India needs an online market place in the informal services sector

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Livelihood College, Dantewada in Bastar

I was looking for a carpenter to make a 2x2 wooden unit. A society regular told me he was busy. I found three others through friends: one quoted Rs 4,000, another Rs 2,000 while the third said his team had gone to village. I am not alone. It has taken months for my neighbour to find a driver. And not that either of us wanted to pay below market rates.

While we despair about lack of jobs, it is getting increasingly difficult to find service providers (SPs from now on) in the informal sector. Instead of looking for them the old social way through friends and neighbourhood, can we get more businesslike and develop an online national marketplace of SPs?

This marketplace can list SPs across the country. A carpenter from Bihar could showcase his work online and attract a customer from, say, Jodhpur or even Bangalore. With the increasing number of working women in cities, there is an insatiable demand for home support. A lady from Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand could easily find work in a city of her choice through such a marketplace.

When the whole nation becomes a market for SPs, more people will get employed. Also, buyers will have a large range of options to choose from.

Though a beginning has been made by sites like UrbanClap.com and Justdial.com, they have just skimmed the surface. Think of the number of customers serviced by state banks in the pre-Jan Dhan era. They seemed to be a significant number until the Jan Dhan Yojna showed what true scale could mean in India. If the pan-India marketplace for SPs becomes a national movement on the scale of the Jan Dhan Yojna, it can enhance employment as well as incomes.

Quite in the fashion of many popular schemes launched by the Narendra Modi government, the online marketplace can have a catchy name such as www.sabkasewak.com.

The website will list just anyone with a service to sell in the informal sector—carpenters, plumbers, domestic helps, painters, drivers, nannies, masons, electricians, truckers, tailors, e-commerce delivery boys, tourist guides, construction labourers, liftmen, security guards, yoga teachers, tutors, etc.

Being a government-sponsored initiative, www.sabkasewak.com can be more effective and useful than the commercial websites of this kind. One, it would have more credibility. Two, the central and state governments can take it easily to the people at the lowest level. Commercial websites cannot match the reach of the government.

Prime Minister Modi can promote it through his popular radio broadcast Mann ki Baat. A TV ad campaign can involve leading public figures such as Amitabh Bachchan who would explain to the SPs how it works.

How would www.sabkasewak.com marketplace actually work?

The government will set up thousands of kiosks at the block level across the country where an SP—let’s call him Raju—can go and register himself. The website can be available in several regional languages besides English.

Raju pays a fee of Rs 100 to register himself. He will have to provide his name, photo, the kind of service he offers, postal address, contact number, Aadhaar number and the names of places where he can provide his service. A police verification and customer references, even if not mandatory, would enhance Raju’s profile. If Raju is a contractor, he should state that.

In case Raju is unable to provide customer references, he should give contacts of two references with their Aadhaar numbers. Raju can update his profile every quarter at the kiosk for a fee of Rs 50. His profile can be graded on the basis of customer feedback.

If one is looking for a driver, there won’t be any need to talk to friends and neighbours. Just a search by service and city would be enough. In case of domestic help, the website will also list SPs not living in one’s town but willing to relocate.

A buyer, let’s call him Sriram, pays Rs 200 to register himself online, if he doesn’t feel the need to go to a kiosk. Sriram needs to give his name, location, nature of service required and the Aadhaar number. If Sriram is buying services for his company, he would give its corporate identity number. He can access the database on the website only when he is registered.

Sriram must give his feedback online for the service he had bought. The feedback would include answers to a few questions—such as ‘Are you satisfied with the service’ and ‘Would you recommend him to others’—and rating of the SP.

The government can work with registered large recruiters like builders and corporates to create an easy-to-understand listing of which services are in demand where.

Sriram must give his feedback online for the service he had bought. The feedback would include answers to a few questions—such as ‘Are you satisfied with the service’ and ‘Would you recommend him to others’—and rating of the SP.

The government can work with registered large recruiters like builders and corporates to create an easy-to-understand listing of which services are in demand where.

During a 2012 visit to Livelihood College at Dantewada in Bastar, I got to know of tribal girls who were trained in tailoring and then hired by exporters in Chennai. With www.sabkasewak.com, such phenomenon will become widespread.

The website will not only increase employment and income but also mobility. If it tells Raju there is a great demand for masons in, say, Itanagar, due to a construction boom there, he can pitch his service to the buyers with a plan to relocate there.

The government should just create the framework, market the idea, monitor outcomes, outsource day-to-day operations and then leave it to the entrepreneurial ability of the citizens.

It is true that a real surge in employment will come when the manufacturing sector picks up. But the government cannot just wait for that to happen—it can focus meanwhile on creating employment in the informal sector .

Does it wait for private investment to pick up or invest in a marketplace that has the potential to create jobs on a large scale? Technology can create pan-India opportunities for the million-odd youths who join the labour force every month.

The website, www.sabkasewak.com, can serve an important social purpose too—bringing the marginalised people to the mainstream. The website can help them find work and make them feel wanted and financially secure. For example, in Vrindavan, where a lot of widows abandoned by their families live, there could be a huge opportunity for a textile company which can make them do basic tailoring work.

There could be even more to www.sabkasewak.com—once it becomes popular, the data can be used for important purposes one cannot even imagine now.

(The author is an independent columnist and founder of www.esamskriti.com. He tweets at [email protected])

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