According to a Nasscom report early last year, India was placed third in the world with a resounding 4,200 successful new ventures having been set up in the country. A year since, there have largely been positive stories about this fairly new tranche of our economic structure. But a closer, more anthropological look at this culture of funding and co-everything huddles, points to a stilted interpretation of economic liberalisation and its newest anchors. The latest example of this profoundly muffled definition is a young startup venture operating out of Delhi-NCR called BookMyChotu.
In a landscape parched with ideas, and Make-in-India conventions, there is very little left that hasn’t been automated or hand-delivered. The startup culture is a thing of lore, and there is no dearth of rags-to-riches, dropouts-to-founders, quitters-to-winners stories in the media. In fact some of the media has come to actually exist because of a space sprawling with make-or-break stories that, to be fair, requires its own thread of comment to survive and sustain momentum. It is all very liberal, in an economic sense at least, and to its credit, refreshing to a system of capitalism that has at least become participatory in the last couple of years if not fair.
BookMychotu doesn’t come without a disclaimer, where it says on the site that the name ‘chotu’ has been used for the purpose of marketing and branding and that all helpers available through the venture are above 18; in a way implying perhaps, that the age of 18 is requisite for men and women, who should ideally be in college, to work as handy-men for Delhi’s elite. The disclaimer on the site, notwithstanding in a rhetorical sense, what opinion do startup companies have about the nature (not standard) of work thousands of men and women are being engaged in?
In a world where market spaces are a fist-fight between lightning-fast delivery and service, it seems the search for the new bright idea is to borrow from the very few things we actually still do, as we did years ago. It is perhaps not without a sense of entitlement that we complain from a place of privilege. From rant pieces on the Kafkaesque nature of armchair employment by the corporate machinery to the unspoken biases of the Indian caste system in such circles, we have read it all. And to be fair these are issues in their own right, but what about the feudal nature of the world of startups, banking itself on the percentage minority of the country capable of paying through credit and debit cards and shopping from their mobile phone for food, drugs, furniture and bean bags for their entitled behinds? Just how many startups address the majority, the unprivileged rural poor, without turning them into tools to be used by the privileged few?
'Chotu' is a word usually associated with migrants from Nepal who come and work in the country as helpers. While a help won’t exactly mind being termed that or for that matter anything as long as he or she gets his or her paycheck, it is inversely reflective of the top-down arrangement of our societal commitments — few and far between as they already are. The startup from Delhi isn’t the only one of its kind, with similar projects functioning out of Bengaluru and Mumbai, the retrospective laxity of which has been, sparingly, commented upon. From booking a 'bai', to a peon — it's all happening. Thankfully, BookMyChotu makes it a point to say that hires cannot be asked to clean toilets. But is that the only line in the sand right now? It would definitely be interesting to know how many of these helpers are being hired by households, inhabited only by octogenarians or people of the age or health rightfully in need of help of some kind.
But in the elitist, neo-feudal culture that we have come to follow and create, it wouldn’t come as a surprise, that the elite in Delhi are hiring helpers to buy groceries, change a bulb or pay the one bill that can’t be done online, all of which are perfectly doable, if you want to in the first place. The third and final step on the booking site says that once you get a confirmation, ‘just relax’ — as opposed to doing what exactly? In our urban vision of a lifestyle, ironically, far removed from the very urbane thing of haggling to chores and back, why are the lives of the lesser entitled, so to compensate? This is a drug we would do well to resist succumbing to.