Bringing dignity to Rickshaw Drivers

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Meet Team SMV 3. Sumit

This week, we’ll hear from Sumit Singh (MIS & Admin) as he remembers the genesis of SMV:


Myself Sumit, I am the first employee of SMV Wheels. When I was joined SMV to start up the work, was not hired on salary basis, rather I was given food and lodging.

At that time I looked after the field work and office work both because those days there was little office work. So I was mobilized full day in the field, and after these things, whenever I got time, I used to do my office work.

We started our work with some little infrastructure (one room office nearby a cemetery (Kabristan). So we had got it in cheap monthly rent. There was one Laptop that was used by Mr. Naveen Krishna, an oldest model of desktop computer (PC) that was used by me.  only two tables,  four plastic chairs, and a folding Bed.

Some of these resources (1PC, 2Table, 1 Bed) was not purchased by the company; they were donated by a gentleman after seeing our passion for this job, and we had taken it because at that time we didn’t have much money to spend on these things.

When the office was closed, I used to stay there at night and used to make my food at office. At the early morning, I woke up and used to make my food before 9:00 AM. before the office day started, I used to put my all stuffs under my folding bed because there were no another kitchen or room there I could keep my stuffs.

Now when I think about those days, I feel pride to be on this stage.
It does not mean that we have reached our goal, it means that we are on the right track to reach our goal, our final destination of becoming the first and best rickshaw company of India. and to serve more more and more rickshaw driver across the India.

We did not lose our patience in those struggling days when we were going through the crucial time.  But this struggle is not over. We have to struggle more and work hard to reach our destination.

I know, and I have trust that me and my team would definitely get it…

Best Regards,

Sumit serves as the MIS Manager. He manages the company’s cash flow, inputs voucher information into the accounting system, and oversees procurement. In his days at SMV he has also collected payments in the field, completed reporting documents, couriered documents, community mobilising, and maintaining bills and vouchers. Sumit is in his second year of his Bachelor degree from Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidya Peeth in Varanasi. He loves to sleep, listen to music, and especially play cricket.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Meet Team SMV 2. Joy

Second in the series, we'll hear from Senior Finance Manager Joy Jauer about her interaction with rickshaw drivers in her first few months on the team.

"Remembering my first day in the field"

Today is my three month anniversary with SMV Wheels. Now that I’ve been with the company for a quarter, it’s interesting to look back on what I’ve learned and how we as a team have progressed. I did a lot of listening and learning at first, and, while I continue to do that, I really enjoy seeing the difference in how I’ve really become a part of the SMV family instead of a spectator.

One of the things I love about this company is how much we take care of each other. When I asked about the office culture in my interview, Naveen said something like, “Oh no, you don’t need to worry about anything like that—we’re a family, we’ll take care of you.” They do, too. From finding me packaged “dahi” (yogurt) to searching for my lost packages at India Post, everyone has done their best to include the new gal. This is one of the things that makes us a great business—our focus on taking care of each other and our clients.  

While we’re still perfecting our operations and supply chain, SMV works hard to put our clients first, striking a balance of viewing them as consumers of our service and co-creators of the business. We provide a bit of wiggle room with repayment when “it’s too much cold” or when someone has a family emergency. At a brainstorm in one of our staff meetings, a team member pointed out that we should show more hospitality to our clients by offering them a drink when they come in. This mindset is what is going to make SMV shine as we scale. At a social entrepreneurship conference, a gentleman representing an NGO questioned the priority sector lending approach to rickshaw loans, arguing that banks don’t know enough about rickshaw drivers and the problems they face. It’s true; actually helping this community is contingent on knowing them. And knowing the community is something SMV does well.

I love getting to know our clients. They have wonderful smiles; they work hard; and they are so glad to show you their vehicles. But it wasn’t until the second week that I had the opportunity to go on collections rounds with our field staff. Here is what I remember about that day:

“We started the day with our mechanic’s workshop. I saw the workers assembling a traditional rickshaw: the detailed painting and designs on the carriage, the bolts that connect it to the chassis, and the gears that make the machine move. It was great to see the how our rickshaws are put together so that I understand how they work and what maintenance needs to be done. Having just had my bike tuned up at home, I could follow along with the braking system and construction. I was surprised to learn that it only takes 4 hours for a rickshaw to be fully assembled. I was also surprised (and at the same time, not at all surprised) to see the workshop to be in what I consider to be a disarray—some of the work was being done on a median in the middle of the road and the tools were scattered about the walls and floor. And somehow the work is done masterfully. Amazing.

Then we went on the collection route. A few weeks back we started to allow a designee to pay on behalf of our client so we travel around to their homes and someone like a wife or father provides the installment. It was great to see where our clients live and meet their families. Most of them are delighted to have a new visitor and were happy to meet me. A few wanted me to come in and see their homes.

Our collections process is designed to ensure accurate reporting as well as help the client keep track of his progress. The client gives the field officer a wad of cash, which the latter then counts and makes sure is the correct amount according to that day’s collection route list. Then the field officer writes out a receipt with the expected amount, the paid amount, and the client’s name which the client (or designee) then signs. The original stays with the client, and a carbon copy stays in the receipt book. Then the field officer makes an entry on a blue installment card that shows each payment so that the client can track their progress. By the end of the day, I was accepting the cash and making the receipts myself! 

On our way home in the Varanasi traffic (which is out of control, by the way) we were going very slow as a jam was clearing and I saw something that made me so thankful that I’m at SMV Wheels. There was an altercation between a rickshaw driver and a car driver. I’m not sure what caused it, but it seemed like the rickshaw driver had run into the car while trying to make a right turn across traffic. There was no visible damage to the car, but the car driver had gotten out of his vehicle and was both verbally and physically assaulting the rickshaw driver. The image is burned into my memory.

It’s plain to see that rickshaw drivers are one of the more marginalized members of society here. They earn about Rs.250 a day. They work long days of physical labor and suffer abuse from fleet owners if they don’t own their vehicle, from police officers if they don’t have the proper licenses, and even from patrons. In the community, there is a high incidence of communicable diseases like TB and HIV as well as a high incidence of malaria; they suffer from malnutrition, tobacco addiction, and alcoholism. Perhaps this rickshaw driver was at fault, but he was half the size of the car driver, who looked like he had had a few too many doses of protein powder and muscle milk, was wearing designer western clothes, and had been driving his own vehicle. The power imbalance was striking.

One of the things that attracted me to the company was the vision to not only increase the livelihoods of these folks but also give them dignity as well. Just like anyone, I can imagine how asset ownership could provide as sense of pride, but now I get to see it. Our clients are so happy to have their *own* vehicle that they can take home with them at the end of the day and decorate as they like. Usually, they return the rickshaw to a fleet owner and pay a daily rental fee that cuts into their earnings. SMV’s clients pay a little bit more than what the daily rental fee would be with a fleet owner but with the ability to have their own asset at the end of their 54-62 weekly installments. I’ve had our clients stop me in the street to say hello and show me their rickshaw. I can’t wait to see delivery day—our workshop partner says they are so excited. Sometimes they bring their whole family or bring treats or go to temple straight after to give thanks. Something to look forward to!”

In these twelve weeks, I haven’t gotten to spend as much time in the field as I would like given the financial reporting requirements, human resource needs, balanced scorecard tracking, and external relations management responsibilities I have. Last month we had a celebration when some investors came to visit. We had just finished fabricating some new modern rickshaws, so we distributed them at the event. It was fantastic to see our clients gathered together and the happiness in the faces of the men who received a brand new vehicle. I look forward to each time I get to spend with our drivers as it gives me renewed energy to press on with the administration side of the business. Our clients give me a strong sense of why I’m here and what I’m doing—why I moved to the other side of the world to help scale this company.

Looking back, I feel the same as I did my first week about how glad I am to be working in this space. We are uniquely positioned to assist our clients as they climb themselves up the socioeconomic ladder because we specialize on the subset of the Bottom of the Pyramid associated with rickshaws. I’ve seen how our work really does change people’s lives for the better. I can’t wait to roll out further value-added services and increased income stream ideas we have in the pipeline. And I can’t wait to demonstrate these outcomes quantitatively as we track our clients Progress out of Poverty. 

Joy is a Piramal Fellow for Sustainable Business from San Antonio, Texas, and joined SMV on 21 November 2011. She holds a Master of Public Service and Administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station where she studied nonprofit management and international economic development and led consulting projects for OneStar Foundation and Capital Area Food Bank. She studied social anthropology as an undergraduate at Harvard University after which she worked in personal financial advising in the U.S. at Ameriprise Financial, a Fortune 500 financial services company. When she's not working on spreadsheets, Joy likes to sail and dabble in photography.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Meet team SMV! 1. Naveen

In the coming weeks, team SMV will share about their experiences with the rickshaw-driving community and why they choose work with the company. First in the series, we will hear from Founder and Managing Director Naveen Krishna who will tell about one of the incidents that compelled him to work in the rickshaw industry.

In 2005 I was pursuing my MSW from Banaras Hindu University. On one particular night, I was sitting at my study table trying to finish some assignments given by our professor on personnel management.  My roommate (as always) was in the next room chatting with the other boys about hostel politics and affairs going on in our faculty. I felt like having some tea, so I put on my jacket and left the room. It was eight in the evening on the 27th of December, and I still remember how cold it was.

The tea shop was 500 meters away so I decided to walk instead of taking the motor bike that my father gave me. I started walking slowly towards the hostel gate and heard some noise on the road in front of the entrance. It was dark outside on the road, as the street light had gone bad few days back, so it was hard for me to guess what was happing there. Suddenly, I heard a painful sound, and as I rushed to the road I saw one of the boys from our hostel beating a rickshaw puller like an animal. 

Somehow I managed to stop him and rescue the rickshaw puller from the beating. When I inquired about what happened from my colleague, he said that the puller was asking for two Rupees more than what he pays on a regular basis. The smell of beer and pan masala from my hostel colleague’s mouth was unbearable for me so I decided to settle the dispute by taking the same rickshaw to have the tea. The rickshaw puller never spoke a word with me the whole time.

After reaching the tea stall, I invited the puller to have tea with me, and he silently agreed. I ordered tea for two and, when I turned back, I could see his face was bleeding and had swelled due to the beating. I was stunned by the barbaric act of my colleague and the vulnerable position of the poor rickshaw puller in our society. I gave him some water and told him to wash his face and started having the tea with him. His name was Ram-Naresh, and he must have been around 50 years of age. He started sharing his journey to become rickshaw puller in Varanasi.

He was a native of Mau, a district 75 km away, who came to the city 18 years back to find a job in the Varanasi silk industry. He somehow got a job and was happy with his family of 7 including his mother, wife, and four children. With the introduction of power looms he lost his job and never had a clue how to find a new job until the day he met a fellow from his own village who was pulling a rickshaw in town. The fellow introduced him to Khalif who was with a rickshaw mafia near the Ghats. After taking a security of Rs. 500, Khalif gave him an old rickshaw on daily rent of Rs. 25. For the last 12 years he had been driving the rickshaw to earn bread for his family.

 I was in grief when I heard that this kind of harassment happened to him frequently and that he was used to it. To quote his lines “Saheb, hum log garib admi hai, koi hamare baat ko nahi sunta, hum kya kar sakte hai” (Sir, we are poor people; no one listens to us, what we can do?) This incident forced me to think how unfair it is to be a rickshaw driver: this guy who received the beating for just two rupees—the same money which my colleague spent on his single pan masala—for plying the rickshaw in such cold. It was unwarranted to beat the rickshaw puller; it’s not a crime to ask for two extra Rupees to drive in the night…and he spends two to three Rupees on pan masala 10 times a day.

When I started working with rickshaw drivers, I recalled this incident. It’s one of the many illustrations of the need in this community. I felt that they should have dignity. At the time I did not realize that this incident will be the major cause for the genesis of SMV!

Naveen has more than six years experience working with rickshaw drivers in the nonprofit and forprofit social space. He headed The Rickshaw Bank project in the capacity of National Coordinator for Centre for Rural Development (CRD), a nonprofit enterprise based at Guwahati, Assam. He was recruited and trained under CAPART’s Young Professional Scheme and has developed expertise in economic development, organizational development, microfinance, and government policy. Naveen enjoys boat rides on the Ganga and cooking.