Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stoking Entrepreneurship

My parents live just outside "proper" Calcutta as the locals would describe it. The location is relatively idyllic in comparison to the city itself and that was a key factor in their decision to buy a home there. While they have managed to escape the chaos and bustle, they have also had to give up some conveniences. One of them happens to be easy access to domestic help. The help has been both intermittent and unreliable for several years now.

Recently (and much to my relief) that has changed. An hour from where my parents live, further in the countryside an enterprising young man has set up shop to train and place domestic help. The average trainee/employee at this operation is a farmer's wife looking for some extra money when the crops don't do well or the harvest is disappointing. The proprietor trains these women in the fine art of house-cleaning. Huge amounts of dust and soot are part of Calcutta's atmosphere and the bulk of anyone's domestic chores involves cleaning this stuff from every exposed surface.

It is hard, back-breaking work and never seems to end. No sooner than you have wiped it off from one place do you find a fresh batch settling upon the other. You never win the battle against dust. The old-school domestic help used to go about the motions of cleaning but merely displaced dust from one place to another much to the aggravation of the mistress of the house. Many an altercation between the two leading to termination of employment has resulted from difference of opinion on the best way to displace dust.

Apparently, these newly minted trained "house-cleaners" have a sophisticated technique that involves closing the strategic windows and doors around the house in a certain sequence depending on ambient conditions that allows the whole house to be cleaned without displacing dust from one room to another. You can buy their services in four hour slots and as frequently as desired but no long term commitment is required.

My parents are in considerable awe at the level of professionalism in their "trained" domestic help and truth be told so am I (even without having seen them in action) If this is possible in semi-rural West Bengal, I can't even begin to imagine how far ahead the rest of India might be.

But there is another way to look at this situation - from the perspective of opportunity being created out of under-development, poverty and adversity. If every inch of open space in Calcutta had been covered by greenery, dust would have not been flung all around all the time. Without the bane of dust the job of a "house-cleaner" would not have existed. Most people (including my parents) are fairly self-sufficient as far as doing all other household work but it is the non-stop "dusting" of open surfaces where they desperately need help.

In India, the government's inaction and inability to provide basic services to the citizenry works like a growth engine - there is this groundswell of entrepreneurship and job creation happening all over the place because people are filling the gaps any way that they can. In other countries they might seek to achieve the same results through huge stimulus packages. Us desis have found a much easier solution which does not cost anything. Talk about turning lemons to lemonade.


Vikas Gupta said...

"Trained house-cleaners" was quite an eye-opener for me!

One man's meat is another man's poison and the vice versa. There is always a silver lining to every dark cloud (of dust)!

Also, whenever I say I am from Ranchi, most people ask "proper Ranchi?!" This is a popular desi-ism.

Another is "what is your good name?!" which is a literal translation of the Hindi expression: aapka shubh naam kya hai! As if we also have earned a bad name, LOL !

Another Kiran In NYC said...

A remarkable entreprenual spirit. For whatever reason it has not infected the rest of India, at least not where my parents live. There is much need to this kind of short contractual labor and there is none to be found.

Most interesting to me is the fact that I finally hear of someone who does not live in "proper" Kolkata. Every non/bengali I know insists they live in Kolkata. I was wondering if the country side was completely deserted. I should go and check it out for myself one day.

Another Kiran In NYC said...

oops... typo.
need to, should read need for.

Poonam said...

I had lot of trouble finding an efficient cleaning lady in the Capital city. I wish we were as enterprising all over the country. Not only in terms of cleaning, I mean I wish we were as entreprenuial in other arenas of life as well so that despite having an overwhelming population we are not understaffed in medical, legal and other fields requiring skills.

ggop said...

This is great!

Heartcrossings said...

Vikas - lol @ good and bad name !

Kiran - It's not so cool to not live in "proper" Calcutta so most people don't like to say that they do :)

Poonam - You are so right ! There is a cornfield of entrepreneurial opportunity in India. Maybe the idea will catch on and spread to other areas where we need help

ggop - That was my reaction as well when I heard about this