This report is the tenth of a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods.
Less than a year ago, 32-year-old Nagaraj S. from the Arundathi Nagar slum in Chandra Layout of Bengaluru would spend sleepless nights worrying about providing for his family. His three-year-old daughter’s monthly school fee of Rs. 500 weighed heavily on his mind. As a part-time driver earning less than Rs. 12,000 a month, he was struggling to make ends meet. But now his daughter attends a “good” private school that charges a monthly fee of Rs. 1,500. He has bought a car on a loan. His dream of owning land somewhere on the outskirts of the city may one day become a reality.
Change is coming to Arundhati Nagar Slum, and it’s riding on four wheels: online app-based taxis that have been steadily gaining ground since they hit the city’s roads a few years ago. Nagaraj is one of an estimated two lakh drivers in Bengaluru who work with aggregators such as Uber and Ola. “I make around Rs. 50,000 a month working 10 hours a day, six days a week [with Uber],” says Nagaraj, who still can’t wrap his head around the fact that a little more than eight months ago he was struggling for a job.
The broad strokes of Nagaraj’s rags-to-stability story are being played out across the city. Unlike Nagaraj though, many drivers hail from the outskirts of Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka, all forced to leave their villages for the city for a livelihood. When Thippe Swamy (32) came to Bengaluru a few years ago, he started out as a garment worker, earning less than Rs. 4,000 a month. Advice from a friend changed the course of his life: “Learn how to drive.” Swamy, who lives in a tenement in Badrappa Layout, did just that. He took a loan for a car — “it’s an investment”— and now works as a driver for an app giant.
None of this happened instantly; it took months of practice behind the wheel. He squirrelled away every spare rupee and invested in a car that met the requirements of the taxi company. But he still had to take a huge loan. “At least, there is no scope of getting cheated. I am my own boss. I still manage to save around Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000 a month,” says Swamy, who expects to repay his loan in four years. Nagaraj, too, can’t quite comprehend his new-found success. After all, he spent years working as a taxi driver in Bengaluru before being forced to sell his car as he simply was not making enough to maintain the vehicle. “I was almost ruined. I sold that taxi and again started working as a private driver but I hated it, all the bowing and scraping for people,” he says.
“Who could have imagined that drivers like us would actually be making money,” he wonders. The surprise is tinged with worry as the loans run into lakhs of rupees. Will the bubble burst? Will the government ban them? Is their neighbourhood safe?
Most drivers trade in their tenements for one-room rented flats in neighbourhoods where there is no danger of their cars being vandalised. Nagaraj is an exception in that he still lives in Arundathi Nagar. “The most important thing is to get my daughter educated in the best school that I can manage,” he says. Another driver, Liju Joy, has enrolled both his children in expensive private schools. More than dream homes and cars and other trophies of middle-class prosperity, they want their children to have a “fancy” education. They want their sons and daughters to become the very people they ferry every day. From shanties and one-room rented flats to a home of their own. They are living the middle-class dream.