Cornered by a room full of journalists chomping at the bit, Amitabh Kant was forced to get creative earlier this year. The gathered reporters wanted answers about an allegedly suppressed jobs data report, which showed India’s unemployment was at a 4-decade high. Kant, the chief executive of government think tank NITI Aayog, fell back on the gig economy. Cab aggregators Ola and Uber alone, he pointed out, have created over two million jobs since 2014.
Kant may have been grasping at straws, especially given the fleeting nature of the jobs he was highlighting, but he did make one salient point to justify it. “Like the world across, the nature of jobs itself is changing,” Kant said. This is inarguable. Over the last decade, the gig economy has mobilised millions of people, both globally and within India. In fact, one in every four gig workers is an Indian, according to a PayPal report.
These are not casual numbers. Several reports testify to the new work wave that’s taking over the country. According to a recent survey by hiring marketplace Noble House Consulting, 81% of respondents had moved into the gig space in the last five years. We see this all around us—in the form of the Swiggy delivery executive, the Dunzo rider, the Ola/Uber driver, even homeowners who’ve listed on platforms such as Airbnb.
But the gig economy goes well beyond this. Hidden amongst the millions of gig economy workers crisscrossing India’s cities and powering today’s services, lies a relatively unacknowledged yet thriving gig freelancer ecosystem. Not gig workers, but gig entrepreneurs. These freelancers, according to the PayPal report cited earlier, earn an average of Rs 20 lakh a year—easily 3X of what a full-time fresher job offers.
The government recognises this niche in the gig economy. In 2015, the Union government introduced a freelance scheme under its Digital India platform. The government also recognises the sector as self-employed and has a number of policies for MSMEs of this sort—gig entrepreneurs.
While a freelancer workforce has traditionally existed, it has now moved from the fringes to a viable mainstream option today. But what does this brave new gig entrepreneur ecosystem even look like, and how did we get here?
Young & connected
Just like with the more commonplace gig economy, the internet is the beating heart of this revolution. While in the past, sourcing and securing a project was mostly through word-of-mouth or one’s professional network, internet penetration has ensured that is no longer the case. More than half a billion people in the country have access to the internet—with about 35% of internet-usage growth coming from rural areas—and with it, access to new avenues to earn a living. The biggest beneficiaries of this, unsurprisingly, are tech-savvy millennials.