Maxwell is not exactly your regular taxi driver. He does sit at the wheel of an Ola cab in Chennai in the evenings, but during the day he is a well-heeled, mid-level HR executive at Dell International. He came into the cab business purely to accomplish a bigger goal.

Maxwell’s wife, a gynaecologist, has invested crores in a state-of-the-art hospital in Arakkonam, a town some 70 kilometres from Chennai. It is almost complete, with imported equipment on the way, well-established doctors on board and a government licence in hand.

The couple sold their land in Bengaluru to establish this dream venture, which will provide free treatment to patients who cannot afford it. Maxwell and his wife put their entire salary towards making the hospital a reality. The Rs 1,500 he takes home every day from the additional cabbie job sustains their monthly living expenses.

Some 1,700 kilometres away, in another corner of India, a set of people with a starkly different social and economic profile to Maxwell are also being inducted into the same line of business.

In Delhi, Ola’s competitor Uber has been readying a batch of some 200 former safai karamcharis (sanitation workers, often referred to as manual scavengers in India) for a new life as cab drivers. “They are likely to receive commercial licences by October this year,” said an Uber spokesperson.

Their induction into this new job is a momentous occasion for a people who till recently faced a historical indignity that was officially proscribed years ago.

As part of the same initiative by app-based aggregators like Uber and Meru with the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation, some 250 young women, all daughters of the safai karamcharis, are being given training as drivers. Nine hundred more likely to come on board soon.

Breaking barriers

The numbers may seem small, but in a country where female taxi drivers, or those whose former line of work was cleaning human excreta, are as rare a sighting as white collar cabbies like Maxwell, this convergence of class narratives mounts a credible challenge to institutionalised social norms.

They reflect, in some sense, how perceptibly the gig or sharing economy – web platforms such as Uber or Airbnb that allow individuals to become micro-entrepreneurs by monetising underutilised assets like cars or houses – is helping India chip away at gender, class and caste biases.

“We are seeing a significant uptick in the number of educated drivers registering with us,” said Ruchika Tomar, Communications Lead at Uber, without sharing precise numbers on how many of its 3,50,000 drivers have a degree, or the number of students who are now using the platform to earn their way through college.

Tomar added: “From a driver who is an expert in five foreign languages to several others who are MBAs, engineers or consultants, there are a growing number of executives who are increasingly considering this as a legitimate option to engage in flexible, non-traditional, non-binding work that doesn’t trap them in a employer-employee relationship, with a boss looking over their shoulders.”

Freedom and flexibility

Jithin Thomaskutty, a civil engineer who now drives an Uber car in Bengaluru, fits this description to the T.

He left his job at a logistics company after several years of struggling with long hours, low pay and chronic dissatisfaction. Now, he makes two times more than what he did and has the freedom to work at his own pace.

Mohammad Ali felt the same way at Air India, where he worked as ground staff after quitting Samsung Electronics. Now he drives an Uber cab in a Bengaluru. “When I want to earn more, I do more trips,” said the 35-year-old. “On days that I don’t feel like getting of the house, I’m not answerable to anyone. I feel no embarrassment in doing this, I love my job.”

In a culture where driving is still very much considered a working class vocation that few educated Indians would espouse, this is a radical shift in thinking, driven by socio-economic factors that reflect a fast-changing India.

“Some do it to meet immediate financial goals, others do it because the entry barriers to entrepreneurship are very high in India, and this gives them a sense of being in control of their lives,” reckoned Tomar. “And then there are those who use a carpooling service like Uber Commute simply because they want to be environmentally conscious and don’t attach a stigma to driving other riders to work while on their way to office.”

Evaluating the risks

For all that the gig culture is doing to break class barriers and improve social mobility though, the costs attached to it are not inconsiderable.

As a recent report shows, Information Technology in India is likely to lose 30% or about 6,50,000 of low-value positions in the next five years due to automation. So it is perhaps well and good that there is another sector absorbing some of this workforce.

But, equally, in a country where millions enter the labour market every year, and companies still struggle to find skilled talent, can India afford the brain drain of educated workers to a sector that does not require high academic capability?

Moreover, as competition heats up, the number of cabs on the roads increase and fares drop, cab drivers across the country who use these aggregator platforms have seen their incomes reduce. Uncertainties around the regulation of this economy also continue.

In such a scenario, are we really prepared to let our desire for flexibility prevail over threats of job insecurity and virtually zero legal protection?

These are questions worth pondering. For now though, there is reason to be hopeful.

Technology, it appears, is working as an equaliser, taking forward the half-successes of education, politics and even economics.

With inputs from Avni Raja.