This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on October 27, 2015.
I am not an economist nor have I studied business. But my common sense says crowdsourcing is not only humane but also Gandhian.
Last Friday, I came out of a meeting in Shastri Bhawan (a building where officials of several ministries sit) in New Delhi and opened the Ola mobile app to find a cab nearby. On the app’s menu, one option, which showed the closest cab available, was TaxiForSure. Many of you may know that it is another online cab-hailing service that was acquired by Ola. I confirmed the booking, followed by a call by the cab driver asking me where exactly Shastri Bhawan was.
I guided the driver and in about five minutes, the cab was in front of me. Incidentally, the cab was branded Meru; I was surprised that I ordered an Ola and got a Meru. I sat in the cab and started chatting with the driver, who explained to me that actually it was a car owned and provided by Meru—he used to work for Meru but not anymore. He further explained that he had paid Meru Rs.1.5 lakh as a downpayment for the car and has to pay another Rs.45,000 every month in instalments—Rs.1,500 per day—from his earnings.
But Meru is unable to provide him enough trips to make him enough money to pay his instalments and also save some for himself. “These traditional business people are unable to understand new business models like that of Ola and the like and they are not even changing,” he said. “We are not fools and bonded labourers that we will continue to fill their tummy and keep ours empty; we have family, kids and responsibilities.”
Apparently, as per my interaction with that driver, there are hundreds of cab drivers who have Meru taxis but they do not any longer drive for Meru; they all are fighting a court case while running the Meru taxis on their own. Meru is a top-down non-participative traditional business of providing car rentals where the passengers have to pay more than Rs.20 per km.
I must mention that I am a late convert to the ease and convenience of mobile app-based taxi-hailing services. For the past six months, I have been using Ola and I cannot explain how much I have been enjoying the whole experience.
In almost all my experience, there have been five major highlights: in all Ola cabs, I found that the drivers were educated and their conversation and topics and discussions were of a high quality; all the Ola cab drivers I met said they are earning well, getting a great bonus from the company for driving extra trips, and that they still have enough time to sleep well, enjoy family life and even drop their kids to school; all the Ola cab drivers denied accepting any tips and did not crib about anything in their lives; you get Ola cabs anytime, anywhere, and their fares are not only the lowest but also at a rate that is unheard of; and finally, as a passenger, you feel you are not cheated, not exploited, safe and travelling with a colleague and not a driver.
My best Ola cab experience recently was when I was returning to Delhi from Barmer, Rajasthan, by train and was not sure if I should have got down at the Delhi Cantonment station or Old Delhi railway station. I checked on the Ola app if there were any cabs available while the train was approaching Cantonment station, and as soon as I found that there was an Ola cab available, I decided to get down. When I found the cab just outside in the parking area, the first thing that the driver offered me was a cup of tea before we left for my home in south Delhi. Ola is an example of doing business using the principles of crowdsourcing, which is further based on the phenomenon of social media.
It was in 2005 that Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, editors atWired magazine, coined the word crowdsourcing, which means, “The process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.” However, I believe crowdsourcing is the most natural phenomenon to do business, and that too based on the need of the people, where the needs and provisions are matched evenly. For example, look at Goonj, the non-profit organization that distributes used clothes sourced from donors to the needy masses. Very simply, apparel is sourced from those who have them and given to those who need them the most; no money changes hands, yet all are served well.
According to Mahatma Gandhi, we should always use the products made by the masses rather than those that are made for the masses. Because “mass production is only concerned with the product, whereas production by the masses is concerned with the product, the producers and the process”. And in the process, it enriches the values, the needs and necessities of the community. For example, every Sunday I go to a farmers’ market in Gurgaon, where each and every farmer and producer, vegetable grower, food processor, etc., is vetted by a peer group and the citizens who go to buy the farmer’s produce there; the products that we buy there are all organic, not necessarily by certification but because they are known through peers, friends and community members.
It seems that as we are connecting more and more people in a networked society with phenomenal numbers of connected people, crowdsourcing could become a strong economic system to make India leverage what it has for the have-nots. Crowdsourcing has the power to make our society even, just, accountable, better governed, equitable, sensitive, need-based, ecological, localized and humane.
Incidentally, Ola was a recipient of both the mBillionth and Manthan awards in 2013 and 2014, respectively, when it was still in its infancy.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth Awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India.