so that he could take away her beauty and so that nobody else would marry her. this was, of course, after he raped her.

i wanted to go to her village and find the guy. just to tell him that he couldn’t do what he set out to – could never do it in fact. he’d never be able to take away her true beauty – it was hidden too well within her soul for that to ever happen. what he had taken away from her with that acid attack was her innocence, and that was something he had no right to take away.

* ** * ** *

no matter how i tried, sleep would not come. my head had begun throbbing, and so i got up softly, making sure the sudden movement did not disturb her sleep. i walked into the kitchen to grab a glass of water and have a quick smoke on the verandah.

as the distant noise of traffic floated to me through the nigh, i stood caught in a crossfire of conflicting emotions – should i push her away? should i let her stay? should i tell her, good lord, should i tell her?

the only reason i hadn’t pushed her away yet, i realized, was because some part of me was truly convinced that she was the fabled one, the person i’d been waiting for. this had caused the rest of me to be in severe confusion – what if she is the one, and i lose the one thing i’ve been waiting for all my life?

* ** * ** *

“you never tell me anything about you,” she opined in the cafe one week. this was a few weeks after she’d thrown off the veil in an attempt to shock me, but was rewarded with awe instead.

“what do you mean? i’ve told you tons of things.”

“yes, but most of it isn’t about you, it’s about other people. that doesn’t count.”

“well, what do you want to know?” i asked.

“let’s see,” she said, before lapsing into silent thought. suddenly, she asked, “why did you start going to the psychiatrist?”

“i once thought i was depressed, but i realized i was just tired.”

“of what?”

“of everything.”

“so why did you stop going?” she asked, the smile on her face betraying the fact that she knew the answer.

“let’s just say i found a better way to spend the time.” i smiled back.

* ** * ** *

the first sign of dawn in this great city is the cawing of the crows. as they woke up to greet the morning with their angry chatter, the throbbing in my head intensified, as if something else had awakened as well, to the point where i had to grab hold of the railing to stay upright.

i went back to the bedroom. she lay on the bed, blissfully asleep, bathed in the neon glow of the streetlight outside. i sat on the edge of the bed, watching her, trying to overcome this confusion that seemed ready to tear me apart?

as the neon glow bathing her body was steadily replaced by the first rays of the morning sun, i came to a decision – this was one person i wasn’t going to push away, no matter what. i just couldn’t afford it. i also couldn’t afford to hurt her either – she’d been through enough pain and punishment in her life, for something that wasn’t even her fault, for me to add to that.

her eyes fluttered and opened, the remnants of sleep still visible, as a smile stole across her face when she saw me sitting there watching her. she sat up and gave me a kiss that told me in a heartbeat that i had made the right decision, and pulled me back in to bed.

after we were finished and she was back resting in my arms, i told her i loved her. and this time, the first time, i felt no desire to push her away.

maybe one day i’ll tell her why i was depressed and went to the psychiatrist in the first place.

or maybe i’ll wait the four more months until this cancer kills me – then she’ll definitely know.

* ** * ** *

apologies if that was awful. i wrote it for two reasons: it was stuck inside my head, dying to come out, and also because i wanted to make sure i could still write. it’s been almost a year since my last story.