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Strolling down the street

By Ajit Balakrishnan
March 22, 2022 08:48 IST
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… and I learn more about economic trends than from books, observes Ajit Balakrishnan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
 

Last Friday, tired of a week of a dozen online video meetings each day, I found my legs taking me for a stroll on the street where the building in which I live stands.

For a person like me, or, should I say, for people like us, learning' is what happens when you bury your face in books (and, of late, in devices on the internet), discovering things, the mega changes under way, hoping to get a glimpse of those, so that when a change comes, you don't get overcome by a sense of panic.

Streets? They are just for driving through, not for learning anything.

The first sight I encounter across the street is a petrol pump where I have been filling petrol in my car for the past few decades.

When I got closer to it, a sense of guilt overcame me, and I walked past it as quickly before the owner accosted me and asked me why I stopped business with him.

Why the guilt? Just three months ago, I had bought myself an electric car, which came with a home-charging kit. The ritual of a bi-weekly fill-up at this local petrol pump was over for me.

Will this petrol pump owner cling to his petrol pump and its dwindling petrol customers or boldly change to an electric vehicle-charging station?

'Sir, I have fresh papaya today, here, please have a look!'

This call was from Mukesh (name changed), who operates a fruit stall on a cart always stacked with the freshest varieties of fruit of the season.

As I write now, it is papaya; in the previous three months, it was delicious mangoes. And as always, there is a stack of green plantains which figure almost daily in a curry on our dinner menu.

There is a conspicuous six feet by six feet white band painted on the pavement within which Mukesh operates.

He once explained to me that the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation had asked for applications from street vendors like him, and he had applied on the advice of a friend, and had got his street shop authorised.

Mukesh is bright-eyed and articulate (and friendly) and has a son who assiduously goes to school and does well in class too.

I once asked Mukesh, who is from Bihar, what made him choose a street vendor's career.

"If one can't read and write, what other job can one get, Sir, this at least pays me Rs 9,000 a month, enough to educate my son."

Live on Rs 9,000 a month? In Bombay? I was about to ask him, but I settled for a warm smile for him and walked on.

Across the road was a shop I used to visit almost daily in the 1970s and 1980s to rent video tapes of the latest Indian and international movies and that helped us pass every evening joyfully.

Then, cable TV appeared and my visits to this video rental shop decreased a little, but I still rented from him international movies, which our local television channels did not much carry.

Then came Netflix and other direct-to-home options and I found myself never visiting this shop.

But the owner, like most owners of small shops, is an enterprising entrepreneur and of late switched to organically grown vegetables.

He smiled at me two days ago with a beckoning look. Who knows, with the organic (=non fertilisers/pesticide) wave under way, he may become one of our favourite shops again.

But I shudder to imagine what's with the local cable operator, a prosperous pot-bellied man with an ever-smiling face, with the advent of direct-to-home.

By now I had reached a wider stretch of the street. Wider pavements mean more street vendors.

I suddenly noticed a streetside stall with a dozen or more classic-looking clocks with classic-looking true wooden frames.

I stepped closer, picked up one, and checked. It was electronically driven though the classic look made it appear like a 19th century hand-wound clock.

A young man in his twenties, obviously the minder of the pavement shop, popped up in front of me and said, "Sir, this is made in England and costs only Rs 900."

I wanted to buy this, but was not carrying enough cash. He saw the regretful look on my face and instantly said: "Sir, you can pay by card!"

Pay a street vendor by card? Seeing my incredulous look, he darted behind his stall and came forward with a hand-operated card-swiping machine!

I paid for my purchase and strolled on, wondering whether this was what we called 'digital transformation'.

When street vendors are offering card payment facilities to their customers, the digital transformation of India seemed well under way.

And our fear that giant private equity-funded e-commerce companies would destroy all street vendors may not be as absolute as we had imagined it to be.

Walking my way back home, I couldn't but help notice the stream of BEST electric buses going up and down (for you, dear reader who isn't from Bombay, BEST runs the BMC buses and, if I may add, very well too).

As I waited patiently for several of them to stream by so that I could cross the road and enter the lane to the building that I live in, I couldn't but wonder at all the change that was taking place around me: Petrol and diesel cars and buses giving way to environmentally safer electric ones, the rural folk battling their way from jobless rural areas and becoming entrepreneur street vendors, kirana shops switching to healthy fruit vending and offering digital payments...

God is in his heaven and all is right with the world?

Ajit Balakrishnan (ajitb@rediffmail.com), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur and as a member of the committee that updated the Indian IT Act 2008 personally wrote Section 79 which introduced the concept of 'Intermediaries' and governs Internet platforms.

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Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com
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