|Definition: Providing paid rides in privately-owned cars as a means of generating income|
|Keywords: Uzbekistan – FSU – Central Asia – Taxi – Transport – Vehicle – Urban – Rural migration – Migration|
|Clusters: Survival – Informal entrepreneurship|
|Author: Nikolaos Olma|
|Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany|
|Website: Profile page at MPI|
By Nikolaos Olma, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany
|In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, the term taksovanie refers to the widespread practice of private car-drivers’ providing what across the post-Soviet space is known as ‘private carrying’ (Russian: chastnyi izvoz), that is, paid rides to their fellow citizens as a means of generating income (see also boda-boda and trotro for similar practices in African cities). The term itself is a colloquial Russian noun stemming from the similarly colloquial verb taksovat’, which literally translates as ‘to taxi;’ accordingly, taksovanie can be rendered as ‘taxiing.’ Most of the drivers involved in this practice are individuals who occasionally pick up passengers in order to supplement their earnings, provided that the passenger’s destination is more or less along their route. However, sustained unemployment and low salaries have forced a considerable part of Tashkent’s male population to take up taksovanie either full-time, as their primary occupation, or part-time, as a source of secondary income. The majority of part-time drivers are low-wage workers and students who taxi only during after-work hours and at weekends, whereas full-time taksovanie is practised by pensioners, the unemployed and, in recent years, the scores of young men from the provinces who migrate to Tashkent in search of employment.|
While, to the author’s knowledge, the noun taksovanie is seldom used outside Tashkent, the practice that it refers to is by no means limited to post-Soviet Central Asia’s largest city. Offering paid rides in one’s private car had been a relatively popular way of generating extra income in large Soviet cities already during the socialist era (Siegelbaum 2009), but it was not until the early 1990s that this practice evolved into a fundamental ‘survival strategy’ (Johnson, Kaufmann and Ustenko 1998) employed by people across the former Soviet Union in order to cope with the adverse socio-economic conditions that accompanied the transition to the market economy. Thanks to its around-the-clock availability, reliability and relatively low fares, this informal means of transport was immediately embraced by urban populations, for it provided them with an alternative to the mass public-transport systems that, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, were collapsing (Gwilliam 2000). In turn, high demand gave an incentive to more and more drivers to take up the practice and, for most of the 1990s and the early 2000s, such informal taxis constituted a popular means of urban transport and an important element of everyday urban life throughout the region. The widespread occurrence of the practice across countries and socio-cultural contexts resulted in a series of localised colloquial verbs being used instead of or in parallel with taksovat’ such as grachevat’ (Kyiv), kastriuliat’ (Odessa) and bombit’ (Moscow). The last term is the reason why the individuals engaged in this practice across the post-Soviet space are – often pejoratively – referred to as bombily (singular: bombila).
All this is very telling of the fact that the drivers who ‘taxi’ in Tashkent are essentially moonlighters and laymen who transport passengers in their private cars without a licence to do so, and, hence, the cars they drive are devoid of any signs, logos or other markings that distinguish them as taxis. Fares are allocated ad hoc, on the basis of negotiation between driver and passenger, but, nevertheless, they are relatively standard, since most parties involved know, more or less, how much each ride costs by taking into account a series of variables such as distance, car model, weather conditions or time of day. Since the vast majority of this income goes undeclared, taksovanie costs the state budget several billions of Uzbek soum in lost revenues annually, which has led the authorities, from the mid-2000s onwards, to launch an offensive aiming at curtailing the practice. Similar offensives have taken place in most post-Soviet cities and have, in most cases, led to the practice’s marginalisation or even eradication. Nevertheless, in Tashkent, a combination of factors – most notably unemployment and internal migration, low salaries, institutional obstacles hindering formalisation, the personal views and subjectivities of the drivers, as well as the ambivalent stance of the Uzbek state towards taksovanie – have all contributed to the endurance of the practice.
The structural mass unemployment that has beset Uzbekistan’s provinces is undoubtedly the most significant socio-economic condition fuelling taksovanie, for it steadily forces rural populations to migrate to Tashkent in search of employment. Most of these rural newcomers are young men who come from lower social strata and have little – if any – economic capital, education or professional experience, and, hence, becoming an informal taxi driver is often their only option (Olma forthcoming), not least because the strict civil registration mechanism that is in place in Uzbekistan, known throughout the former Soviet Union as propiska, seldom allows members of the poor ‘surplus population’ (Yates 2011) to obtain legal residence status and work permits in Tashkent. Thus, from acquiring a car to finding their way around the city, these rural newcomers constantly navigate a wide array of informal processes, negotiate power relations, adjust to market forces, manoeuvre various regulatory frameworks and deal with the stereotypes that follow them across urban post-Soviet Central Asia (see Flynn and Kosmarskaya 2012). Due to the large volume of informal taxis – some estimates put their number at 30,000 – drivers fiercely compete with each other, which has resulted in relatively low fares and has subsequently forced drivers to work between ten and 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. Since most rural newcomers do not have another occupation and depend on the income generated from taksovanie, they are forced to work without any institutional safety-net in the form of social security or insurance and notwithstanding the risks stemming from the state-led offensive against the practice.
Taksovanie is a practice almost exclusively undertaken by men for, even though women often drive cars in Tashkent, they seldom offer rides to their fellow citizens. Indeed, throughout his eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork in the city, this male author was never carried in a car driven by a woman, and neither were any of his female interlocutors. Reasons behind the dominance of men over taksovanie include concerns by women over their safety and reputation, but very significant is also the legacy of the Soviet ‘gender order’ (Ashwin 2002) and its influence on post-Soviet labour culture. Throughout the Soviet era, maternalist protective labour regulations blocked the entry of women into professions that were deemed dangerous for their safety and – by extension – that of their family, which led the population to perceive taksovanie – like most other transport-related professions with the notable exception of trolleybus and tram drivers – as ‘not a woman’s profession’ (Russian: ne zhenskaia professiia). This conviction becomes even stronger due to the association of driving and – especially – car-ownership with masculinity for, in the car-based society that is post-socialist Uzbekistan, cars are seen as an essential part of manhood, a token of coming of age among young men and even a prerequisite for marriage. Simultaneously, the extensive time that men in Tashkent spend in garage areas has led to the emergence of a particular ‘car culture’ (Miller 2001) which reinforces male sociability, bonding and narratives of masculinity. On top of that, the fact that taksovanie allows men to work for themselves (Russian: rabotat’ na sebia) rather than for someone else (rabotat’ na diadiu) is seen – especially among rural newcomers – as highlighting the manliness of the practice, for it allows them a certain extent of autonomy (see Morris 2016) and freedom (see Sopranzetti 2017).
These associations of taksovanie with masculinity often result in rather complex dynamics between male drivers and female passengers, especially when the latter are young and/or unmarried. While physical abuse is uncommon, many female passengers have reported that drivers make them feel uneasy by insistently asking personal questions, making inappropriate comments or staring at them through the rear-view mirror. Among younger drivers, moreover, it is customary to offer young women a free ride in exchange for their phone number. Combined with the fact that many women are concerned about informal taxi-drivers’ knowing where they live, these considerations lead many women to order a more expensive licensed taxi to take them home safely, especially when they return from a late night out.
Ashwin, S. 2002. ‘The Influence of the Soviet Gender Order on Employment Behavior in Contemporary Russia,’ Sociological Research 41(1): 21-37.
Flynn, M. and N. Kosmarskaya. 2012. ‘Exploring “North” and “South” in post-Soviet Bishkek: Discourses and Perceptions of Rural-Urban Migration,’ Nationalities Papers 40(3): 453-71.
Gwilliam, K.M. 2000. Private Participation in Public Transport in the FSU. Discussion Paper, Washington, DC: World Bank Transport Division.
Johnson, S., D. Kaufmann and O. Ustenko. 1998. ‘Formal Employment and Survival Strategies after Communism,’ in National Research Council (ed.), Transforming Post-Communist Political Economies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press: 177-202.
Miller, D. (ed.). 2001. Car Cultures. Oxford and New York, NY: Berg.
Morris, J. 2016. Everyday Post-Socialism: Working-Class Communities in the Russian Margins. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Olma, N. Forthcoming. ‘Wheels of Informality: Rural Newcomers as Informal Taxi Drivers in Tashkent, Uzbekistan,’ in A. Polese, R. Turaeva and R. Urinbayev (eds), Labour, Mobility and Informality in Post-Socialism: Resources, Competition, Power from an Everyday Perspective. Basingstoke and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Siegelbaum, L.H. 2009. ‘On the Side: Car Culture in the USSR, 1960s-1980s,’ Technology and Culture 50(1): 1-22.
Sopranzetti, C. 2017. ‘Framed by Freedom: Emancipation and Oppression in Post-Fordist Thailand,’ Cultural Anthropology 32(1): 68-92.
Yates, M. 2011. ‘The Human-As-Waste, the Labor Theory of Value and Disposability in Contemporary Capitalism,’ Antipode 43(5): 1679-95.