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People of Bharat: Altaf
For my next story, I dial the number for Altaf. His caller tune is a popular Bollywood song of the 90s: ‘Chand tare tod laun, saari duniya par me chaaun, bas itna sa khwaab hai’ (I dream of possessing the moon and the stars; to be on top of the world; it’s not a really big dream). The song in the movie encapsulates the dreams of a middle-class hero trying to work his way to the top. Altaf answers my call, breaking my reverie. He replies in a soft tone that camouflaged his determination, as I discovered later.
Altaf, 30, was born in Chindwara, a rural district in Madhya Pradesh. His father is in the Indian Army and his mother is a housewife. Altaf remembers, during the initial years of his father’s career, they kept changing homes and lived in various towns before returning to Chindwara for good. ‘Army walon ko bahot ghoomna padta hai’ (Army families have to move a lot), he says. Along with his wife and mother, Altaf now lives in a five-room house that belongs to his father. His father works in Mumbai and so does his younger brother. He has a sister also who is now married and lives with her husband and his family.
Altaf remembers that they had financial ups and downs while he was growing up, ‘We weren’t exactly poor, but my father was the sole earning member, and he had to provide for his wife and three kids. It was tough for my mother to manage the household with one income.’
Altaf graduated in 2009 and started to work as a salesman for a reputed Indian white goods manufacturer. He manned a canopy stall displaying selected products and brochures and had sales targets to meet. A couple of years later, Altaf quit the job as he felt he was not growing. He enrolled for an IT course at a local computer centre, and also worked at its computer laboratory as a technician. On completing the course, he started preparations for the entrance exam of the Indian Railway service alongside a full time job. He cleared the written exam and was called for the interview, but did not make the final cut. Altaf talks about his journey — from earning INR 3000 as a salesman to rising as a manager at the computer centre.
In 2019, in addition to his regular job, Altaf joined a startup offering last-mile connectivity services to enterprises in rural markets through a network of ‘on-the-ground’ agents. Trained in the use of the company’s app, he started off as a field officer. One of his duties was collection of information/data for large industries by conducting in-depth telephonic interviews. ‘Getting people to trust me and give me the correct information is an ever-present challenge,’ he says. Within a few months, he became a trainer for other field officers doing their on-the-job training. ‘I train people to fill forms, conduct quality data collection, verification of documents and do project briefs.’ During the Covid pandemic, the computer centre closed down, and he was laid off.
Altaf’s income before he lost his job was INR 25,000. His wife earns INR 10,000 as a school teacher. Together they contributed INR 35,000 to the household income. During the pandemic, Altaf’s younger brother lost his job too. The side income from the startup was a mere INR 3000–4000. In the past three months, the household spent INR 10,000 on utilities INR 25,000 on groceries. Altaf also has to support his wife’s B.Ed. degree course — he pays INR 36,000 as quarterly fees. Altaf believes in relentlessly pursing his dreams. He is determined to land a government job as he has seen the stability it offers and keeps studying for competitive exams. He had plans to startup in e-waste management, and had been saving up. However, the pandemic forced him to use up his savings to survive. ‘I will have to start over,’ he says, reflecting the distress of millions of people laid off similarly.
Lack of funds is not the only thing holding him back. ‘I also need to have some basic business management skills. Let’s see,’ he says, ‘one thing at a time.’ About the Authors: Rashmi Sharma heads the Product Implementation team along with Survey & Data Collection Vertical at MIMO Technologies Pvt Ltd., a startup that generates earning opportunities for the gig workers while enabling the enterprises to reach the untapped market.
Anshuka Sachdeva is an Account Manager at MIMO Technologies Pvt Ltd., she enjoys interacting with ground agents along with providing them training and helping them complete the assigned tasks.
Valerie Mendonca is a Senior Associate — Insights at CIIE.CO, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad. Her research interests are women, entrepreneurs, society and storytelling. She tweets @ValerieHood17.
About Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII): Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII) is an incubator platform at CIIE.CO that provides entrepreneurs the domain knowledge, training, financial support, mentorship, and market access they need to bring inclusive, for profit-business to life. BII’s core design is to promote technology-driven entrepreneurship towards the delivery of affordable services to the “Bharat Segment- the poorest 200 million households in India who survive on less than $5 per person a day” through programs, fellowships, and funding where possible.
The program focuses on solutions leveraging technology, especially the India Stack. It integrates financial inclusion research with entrepreneurship and training to transform these solutions into scalable, viable and high impact businesses. We are keen on partnering with entrepreneurs who are driven by building next-generation digital services for India. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask your questions in the comments section below.