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Sankalp: A Tough Start & Rough Roads Ahead

All of us deal with multiple realities, often meaningful in one context and meaningless in another. As an academic, I frequently get applauded from the small academic fraternity when I publish a scholarly research paper in a top-rated journal. Despite the achievements when I look towards my support system and community — I find them asking me ‘So what? How does that matter? Do you get satisfaction by doing theoretical research which is of no practical use to anyone?’ These questions make me rethink my purpose.

Since the last few years, leading the Incubation Centre at IIM Kashipur, I acquainted myself with numerous practical problems faced by entrepreneurs. It is especially humbling when entrepreneurs running extremely small scale ventures approach us with their big dreams. I have found a couple of observations among most micro-firms operating in the hills: they all have good products, yet they are clueless about what is a fair market price; and more importantly, where is that market?

Conflicted between ‘doing research that does not matter’ and ‘please help us’ from this community of entrepreneurs, I chanced upon an email regarding the Bharat Inclusion Fellowship call. It was a research call for finding practical solutions for the financially excluded. I applied with good intentions but vague ideas and got accepted! This gave me a push to start our project ‘Sankalp’ which is our attempt to address income volatility and social security issues amongst the gig workers of Uttarakhand.

As the saying goes, when we start something new and meaningful, the whole universe conspires; but for us that was not to be. We had barely initiated the project in March, when everything changed. Covid-19 dislodged the whole world, with a lockdown affecting the gig workers of India in the most brutal manner. A challenging assignment now seemed like a daunting task.

Somehow, we started. We contacted a few cooperatives that connected us to gig workers who were employed with them prior to the lockdown. Here’s what they told us:

We had good sales during lockdown. My expenses are about Rs. 6000 and sales were above Rs. 20,000. I hired two delivery boys so my sales went even higher, and I could help two people run their families in these tough times.” R1 (grows and sells herbal tea).

My expenses are Rs 10,000 {per month}. I could not generate even Rs. 3000 in the last month. I don’t have any money to pay the {school} fees of my children. What should I do?” R2 (grows and sells turmeric).

My son used to send us money every month, but he is now back from the city. We barely have enough to eat. We are growing our own vegetables and selling {them}in the local market for survival.” R3 (gig worker from Almora).

Our entire family started making masks, and we sold face masks of Rs 80,000 with good margins last month. Our monthly expenses are Rs. 10,000, so we saved some good money.” R4 (grows and sells millet).

Things are certainly not great but our initial thoughts that all is lost may not hold true. The Covid-19 pandemic has altered livelihood options for many and these peripheral inputs need to be explored for more data to unveil the multiple layers of this phenomena. We the team of researchers at IIM Kashipur shall continue till we find a solution to create sustainable livelihoods, even if it is only for a few people!

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