Organising the gig workers of tribal India

And building a viable enterprise with them

By Sandeep Hanchanale

With technology powering mobile phones, gig platforms are creating job opportunities. But on-demand task-based work has always existed in India. While these traditionally exist in tribal India too, newer ways of working are yet to find a strong foothold there.

This blogpost is thinking out loud about ways of organising gig workers of tribal India.

Munegoudas: A family of gig workers

Note: The family’s names have been changed for confidentiality

Munegouda is a Soliga, the hunter gatherer community in Male Mahadeshwara hills (MM hills) and the head of his family. He is a trained artisan who makes wonderful handicraft items and furniture. He works across coffee estates, stone quarries. picks non-timber forest produce (NTFPs) and helps the forest departments in plantation drives and clearing activities inside the forest.

Kempamma, his wife, is a trained honey processor. She helps Munegouda in tending livestock, manages their farm and collects Lantana sticks from the forest to make furniture. Managing her work flexibly, she also takes care of the family .

Their son, Belli, is a new age entrepreneur who has attended carpentry training, and learned photography and video editing. He helps his father in furniture making and collecting NTFPs from the forest. He has always been open to attending trainings to learn new skills.

Munegouda, Kempamma and Belli are gig workers. With the digital revolution penetrating not only rural but also tribal India, and the Covid 19 pandemic, many families like theirs have returned or decided to stay put in the hamlets they once left for greener pastures.

Lantana craft as livelihood

Lantana camara is a well-known problem in the Indian forests. It has taken over 40% of Indian forests and threatens native flora, fauna and livelihoods. We have previously written at length about why the Lantana invasion of Indian forests is a problem.

ATREE has been creating livelihood opportunities for this marginalised community of forest dwellers for over 25 years now. One such opportunity was training these tribal communities in making Lantana baskets and small furniture from this forest weed. The abundance of Lantana near hamlets quickly made furniture-making a viable option. We truly believed that this could turn into a full-time occupation and they would not have to look at other livelihood options to take care of their family.

Enthusiastically, we ran training sessions and even paid the attendees to compensate for their time. With the blessings of various decision makers like forest department members, village heads and influencers, these sessions were well-attended and duly completed on time. Little did we know that soon the euphoria would die down and we would be left to wonder, where we went wrong!

CSEI’s Invasive Species Initiative was started to further ATREE’s work with Lantana craft, with the following hypothesis: If we connect Lantana artisans from rural communities to the ever-growing furniture market, their revenue will increase and their livelihoods will stabilise. Read more about how this hypothesis panned out.

Lantana aspirations of the tribal community

Like many NGO models, we too had decided to handhold the Lantana cooperative for some time. The plan was to empower, enable and equip them with strong leadership to take this work ahead.

Soon, we learned to factor in their aspiration. While we were concerned with providing them full-time employment, artisans like Munegouda, Kempamma and Belli wanted to be free birds, chalking out their own gigs at their own convenience.

Munegouda would typically work on his own farm while helping the forest department with tasks like plantation drives. When the opportunity arises, he might decide to migrate for work on a coffee estate or construction site along with his wife and son which will guarantee them a lump sum payment. And when not engaged otherwise, he would be comfortable making furniture.

Kempamma would forage in the forest for NTFPs and Lantana sticks for making furniture. She would tend livestock, help in the farm and take care of the family and household.

To some extent, Belli was free to choose what he wanted to do. He would be allowed to undergo apprenticeship programs organised by ATREE (More on these apprenticeships here). He would share with his father the new designs and skills he learns and help the family stand out within the community with better design skills.

Some clear benefits of long term employment for gig workers are convenience, flexibility and higher unit pay. Gig workers’ drivers and preferences are clearly defined based on skill-level, life stage, and contribution to household income. But we learnt that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they may want to do it throughout the year.

Our learnings and the Lantana Collective

Armed with the above learnings, we have to redesign the rules of engagement for our furniture-based livelihood programs. The challenge is to bring together gig workers, but still have them be organized enough to take up orders and deliver them on time to the desired quality throughout the year. We have been playing the role of facilitator in identifying such key people within the community who can potentially take up leadership roles. We also hope that exposing them to new technology and designs will help them migrate to long term working on Lantana furniture.

CSEI’s solution to this livelihood and biodiversity challenge is the Lantana Collective which will restore nature through craftsmanship.

There are many stories like this in tribal India of NGOs, for profit social organisations, government and private players trying to introduce new ways of working. Some have embraced the change while others remain obstinate. Realistically, the likes of Munegouda and Kempamma may not adapt, but the younger generation that Belli represents, who have been exposed to new ways of working, might.

Finding local solutions with a potential to engage the community would be the key to success. Whether Lantana craft will emerge as a full-time work or just be one of the livelihood options in their gig calendar, needs to be seen. While leaders organise the community around Lantana craft in a way that works for them, we are here to handhold and enable their aspirations.

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We work on issues related to the environment and focus on citizen action and/or market-based approaches to solving these problems. Based in Bangalore, India. Find out more: https://www.csei.org/

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