India’s Gig Economy: Its workers are humans, not mules—and even they are packed with care!

13th March 2021

13th March 2021

My foray into professional writing started with being a hobby that helped pay my bills too. Way back in the '80s, when I would bang my "pieces" out on a manual type-writer early in the morning pre-dawn from the office of the shipping company I worked with, and then send them onwards by fax. Sometimes, when the fax would not work, I would pay the neighbourhood taxi stand operators to deliver the "copy" by hand, and save money by asking the driver to take my trusty Bajaj Chetak, for a small fee. They were the only people available at dawn. Why was I up working pre-dawn? We had Japanese customers.

For the commercial work during the day, there was no dearth of people, and that was my introduction to the "gig economy" in a day and age when receiving and delivering pieces of paper all over town was essential, in an era pre-internet, and very soon I had a team of neighbourhood youngsters on tap ready to use my scooters, my fuel and their services, for pick-up, drop and signing of all sorts of documents. For late evening document movements, I depended on 3-wheeler drivers who had finished work for the day but were still hanging around, and were not averse to adding a bit to their earnings. Why was I working late in the evening? We had European and American customers too.

I recall discussing this with the late Dewang Mehta years before NASSCOM happened. 

Today, barring the few activities that require personal presence, almost everything is taken care of by the "gig workers", and in the course of a day most of us can and will interact online, meet or speak with dozens of them - if not more. If you have ever spoken to them about working conditions and the basics of some sort of level playing fields between employers and employees, you will realise that most gig workers in India are exploited worse than slaves were in colonial times. Even coolies on rubber plantations had it better,  And that is why this comes as good news,

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But this article is headed towards a return to the art of motoring media, a fascinating life-form that over the last 3 decades in India has gone from being the domain of free-wheeling raconteurs to a totally controlled product churning out on demand puff pieces for the perception management and commercial considerations industry that makes up the world of corporate communications and perception management. If you look at motoring media in India today, you would not be mistaken if you thought that the motor vehicles and their media both came off the same assembly lines.

Today I spot home deliveries of documents and products by an army of youngsters whizzing around on two-wheelers, carrying loads meant more for mules on their backs or precariously perched on the back seats of their, usually, already high off the ground motor-cycles. On the other hand, if you see how military despatch riders and mule-trains move around, you will observe that the goods are loaded either on the sides or in such a way as to lower the centre of gravity. Even old style carriers on cars are frowned upon by law now, as they are a risk not just to the vehicle, but also to other road-users. One example is panniers.  

The late Dilip Bam, when he used to review two-wheelers, would always insist on what he called the gas cylinder test for scooters. Meaning - can the scooter carry a gas cylinder in front, safely, without impacting rider safety? The Bajaj Chetak (image below), then available only in foreign exchange, was the only two-wheeler which passed this stringent qualification. In addition, unlike motor-cycles, it came with a spare wheel and it had an engine directly coupled to the rear wheel, so was easy to repair too. And if the Bajaj Chetak ran out of petrol, all you had to do was tilt it and shake it around a bit, and you managed a few more kilometres.

The one big thing I want to see in the gig economy in India is a total ban on heavy backpacks and back-seat mounted bags for the movement of anything. Scooters do away with this travesty being imposed on a future generation. Gig workers are human beings, not pack mules - and even pack mules are loaded with care so that their backs and spines do not get damaged.