Growing up in a small town in the 1990s, we were “constrained” by the “last mile connectivity” problem, where even simple things like getting pet food or buying daily essentials were a matter of much planning and effort. One, we were staying in an outlying area that was accessible only by a solitary bus that plied between the town centre and our locality. Two, we were among the majority of Indians without a car and had to depend on my moped for everything from shopping to commuting. The pre-liberalization India of the late 1980s and early 1990s did not yet have the “luxury” of home delivery that has become so ubiquitous now and so, Billions of person-hours were wasted on these activities, which are now being reaped by India’s Gig Economy/Workers, thereby transferring wealth and transforming the lives of both consumers and the Gig Workers.
India’s Gig workers are in effect, the “unsung heroes” who are solving its chronic last-mile connectivity problem by delivering everything and anything from cigarettes to takeaway food to acting as pickup and drop couriers, transporting packages and even high-value items such as computers, so much so that during the recent lockdowns, they emerged as the “saviours” of a locked-down and quarantined populace. Indeed, I speak from personal experience as I relied on them not only for groceries, medicines, and other essentials but also on one occasion, for ordering a spare monitor for my PC, that broke down just when I needed it the most. So, in a way, India’s Gig Economy has finally addressed what was once thought of as an “unsolvable” problem, where Millions of Indians were repeatedly reminded that they were living in a Third World Country, and hence, could not expect or for that matter, afford First World Conveniences.
Apart from the opening up of the economy and all-around reforms undertaken by successive governments, what really fired India’s Gig Economy is the proliferation of Digital Payments, which have become so commonplace now that even Chaat vendors can be paid using one’s Smartphone. Maybe the much-criticized decision to Demonetize the currency kickstarted the Digital Payment revolution with Knock On effects that it had on other sectors, including the rapid rise of India’s Gig Economy. Despite the lack of standardization and more incisive regulation, India’s Gig Economy continues to thrive and flourish as consumers hard-pressed for time or for that matter, lazy to drive down for shopping now have anything and everything at the “swipe” off an App that is like the Post Modern Alladin for a citizenry long used to delays in buying things they needed, even when they had the means to do so.
Having said that, it is not always a case of “milk and honey” as far as India’s Gig Economy and Gig Workers are concerned. Indeed, each day, we hear of numerous “glitches” and “deliberate” actions that threaten this segment, right from wrong deliveries to Uber drivers cancelling rides. What’s more, there is a number of consumers for whom India’s Gig Economy has still to deliver (literally and figuratively) and countless of them have had bad experiences with India’s Gig Workers. Whether this is because of the grossly exploited Gig Workers who have impossible targets such as 10 Minute Delivery or India’s notoriously bad traffic to navigate, or because of the lack of the aforementioned regulation that lets the Gig Economy firms “off the hook”, this segment has a lot more distance (again, pun intended) to cover before one can utter the world “revolutionizing” India’s consumer landscape.
Of course, this does not detract from the success that India’s Gig Economy had in terms of the last mile problem and the strides it has made in a relatively short period of time. Moreover, India’s Gig Workers are nowhere close to their Global (and more so with their Western) counterparts in terms of pay and job security or for that matter, protection and health benefits. I do think that over the next few years, the business models of India’s Gig Economy firms would either see them through the ongoing “Unicorn bubble burst” and would separate the winners from the others, or, we would witness a massive “shake up” that can be both good and bad news. Good news, because all said and done, India’s Gig Economy does need a Reckoning and bad news, because consumers might lose out on a real chance to leapfrog into developed world living standards.
No matter what, India’s Gig Workers would stand out for being harbingers of a transformation in the consumer behaviour of Indians and India’s Gig Economy can become a Case Study in any of the Ivy League schools for the rapid transformation and the exponential scaling up that these firms have achieved in a relatively short time. I do hope that with more regulation there would be more accountability and on the other hand, more responsibility from the Gig Economy firms and in turn, this would make them move up the value chain. Either way, the Indian consumers should remain the focus and the inevitable “churn” that happens when industries “mature” should ideally lead to better working conditions for India’s Gig Workers and continued benefits to the former. More power to all the Gig Workers, who like Domestic Helps have altered the way Indian households operate and more so for Indian women, for whom the Moped/Gearless Bikes heralded independence and now, India’s Gig Economy is sparing them from the last mile problem of physical visits to stores.