Covid pandemic is made to order for gig ecosystem as freelancing can help recover Indian economy

Financial Express, May 04, 2020

By Udai S Mehta & Himanshu Dube

Last few years have seen an unprecedented growth of platforms created by technology firms. This has resulted in the creation of new jobs, not only for engineers but also for semi-educated youth as drivers, delivery boys, cooks, packers and others in multiple supply chains. The ecosystem created by these intermittent or short-term employment (largely freelancers), has come to be known as the gig economy. Since the enforcement of nation-wide lockdown in mid-March owing to Covid-19, the Indian economy has come to a grinding halt. While in recent days, in many places, the government has allowed shops, establishments and factories to open up, it has placed a number of restrictions to promote the wellbeing of citizens and workers. Like all other enterprises, gig platforms too are either closed or working under capacity.

Short-term but Transformative Opportunity

The pandemic has brought to fore the vulnerability of the migrants who are vital cogs of our agriculture, industrial and service supply and value chains. They work and live under abysmal conditions with neither their wage nor living conditions being decent or assured. While on one hand, the above descriptions suggest a woeful economy, on the other hand, they carry within them many opportunities. And as the pandemic is but a temporary phenomenon, much that will work under it will not be required thereafter. Thus, the situation is made to order for the gig ecosystem and it can play a role in the recovery of the Indian economy.

The pandemic has resulted in the emergence of new jobs especially related to healthcare such as isolation and quarantine centres, surveillance and monitoring, elderly care and emotional support. Odisha recently announced that it had set up quarantine centres in 7,000 villages. It is expected that managing and servicing these centres would require locally trained persons. Similar infrastructure will be required in entire rural India and possibly every half sq km of urban India.

To reduce the workload on the existing healthcare workforce, it is now clear that India needs to at least quintuple its paramedics who could work in short shifts of four-six hours every alternate day. At the same time, it is important for them to maintain their immunity and to keep contributing to the battle against Covid-19 related mortality. Many of these old and new jobs can be undertaken by millions of migrants with relevant training and capacity-building support, as they will do things which they have never done before.

Thus, the pandemic offers a short-term but transformative opportunity to technology firms to enable India’s economic recovery. This could be with the objective of ensuring overall production efficiency and productivity through coordination of India’s human capital. For instance, tech-enabled platforms may help in deciding the number of workers that could work at a particular time on a factory floor/production process while maintaining physical distancing. It could help in time and space management between different trucks so that crowding does not happen at unloading destination/mandis or markets.

It may enable monitoring and screening body temperature of workers linked with it to ensure all workers are healthy. Skill enhancement may be required in jobs at managerial/supervisory level so that they are able to analyse real-time data and take quick decisions about the replacement of workers, delaying the supply, to maintain physical distancing without unreasonably disrupting production and supply. This skill enhancement can also be provided by technology firms using e-learning solutions.

Thus, we could have Oyo and MakeMyTrip managing quarantine and worker accommodation centres, Ola and Uber providing lockdown/curfew pass transport as well as medical evacuation, and Swiggy and Zomato running food centres. Amazon, Flipkart and Grofers can supply groceries and other essentials. Rivigo and other supply chain platforms can also emerge to keep the industries supplied with raw materials and to transport finished goods to the markets both brick and online. Zoom and Meet can be used to organise trainings. And there could be many more such business models.

Remuneration Payments

The technology firms can further help augment human resources by informing workers about intermittent or short-term job opportunities either in pandemic management or in industry. On getting information about various job openings such as manning a shift at neighbourhood isolation centre or monitoring those quarantined in the locality or after adequate digital training provide nursing support to patients needing critical care relieving the overwhelmed workers of the healthcare system. This can further be extended to supporting community kitchens or worker accommodations required to service the industrial units.

Thus, this brings us to the critical question of “remuneration payments”. The lockdown has resulted in a near breakdown of the economy. The enterprises which are at the edge of their viability currently are expected to take a further knock as physical distancing norms means lower production and increased costs to follow it. To maintain their viability they would need to produce to their capacity by hiring additional human resources that they cannot afford to pay. This is where the government can step in. It can make these ‘additional” human resource remuneration payments through public social protection programmes.

While not regarded as such, India has experimented with gig ecosystem for social protection in the last decade and a half under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) by providing intermittent or short-duration work available on demand.

The government can extend MGNREGS to cover additional human resource payments, especially if work is provided to those enrolled with technology platforms. The government may further ensure that those obtaining work through these platforms are guaranteed minimum income and days of employment. This may not only create employment at a massive scale but also contribute to economic recovery during these difficult times of the pandemic.

Udai S Mehta is the Deputy Executive Director of CUTS International and Himanshu Dube is the Executive Director of Insight Development Consulting Group.

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