The Plight of (Desi) NYC Taxi Drivers: How the Industry Plunged Into Crisis

Written by Tania Rahman & Zainab Nayani-Merchant

An iconic symbol of the wealthiest city in the world, New York City’s yellow cab taxi industry is now in a state of utter despair.

For years, newcomers to the United States found their footing by way of purchasing or renting a taxi medallion. Lured by a low barrier for entry and the promise of financial security, drivers made a living ferrying New Yorkers up and down Second Avenue as a means to secure the American Dream. 

The Haas Act of 1937 first introduced medallions to reduce the number of cabs on the road. When the State of New York did not issue any new medallions for the next 60 years, the prices skyrocketed in 1997. The only way left to purchase medallions was through an auction – and most drivers borrowed money from lenders to pay for them. 

Because of their limited supply and high demand, the average cost of a medallion at its prime was well over a million dollars. An investigation conducted by The New York Times found that the price of the medallion almost quintupled between 2002 to 2014, going as high as $1.3 million. Industry leaders, such as lenders and big banks, artificially inflated the price by knowingly overpaying for them. As a result, many drivers worked 60-hour weeks to earn enough to support their families and make monthly payments on their loans. 

The bubble burst when hedge funds bought back the medallions from the bankrupt drivers, causing the prices to crash. Drivers were left with an enormous loan that they took for an asset and that was devaluing by the minute, and a dwindling income, thanks to increasing competition by Uber and Lyft. Eight taxi drivers committed suicide in 2018 alone as a result.

The rise of ridesharing car services like Uber and Lyft has contributed to the destabilization of the taxi industry. The influx of cars arriving promptly at your doorstep at the touch of a button was the beginning of the end. In addition to the new competition, a major culprit behind the downfall of thousands of drivers remains predatory lenders. The final nail in the coffin was COVID-19; as the pandemic ravaged New York City, it swept away what was left of the taxi industry.

More than 40% of the taxi industry is made up of South Asian immigrants. Many of these first-generation immigrants entered this workforce with the intent to elevate families to financial freedom, not drown in debt. Unable to pay off their debts, the drivers are now losing their medallions and declaring bankruptcy.

“The types of loans that these drivers were agreeing to, a lot of them didn’t understand balloon payments or other terminology. My dad ended up incurring so much debt. Most of his money went to paying off the interest, not the principal,” said Alex Kanaan, a Queens resident. 

Like his father, Kanaan also owns a medallion, purchasing his own cab several years prior assuming its value would rise.

Strict lockdowns combined with people fleeing New York in the last year have heavily impacted ridership. Some taxi drivers have been lucky to find even a couple of passengers in a day, leaving them stranded when it came to making monthly payments. 

“It’s not the same. I’m having to work twice as long to make the same amount of money as before,” said Kanaan.

Another driver severely impacted by this crisis is the father of Felicia Singh, a candidate running for the New York City Council. Dalip Singh bought his medallion in 1998 for $250,000. The medallion was intended to be his retirement nest egg. However, he has now declared bankruptcy and sold all his assets, including his medallion and the family house.

[Read Related: City Council Candidate Felicia Singh Details her Dream for Queens, NY, District 32]

“I wanted a future where I could retire. This was the offer sold to us by predatory lenders. Instead of being able to retire, I’m now 66 years old, at risk of losing everything, and still working,” said Singh.

[btx_image image_id=”85804″ link=”/” position=”center”]NYC City Council candidate Felicia Singh’s parents outside their Ozone Park home. Photo Courtesy: Felicia Singh.[/btx_image]

Amidst this crisis, the government has refused to step in to provide support. On the contrary, the city profited from the sale of the medallions to the tune of $855 million. These acts led to the birth of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA).

The NYTWA has organized multiple protests in 2021 alone, including shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge and gathering outside the Mayor’s residence at Gracie Mansion

In response, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released a plan on Mar. 9 that offers medallion owners an interest-free loan of $20,000 to help in restructuring their debt. However, Executive Director of NYTWA Bhairavi Desai called the plan “disgraceful” and claimed that “it’s a cash bailout for lenders while drivers are left to drown in debt, foreclosure, and bankruptcy.” 

The NYWTA is standing firm on its main demand to restructure the loan at $125,000 and refinance it at a payment of $757 per month for no more than 20 years. Desai announced that the protests will continue to take place daily outside the Mayor’s home at Gracie Mansion until their demands are fulfilled.

“This crisis is destroying our lives. Most taxi drivers are immigrants like my parents,” wrote Felicia in the New York Daily News. “They dreamt about a pathway towards upward mobility, a ticket to the middle class. That never happened. This dream was never meant to be attainable for them.”

By Tania Rahman

Bangladeshi born but bred in the Bronx (whoa alliteration), Tania is just another (particularly tasty) lentil in the melting pot … Read more ›

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).