Fifty years ago too India had a robust gig economy



Last week I got my first haircut in almost a year. Succumbing to the constant advertising on television as well as pictures of well-coiffed heads on social media, I decided to try the at-home service from one of the gig companies. It turned out to be an extremely pleasant and professional experience, and I have to admit I have been missing out by not calling them earlier. In fact, given the hygiene, the punctuality and the overall efficiency, I doubt I will ever go back to a salon unless it is to pick up some local gossip.

However, I am here not to praise the gig economy but to tell its purveyors that much of it is old hat. It wasn’t uncommon for barbers to come home when we were growing up in the 1970s. The big difference is that these services were then the preserve of a few rich people. Indeed, a haircut while lounging in an easy chair, followed by a luxurious oil massage was the marker for zamindars of the era who seemed to spend all their time in their bagan baris (garden homes) smoking hookahs and being administered to by various minions.

Nor was this gig-economy 1.0 restricted merely to shearing and shimmering of men’s heads and bodies. A whole host of other service providers were available on call and would come home to do the needful. Among the more intriguing of these is dental services, including I am reliably informed, tooth extraction jobs. Given how complex they appear today involving multiple trips to the clinic, it’s a wonder how effortlessly these visiting dentists did the same job.

Another common service that seems to have gone extinct, was tinning the pans (kalai), a 600-year-old process that made brass utensils safer to cook in besides giving them a lustre. As kids, we would gather around fascinated by the burning and washing. Not so popular was the carding of old quilts that was performed by visiting vendors carrying their kaman and dhunaki. While the sound made by these instruments was interesting, the little fluffy bales of cotton that it produced turned into a not-so-pleasant spectacle to watch.

My personal favourite was the bicycle borne knife sharpeners who would turn all the blunt instruments at home into ready-to-kill weapons. Sadly, my mother never really let me use them for the intended purpose, insisting for some reason that knives belonged in the kitchen.

While food delivery may well be a multibillion-dollar business today and it certainly adds to our options, the sheer charm of taking your own flour to the several tandoors that dotted cities such as Delhi and watching them being turned into rotis in those smouldering ovens was a different experience altogether. Adding to it were the dals and the kadhi, slow-cooked to perfection in the same ovens and packed with a generous dollop of ghee on top. When you opened the container at home, the fragrance wafted through the entire house.

One big difference between these people and all of those who are part of today’s gig economy is that they were all self-employed. As such they didn’t have to share their earnings with anyone except perhaps with the colony guards who occasionally demanded a small bribe for letting them publicise their wares with appropriate calls. But then they didn’t have the benefit of venture capital and private equity either. Comparisons are odious, but I wonder how these hardworking vendors would have prospered if they had similar backing.

Different times though. Fifty years ago, India’s GDP was barely $ 70 billion. Today, just the gig economy is estimated to be around $ 250 billion and expected to grow to $ 455 billion by 2023 (ASSOCHAM estimates).