“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.