When I stepped out of the train in Ahmedabad, I was a bit nervous. Being an outsider in a city where you don’t know the geography or language can be daunting. I waited for the taxi app to find me a car and a few minutes later it connected me to one.
Shortly thereafter I received a phone call. It was Anil (name changed), the cab’s driver. He asked me two questions that I’ve come to expect from app-based taxi services in India.
- Where are you now and where are you going?
- Are you paying online through the app or by cash or UPI.
They’re both supremely loaded questions that strike at the heart of India’s social and economic crisis. Within those two questions, the answers to them, the subsequent response from the driver and the eventual reaction from the passenger lies a tension that GDP and stock market numbers will simply never capture. The story is the same in every city I’ve visited on this trip.
Once I got in the cab and confirmed that I’m paying him by UPI, I said to Anil, “Yahan koi online payment leta hi nahi na?” (Nobody accepts online payments here right?). He was focused on trying to merge into the main road, avoiding oncoming cars and bikes but when he heard my question, he looked at me through the rear-view mirror and grinned. “Why would any one?”. One third of what the customer pays online, he says, goes towards commissions to the app and taxes. The remainder, barely covers the cost of fuel. And when he’s paid online, it takes a few days for the money to be transfered into his bank account – a delay he can not afford on most days. Yet, it is a indispensible source of income for Anil and millions like him.
Anil doesn’t sleep at night. Instead, he drives the cab through the night using a combination of apps and during the day is employed as a nearby bank manager’s driver. Petrol is very expensive, this car is an old workhorse but not as fuel efficient as it used to be, traffic in cities is horrendous and with temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees this summer, using the airconditioner is inevitable. So if he makes enough during the night to pay for the following day’s worth of fuel, then the salary he makes from the bank is what he uses, as they say in these parts, “ghar chalane ke liye” (to run the house).
Passengers, meanwhile are constantly frustrated by drivers who cancel the ride or simply don’t show up when you tell them the destination or tell them you’re paying through the app. Our reliance on taxis in big cities is a damning indictment of urban planning and public transportation in India over the years (and also a topic for a separate rant). Compared to the existential needs of someone barely getting by, this seems like a first world problem. But well-planned urbanization (as opposed to the rapid, almost sense-less, urbanization we’ve seen) can be a driver for growth, employment, poverty alleviation and improved standards of living for everybody (and also, yet another topic for a rant).
Now it’s Anil’s turn to ask me some questions beginning with what I plan to do in Ahmedabad. I tell him I’m here to spend a day at the Sabarmati Ashram. He asked “Oh you’re a Gandhi fan?”. “Of course, who isn’t!”, I replied, knowing fully well that there’s an increasing number of those who aren’t. He replied with a calm smile, “Gandhi ka fan ho ya na ho. Gandhi pocket mein ho na chahiye. Bas” (“Whether you’re Gandhi’s fan or not, you should have Gandhi in your pocket. That’s all!”). I thought about that a lot when I sat on the porch of Gandhi’s ashram the following day and watched someone spin a replica of his famous charkha. The values Gandhi espoused in the early 20th century are more relevant than ever. But we’re still no closer than he was to using those values to provide a life of stability and diginity to the millions of Indians who barely makes ends meet every day. His charkha, meant to be a symbol of acheiving self-sustenance, is today no more than a prop to be pulled out for some foreign dignitary who will then proceed to make entire fools of themselves in attempting to use it for a photo-op.
At the end of our ride, I ask Anil for his UPI ID to pay him. He pulls up a QR code but when I scan it, I see that itsn’t his account. It’s his brother’s. Therein lies another story but one I didn’t dig into. Our economic metrics will capture that as a simple payment transaction. But in it lies the story of how that money helps in “ghar chalana”. We all know of others with similar stories. A portion of their every income pays for a neice’s education or EMIs for a new bike in the household or to pay the cut-throat interest for a loan taken by a sibling out of desperation.
Those stories and the millions like them, the humans behind them, their daily routines, trials and tribulations seen through the lens of gender, religion and caste define the greatest challenges of our generation. I don’t have a rousing positive message to end this post. So I spent some time at the ashram meditating over it and I came up with mostly nothing except for this palpitating feeling of wanting to simply DO something about it.
When I got up to leave from the ashram that evening, I met Vishal who must’ve been all of 11 or 12 years old. Hanging on his arms, were these beautiful ornamental wall hangings (complete with a tiny bell that jingled rather melodiously at the lightest movement) that we has trying to sell with little success. It was nearly time for the ashram to close and I was hurriedly looking for the souvenior store to buy something to keep at home. It was in that slightly rushed, zoned out moment that I made brief eye contact with him. He came jogging towards me, the ornaments jingling with his every step. “Bhaiyya ek lo na” (Brother, please buy one). I hesitated and looked away but he followed me and asked again. I asked him how much it costs. Rs 120 he said. I asked him for two. He picked them out carefully and handed them to me. “School jaate ho?”(do you go to school?”) I asked him. He nodded his head promptly while I handed over the money to him. “Abhi Abhi school se aaya” (I just got back from school) he replied. “Exam tha na” (I had an exam). He told me he had just finished a Gujarati exam and had an English exam in two days. “Will you speak with me in English?” I asked him. “Haan. Pucho!” (Yes, ask me!) he said, bursting with confidence. I exchanged some pleasantries with him in English as we walked towards the parking lot. He pointed me in the direction of the book store, my next stop and hurried off towards another potential customer just as I wishing him good luck for his next exam. “Thank you Anirudh bhaiyya” he yelled from across the parking lot and carried on with his sales. The fact that he’s in school is a silver lining but the reality is that he too, like Anil, is spending his evenings attempting to make ends meet. A childhood lost to a struggle for livelihood and a testament to the work we yet to do as a society.
65% of India’s population is under 35 years old. Every policy we devise, every project we implement must be towards one single end: Improving their quality of life, leaving a better world for Vishal and his siblings and hopefully making sure that the millions like Anil can have a means of livelihood that lets them get a restful night’s sleep.