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Why a photographer, a McDonald’s manager, a trader, and a CA turned their bikes into cabs

A new subset of the gig economy has emerged in India post-Covid lockdowns — of service professionals and business owners who work full- or part-time for ride-hailing platforms.

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New Delhi. A professional photographer, a McDonald’s manager, a businessman, and a chartered accountant all took the same decision when they suffered financial setbacks due to Covid: they turned their own bikes into cabs to ride out this bumpy turn.

These Delhi-NCR residents represent a new subset of the gig economy that has proliferated in India post-Covid lockdowns — of service professionals and business owners who rather than seeking traditional employment now work full- or part-time for ride-hailing platforms like Ola, Uber, and Rapido.

For some, riding their bikes as cabs has become an alternative to a career following job or business loss, while for others, it is a means of supplementing their income in the wake of pay cuts.

Others like 55-year-old Krishna, whose garments business floundered during the 2021 lockdown, claim that gig work isn’t just about earning but also a means to stay “busy” and productive.

Notably, the movement of workers into the informal gig economy coincides with the exit of crores of Indians from the labour force.

According to data released this month by the Centre for Monitoring Economy in India (CMIE), a private research firm, the labour participation rate— which includes people who are employed in a job or looking for one — dropped from 46 per cent in 2017 to 40 per cent in 2022. Further, approximately half of 90 crore Indians of legal working age are currently not even looking for a job, at least partly because the kind of employment they want is simply not available.

Yet, in a scenario where there are few desirable jobs to go around, the gig economy is burgeoning. According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM), the gig economy is expected to reach a gross volume of $455 billion by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17 per cent.

The consulting firm BCG has also projected in a report last year that the gig economy could triple within the next three or four years and within a decade or less create as many as 90 million jobs.

What, then, is the appeal of gig work, especially for those who have the necessary qualifications and experience to try and pursue more ‘regular’ careers? Are there any drawbacks? A bunch of bike cabbies, who come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, shed some light.

Also Read: India saw a 30% decrease in jobs for young people since 2016. Here’s why

‘I can take holidays when I want, no one scolds me’

In his 30s, Abhishek Yadav worked long and gruelling hours in the marketing department of a company in Laxminagar. When Covid struck, he was told he would have to take a pay cut.

“I used to get Rs 25,000 as salary. My duty time was as long as 12 hours and my boss used to abuse me every now and then. Plus, I had to travel here and there at my own expense,” he says.

Abhishek Yadav on his bike taxi | Photo by special arrangement

Yadav decided to quit his job and started using his bike as a cab for Ola, Uber, and Porter. The experience has been so positive for him, he says, that he has no plans to look for a job in his field.

“I am happy now,” he says. “I earn between Rs 1,000 and 1,500 a day. I can take holidays when I feel the need, there is no rush to reach on time… no one is there to scold me.”

Ghaziabad resident Vineet Sharma, 35, was offered less of a choice than Abhishek Yadav. He was let go from his job as a quality checker at an export house. With two young children to provide for and barely enough money to scrape together two meals a day, his family was in a dire situation until he registered himself with Ola and Uber. “I now earn Rs 700 to 800 each day,” he says — just enough to pull by.

‘It was becoming difficult to just sit at home’

For 55-year-old Krishna, getting a square meal or a roof over his head was never an issue, even after the flourishing jeans business he had run for 18 years in Gandhi Nagar went downhill.

“During the first lockdown, which was imposed in 2020, we had some savings and kept paying our workers. But when there was another lockdown in 2021, our situation worsened,” Krishna says. Buyers defaulted on payments and footfalls were low. There were still enough savings to coast by, but Krishna was getting restless and also wanted to keep up his standard of living and contribute to the expenses of his daughter, who is pursuing medical studies, and his son, a student of the German language.

“We did not have any shortage that might have deprived us from our daily meals, but now it was becoming quite difficult to just sit at home,” Krishna says, pleased that he has had the chance to explore a new mode of earning even at his age.

Vineet Kumar Datta, in his mid-30s, also believes that his Ola bike taxi gig gives his life more structure.

A professional photographer, he made a good living before Covid but lockdowns and restrictions meant that events and parties came to a stop. In this situation, using his bike as a taxi presented an opportunity with no investment other than fuel costs.

With pandemic curbs lifting, he says he has started picking up photography assignments again but for dry spells, he still banks on his bike. For him, this flexibility and increased earnings are a win-win.

However, other bike cabbies that ThePrint spoke to said they had picked up the gig in addition to their regular jobs, just to stay afloat amid inflation, additional expenses, and either reduced or stagnant wages.

McDonald’s manager and CA in the same boat

In the daytime, 35-year-old Kshitij wears his dress shirt and trousers and heads to work at a chartered accountancy firm in Dilshad Gardens. At 6 pm, after a long day of crunching numbers, he dons a helmet and whizzes off to offer rides on hire.

“My salary was deducted after Covid and since then I have been working for about four hours a day with Ola,” he says. Kshitij returns home at around 10 pm, he says, adding that he has not told his family that he moonlights as a bike cabbie.

Mahendra Sharma, a manager at a McDonald’s outlet in Indirapuram, also operates his taxi service as a second job. He’s grateful that he still has his day job, unlike many colleagues who were let go, but the salary cut was a blow to his family.

“My salary was reduced. Besides that, household expenses and additional medical expenses had left me devastated,” he says.

Life is still tough. “After working for 10 hours in the restaurant, I drive my bike as a cab for two or three hours. I am still barely able to meet my expenses,” he says.

Also Read: ‘Passion economy’ is the new buzzword that’s shaping the future of work

‘Rising fuel costs have been like an earthquake’

The gig economy — comprising on-demand task-based jobs — saves costs for employers and offers flexibility to workers, but there are also drawbacks. There are no workplace protections, the money is inconsistent, and companies often pursue policies that leave workers at a disadvantage.

The latest bone of contention between cabbies and ride-hailing platforms, for instance, is that the fares don’t reflect hikes in fuel prices. Earlier this month, cab drivers staged a one-day protest in Delhi over the issue and have warned they will go on strike next month if a Delhi government committee for fare revision does not come up with suitable recommendations.

Vikramjit Verma, who runs a bike taxi and also ferries money to banks for a cash logistics company, is reeling from the rising petrol prices.

“I was not even able to recover properly from Covid-induced problems, and now spending Rs 105 for a litre of petrol has brought some sort of an earthquake in my life,” he says.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

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