NEW DELHI — Transportation officials in India’s capital banned the online car service Uber on Monday after one of its drivers was arrested on suspicion of raping a passenger.
The move was a blow for Uber in the huge Indian market as well as another public relations headache.
The San Francisco-based company, which operates in 45 countries, has come under fire for what some see as a lax attitude toward protecting the private data of its customers and ensuring passenger safety.
In New Delhi, protesters demanded greater protections for women as police called in Uber officials for questioning about their screening methods, saying the company had not undertaken simple security procedures, such as fingerprinting or conducting a background check on the accused cabdriver.
The suspect, Shiv Kumar Yadav, 37, was arrested Saturday over allegations that he assaulted a passenger who was on her way home from a party the previous night.
In a statement, the Delhi government’s transportation department condemned the “unfortunate and heinous crime,” banning Uber from operating in the city. The service continues in five other Indian cities.
The alleged rape came as a chilling reminder of Delhi’s continued inability to provide safe commuting options for women at night — even after a fatal gang rape of a woman aboard a moving bus two years ago.
Uber said in a statement Sunday that safety was its top “priority.”
“What happened over the weekend in New Delhi is horrific,” the statement said. “Our entire team’s hearts go out to the victim of this despicable crime.”
The company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, stopped short of acknowledging systemic company failings. A statement by Kalanick blamed India’s licensing norms and said Uber will “work with the government to establish clear background checks currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programs.”
But police said their probe has revealed shortcomings in the company’s Indian operations, which apparently were so bare-bones that investigators were unable to locate the phone number or address of Uber’s India office on the company’s Web site when the rape complaint was made.
A report in the newspaper Indian Express said police had to finally download the Uber application and book a cab to locate the Gurgaon address of the company.
Uber has been under scrutiny almost since its inception in 2009. Traditional cab companies deem it an illegal taxi service.
Last month, meanwhile, an Uber executive suggested that he would pay to dig up information on the personal lives of journalists writing negative things about Uber, comments that appeared to target a Silicon Valley writer who had been chronicling the sexual misconduct of Uber drivers in the United States.
The Indian woman allegedly assaulted, a 27-year-old unidentified employee at a tax consulting firm in a New Delhi suburb, booked the Uber cab through her cellphone app late Friday to return home, police said. She said Yadav punched, slapped and sexually assaulted her.
When he dropped her home, he threatened to come back and kill her if she went to the police, authorities said. But the woman was able to take a picture of the cab with her cellphone after getting out of the car.
The suspect was acquitted of rape charges from a 2011 incident, police said.
The alleged attack Friday shocked many Indians who have come to rely on cabs booked though companies that use GPS trackers or through smartphone applications. The option is widely regarded as safer than public transportation because of the ability to track the commuter’s cab location in real time.
“Sleek App, sleeker cars till one ride opens a cab of worms,” read a headline in the Indian Express on Monday.
Kunal Lalani, president of the Association of Radio Taxis in India, said the incident was likely to have an effect on the country’s burgeoning business of private cabs. Uber has been operating in India since last year.
“Certainly there will be an immediate impact on the business and create trust deficit,” Lalani said.
Protesters angry about yet another high-profile incident of violence against women demonstrated outside a police station in New Delhi.
“We need to invest in safe public transport and services for women. In its absence, we are relying on several private cab companies without knowing who is monitoring or regulating them,” said Suneeta Dhar, head of Jagori, a nonprofit that has works with women.
For many women in the city, the incident is a wake-up call even though they already take additional precautions when using a private cab.
“I take the vehicle number and driver’s number beforehand and pass it on to my family,” said Sonam Vardhan, 26, who works with an e-commerce company and commutes on private cabs every day.
Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.