“Kuch ATM mein line bahut hi zyada lambi hain, aur jis ATM mein line kam lagti hai, usme koi paisa hi nahi hai. Kya kamal hai” (The lines at some ATMs are far too long, and the ones that look like they have shorter lines usually have no cash. What a spectacle), said a 24-year-old employee of BookMyChotu, a Noida-based start-up that, according to its website, “provides the best on demand helpers” for performing chores such as “basic cleaning, pre or post house party help, help in religious get together [sic], market help, grocery shopping from nearby stores, etc.” “Perhaps it is good that all of my salary gets spent on house expenses,” he continued, with a hint of amusement, “Otherwise I would have to stand in these lines for myself as well.”
At 8 pm on 8 November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced through a live broadcast that, effective that midnight, the government would be demonetising notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000. Since then, the cash crunch that ensued has driven several people across the country to bank branches and ATMs, leading to serpentine queues and hours spent in waiting to procure legal tender. Nearly two weeks after the announcement, on 21 November, BookMyChotu put up a post on social media, which was accompanied by an image of one such queue outside an ATM. Super-imposed on the photograph were the text: “We are against black money, we want to help the government fight this problem.” “Are you short of cash,” the original post read, “Need a helper to stand in Que of the bank / atm??” It went on to advertise that the mobile application was providing “hourly helpers” who could be hired—for approximately Rs 90 per hour—to stand at lines in banks and ATMs until those availing the service were called for their turn. Satjeet Singh Bedi, the founder and chief executive officer of BookMyChotu, told Sahiba Chaudhary from the newspaper the Hindustan Times that the idea for the advertisement came to him when his mother was ill and he “immediately needed cash.” “This is already a common practice amongst family members,” he added, “And we insist that you treat ‘chotus’ with respect.”
The post drew mixed reactions online. While some people lauded the ingenuity of the concept and deemed it beneficial, several others condemned both the company and the advertisement. This criticism was directed at the nature of a service that allowed—and glamourised—the rental of cheap labour under the ruse of convenience. Many commentators also called the company out on its name, pointing out that the word “chotu” was demeaning to its employees, given that it had classist connotations. On 22 November, BookMyChotu made a few modifications toits original post on Facebook. These included the addition of the sentence, “Chotu is just a name , all our helpers are above 18yrs of age”
I asked the 24-year-old employee, whom I had hired by calling the number provided on the organisation’s website, about his thoughts on being referred to as a “chotu.” He said, “‘Chotu’ matlab joh aadmi bada aur chauda nahi hai, kyunki shayad logon ko dar lagta hain jab koi bhari banda kaam karne ke liye ghar aata hai.” (‘Chotu’ means a man who is not very big or well-built, perhaps because people get scared when a heavily-built man comes to their house to work.) According to the employee, the organisation takes this nomenclature so seriously that it does not employ people beyond a certain weight or height.
The 24-year-old employee and I met at a market in south-east Delhi, outside an ATM that presented a formidable queue. Subsequently, we found ourselves hopping from one ATM to another, only to find that most of them did not have cash to dispense. Finally, after walking for around three kilometres, we found two ATMs that had cash, each with queues of about 15–30 people. The employee was perplexed by my presence. Usually, he said, the customers he interacted with specified the ATM he had to go to in an area that was convenient for them. They met him only when it was time for them to come to the machine for their transaction.
Bedi, the founder of BookMyChotu, told Ritika Jain, a reporter with DNA that the application was developed for people who needed help around the house. He noted however, that since the government announced its demonetisation policy, “we started receiving calls, primarily from corporate professionals who needed someone to wait outside the ATM in the queue for them.” The 24-year-old employee said that this was the fourth time in the past few weeks that he had been allotted the chore of standing at a queue outside an ATM for someone. “It looks like these tasks will only increase as long as all of this is going on,” he added.
The 24-year-old employee told me that although he was originally from a village in Uttar Pradesh, he and his family had been living in east Delhi for the past 14 years. The work at BookMyChotu, he said, was hectic given that it involved three assignments a day, from nine in the morning until seven in the evening. But, he added, he did not mind it. “With this job, at least I get the opportunity to travel a little, I used to get slightly bored with my previous one.” Since he frequently moves around the city to perform odd jobs for the organisation’s clients, he told me that he did not spend a lot of time with his colleagues. “Kabhi kabhi mil jaate hain office mein, aur customer ke bare me baat karte hai” (Sometimes, we meet in the office and talk about the customers), he said.
The policy on BookMyChotu’s website specifies that its employees cannot be hired to clean toilets or wash clothes, but this does not safeguard them from being asked to perform tasks that border on bizarre. The 24-year-old employee said that most of his chores involved helping someone clean their house, transporting material from one place to another, or picking up groceries. “Ek-do baar kuch ajeeb kaam bhi mila hai mujhe” (Once or twice, I have also been asked to do some strange work), he said. “Once, someone called and said that they were leaving their house, but their grandfather was at home and could not stay alone. So I went to their house and just sat there for two hours.”
Standing in queues, the 24-year-old employee said, could be irritating on some days, depending on his mood. “Work is work,” he continued, “Sometimes there are a few entertaining people, with whom I can speak. Last time, when I was standing in a line, I just put my earphones in and listened to the radio for two hours.” Did he not get irked by having to stand in line for people who could do it themselves, I asked. He smiled and said, “Yeh toh main safai ke baare mein bhi keh sakta hoon na?”(I could also say the same thing about cleaning someone else’s house, right?). The 24-year-old employee did however, express his irritation with the fact that the number of hours he spent in a queue did not have any bearing on the money he received from the company. Employees at BookMyChotu, he told me, are paid a fixed salary between Rs 9,000–10,000 a month. The customers pay the employees from BookMyChotu close to Rs 90 per hour—the amount varies depending on the number of hours they’re required to work during the assignments they are sent on—along with additional reimbursements for any money they spend on conveyance. The employees deposit the entirety of this fee with the company at the end of every week, the employee told me.
The 24-year-old employee did not have a bank account himself, and received his salary in cash. This was causing him some worry about how he would manage the next month. He was concerned that BookMyChotu would pay him in high-denomination notes of Rs 2,000 that he would not be able to use immediately. Although he mentioned that the organisation had stated that it would help its employees open a bank account, he did not seem very convinced. “Main yeh zaroor kahoonga ki yeh joh hua hain, hum jaise gareeb log ko bahut pareshan kar raha hai” (I will say this, what has happened is really troubling poor people like us), he told me. “At home, my father has a bank account, so I was able to go with him to deposit all my cash.” The employee added that several members of his family and many of his neighbours, all of whom got their salaries in cash, too, had been struggling because of the number of Rs 500 notes in their possession.
As we finally reached the end of the queue, an hour-and-a-half after we had first begun our excursion, I withdrew money from the ATM to pay the employee. The machine had stopped dispensing notes of Rs 100, and I ended up with a single note of Rs 2,000. The 24-year-old employee appeared exasperated, aware that we would now have to find a way to obtain notes of smaller denominations.
We began to walk towards a nearby petrol pump that had a grocery and wellness store on its premises. It was a little after 7 pm, already past the time at which the 24-year-old employee’s workday was scheduled to end. “This happens frequently, and since I work on all days of the week, I have gotten used to it,” he said. The erratic schedule, he added, was one of the few aspects that made him miss his previous job. There, he had fixed timings there and rarely got delayed on account of someone else.
Soon, we got change for the note and I paid the employee. As we parted, he said, “Kisi ne mujhe yahan zabardasti kam nahi karwaya hai, agar yahan nahi toh kahin aur—kiraya toh bharna hi hain.” (No one has forced me to work here. If not here, then somewhere else—I have to pay my rent no matter what.)