Sunday, December 10, 2023

Nothing "unorganized" about the unorganized sector

Just like we now use "differently-abled", I think it's time we switch to "non-formal" instead of "unorganized". Hence, we would have "formal" and "non-formal" sectors of the economy. Not "organized" and "unorganized".

Of late, in Goa, a ton of roadside tender-coconut vendors have sprung up. It is interesting and ironic - but not surprising - that the vast majority of them are non-Goans ("outsiders" as many would like to call them). Earlier this month, the irony got really "nutty" (pun intended): the local Municipality wanted to put an end to sale of tender coconuts because disposal of the empty tender coconuts was becoming a problem. 

I say "irony" simply because we seem to be doing okay with collecting a ton of junk (literally) and the system of door-to-door collection of segregated garbage has stabilised fairly well and yet, here we are, suddenly unable to deal with refuse that is 100% bio-degradable and has been an integral part of the local ecosystem for generations. Not to mention that it's decomposition does not generate wet discharge or stench like other wet waste. Certainly, it is bulky and adds weight, but so does all the other garbage we are disposing off.

In response, a meeting with held between the vendors and the Municipality. It doesn't matter who convened the meeting. The point is, in a matter of days, a mutually acceptable solution was found and the vendors were back in business. No riots, no demonstrations, no political slugfests. At least nothing in public view.

I noticed that they all now displayed a board that requested customers who take "parcels" not to dispose off the waste in the municipal collection but to bring it back to them. Moreover, they were all having boards that had the exact same size, style and matter.

My curiosity got the better of me, so this evening when I went to purchase tender coconuts, I had a little chat with the guy I usually buy it from. 

What I learnt, astounded me:

  1. The tender coconuts are supplied by people coming from Karwar, Sirsi and Mysore. This raised several questions for me: (a) where are all the Goan bhatkars? (b) what economics are in play here that someone is able to supply tender coconuts from these places and still sell them @ Rs. 40/- each? Sure, there's no municipal tax, no FSSAI license, no GST, no income tax, no KYC, no nothing, but even so, the economics of this confounds me (c) How does a place like Sirsi and Mysore which are not even coastal, generate enough surplus tender coconuts to come supply them in Goa? What is their supply-chain like? What market research did they do? What inventory management do they do?
  2. The vendors got the board made at a centralized location - hence the standardisation of size, matter, font, format
  3. The board they display requests customers to bring the empty tender coconuts back to them instead of disposing them off with the waste collected by the Municipality. So I asked him what they do with the waste given that the Municipality is unable to deal with it - he said they have tied up with someone who stacks it up in a nearby field and then uses it for composting, selling to people who use as fuel for fire, etc. So much for the "organized" Municipality!
  4. Most of them are on carts that are sort of anchored to the ground. I asked him what they do at night. He said they just cover it up with tarp and tie it up with ropes. I asked him whether it is safe. He pointed to two places in the vicinity - one, a tea cart (not a stall or a shop - a tea cart) and two, an eatery. The tea cart is open till midnight and the eatery till around 1:30AM. He says they keep a watch for him and the rest is Ram bharose (or Jesus or Allah, as the case may be)

I walked away feeling incompetent. 

This isn't restricted to the tender-coconut vendors alone - these basic tenets of courage, perseverance, risk-taking and jumping-in against all odds extends to many of the roadside vendors and other players in the non-formal ecosystem that we see.

Woe betide the next person who says they belong to the "unorganized" sector.

The spirit of these folks astounds me. This isn't jugaad - this is just dogged perseverance. This is the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship.

Jai Hind!