How this taxi driver lives on his own terms with little financial protection, support or security
There are small chit funds that the taxi drivers operate among themselves. This taxi driver finds it most useful. The money is safe among friends. Each one gets a lump sum whenever there is the need. He draws his chit when he goes home on vacation.
My taxi driver Ram did not go home for Diwali. He has been driving a black and yellow cab in Mumbai for the last eight years. He travels only once a year, typically in the holy month of Ramzan, when his taxi owner lets him take off. Ram is not especially unhappy, since he has his phone. He video calls his family and speaks to them every day, and life goes on.
Our conversation over the long drive to Navi Mumbai reveals two dominant narratives that weave through his world view and life: One, he is proud, happy and satisfied with his earnings and his work. He does not regret coming to Mumbai and does not think much about living far away in tough conditions in the city. Two, his biggest money fear is about falling ill and not being able to drive his taxi. He does not care much about anything else. Each day that he does not sit at the wheel and drive for 12 hours, he loses income and he cannot afford to do that.
Ram is happy with his earnings. He compares it with the bleak situation of unemployment and uncertainty back in his village. Being able to hold on to a job, and earn a steady income is a big deal in his books. He also refers to the honour of being employed and being his own boss in his little taxi. He likens it to breathing free air. Back in his village, there was always the need to please and bend backward, live in fear of the mighty, ask around on an everyday basis for work, and the gnawing uncertainty of returning home empty handed.
He complains that elders do not provide the young with much choice when it comes to getting married. They think the young must tie the knot and impose upon them the responsibilities of the spouse and soon, the children. Then everything goes downhill with respect to work, income, spend and savings, he rues. If the young men got some time to step out and find their feet, it would be better. Ram believes he would have found a girl in Mumbai, someone who would also work. The tinge of regret about the wife’s inability to come and live here is evident.
But the money he sends back home is adequate and makes everyone happy and proud, he notes. The children are in school, and the dilapidated family home has been repaired. The elderly parents are grudgingly being cared for by the wife, but Ram sees it as a safety net. He says larger cities seem safer for women than smaller villages like his. My wife would not believe that you are sitting and chatting with a man in a taxi, at this hour at night, he tells me.
Ownership of assets is not on his mind. He sees it as beyond his reach. He talks about friends who drive an Uber or Ola, either renting it or owning it through their local networks. The more polished ones drive tourist taxis; and the privileged are drivers of big bosses who work in big companies and in the government. They get paid for simply standing about and gossiping all day, he rues. He also tells me about the horror stories of tourist taxi drivers who aren’t given breaks to eat or sleep by their heartless clients. He sees his life as less complex.
Capital is so scarce for so many deserving groups, is the thought on my mind. A few hundred thousand rupees will turn the fortune of this man around, but no one will fund his ownership of a taxi. Even if he has a steady income, he will not qualify for a loan. He tells me that loans are made only to big people who take it and run away to foreign countries. He reads the newspaper and chats with his fellow drivers about such stuff, he tells me.
What about other assets, I ask. He says that there is no safe place to keep them, even if he bought some gold. Gold is the asset in his eyes. Property is too far-fetched. He does not know anything about banks, mutual funds or shares. He sees the stock market as the place where educated people bet on stuff and make lots of money. The formal world of finance seems like something he is not entitled to participate in. He sees himself as an outsider in these affairs.
Did he not open a Jan Dhan account I ask. He says he has the account but cannot find the time to go to the bank, stand in line and get things done. He hardly uses the account, though he has learned how to transfer money from his mobile phone. It pleases him immensely to know that his family can get money as soon as they ask for it.
Insurance should cover him for the illness and other contingencies he fears about, I think. But the idea of paying a premium does not appeal to him. He tells me that the government schemes cover his family in the village as they are all agricultural labourers. But the key earning member working in a far-off city, is not covered by any insurance. He finds it expensive and the procedures quite cumbersome.
There are small chit funds that the taxi drivers operate among themselves. He finds it most useful. The money is safe among friends, he says. And each one gets a lump sum whenever there is the need. Ram draws his chit when he goes home on vacation. I tell him that this activity is not regulated, and he laughs. He says the law cannot do a thing when registered entities fail—look at the co-operative bank that went up recently, he tells me. He has been dropping people to the branches where they stand in line, weep, scream, and complain to no avail.
Ram shows me that a large section of the population lives on its own terms, with so little protection, support or security from the formal systems we all take for granted. He represents that segment that works hard but settles for less because it believes that formal finance is out of reach for them. Ram does not have big ambitions, as if dreaming big is a crime. The precariousness of his finances is not on his mind; it should be on ours as a society.
(The author is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)