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People of Bharat: Baiju Lal

I walk by a noisy, narrow street in Lucknow where the size of the shops compliment the space; shops that were built here years ago, some of them during colonial times. The area is called Chowk — a strategic intersection in a busy market area where one can find a variety of wholesale shops selling clothes and fabric embroidered in the chikan[1] style. Amidst these shops boasting of Lucknow’s characteristic chikan embroidery is one, stuffed with shoes and plastic items. The shop is rented to Baiju Lal Verma, 42, who sits at the tiny entrance, holding a cup of tea and gazing at the busy street.

That’s how I meet Baiju and request him for an interview. It’s early in the day and business has not started yet. Baiju invites me in and we start talking. He tells me he was born in Badi Jugali in Lucknow. His father sold paan[2] on the streets and was the sole bread earner raising three sons. Baiju studied till the tenth standard and then quit studies to shoulder his father’s responsibilities — joining his father in running another paan shop alongside the original one. Baiju’s sacrifice of his own studies enabled his siblings to complete theirs; he tells me his brothers are graduates. Eventually, Baiju quit his father’s work to explore other business opportunities and presently runs a shop selling shoes and plastic items. Baiju has three sons aged 16, 11 and 9 respectively. ‘My wife used to work but she quit to look after our children’ he says. He lives with his wife, sons, two brothers and parents in the family’s ancestral home. The house is a concrete dwelling with six rooms and basic amenities. ‘Last month I purchased a television from my savings. My father was delighted! Another dream is to purchase a car — the entire family would be able to go out together’ he says dreamily. However, life was anything but a dream for Baiju.

Baiju first started working as a scooter mechanic in a repair shop. As scooters started becoming rare, he switched to renting out CD players and cassettes. Looking for an ‘evergreen’ business, he started selling shoes 13 years ago with an initial capital of INR 20,000. ‘I always had the knack for business. Technology and fashions keep changing. I have faced a lot of challenges but have learnt to keep on moving, keep on changing’ says Baiju.

Baiju’s monthly income is around INR15–16,000. He spends an average of INR 4–5000 on the education of his children. The fees of his eldest son amount to INR 13,000 each quarter and the bulk payment is a financial burden. He pays INR 12–1500 towards loans he took for borrowing capital for his business and saves INR 1000–1500 monthly in a bank account. ‘Whatever hardships I might face, my son’s education should not suffer’ he tells me with conviction. His father pays for groceries and utilities. Baiju also works part-time as an agent with a well-known company in the banking sector for a small commission. During Diwali and festivals, he puts up a small stall outside his shop which is managed by his wife. ‘I just returned from Kokatta. I have bought beautiful rakhis (decorated thread/amulet) from there. We are ready for Rakshabandhan[3]’ he quips. His younger brothers are working — one as a guard and another as a chef. ‘Papa un dono ko bol diye hain ki sirf bachat karo. Unki shaadi me kaam aayenge paise’ (Our father has asked them to save all their money — it will help with their wedding expenses) he says. He owns a smartphone but refrains from online financial transactions.

Baiju plans to slowly decrease shoe sales and focus on plastic items. ‘Each shoe company has different features and designs. If I agree to sell a particular design, I need to buy at least six sets in different sizes. I can’t manage the annual investment needed’ he explains. A year ago, Baiju started selling a few plastic items alongside shoes. These include bathtubs, buckets, water bottles and kitchen ware. He asserts the profit is more in plastics than in shoes. ‘I can sell three sets of a plastic item for more profit as compared to a set of six pairs of shoes! Why would I stick to shoes?’

Once in three months, Baiju feels in need of cash. During such times, he borrows a little from his family members. In the future, he also hopes to expand his business to selling children’s garments. ‘But only if it’s reasonably profitable. I have not studied. I hope my sons do. There is not much else I can do (in terms of livelihood). I can only be a vyaapaari (trader)’ he summarises. As I leave, I glance back at the Chowk and can spot many more “Baijus” dusting their wares and readying for another day of business.

[1] A special kind of embroidery that was patronised by Mughals in the 17th Century. [2] A preparation of betel leaf and areca nut chewed for its stimulant effects. [3] Indian festival that celebrates the bond of brother and sister.

About the Authors: Bhumi Sinha, a third year student pursuing BSc Biology. Her interests includes community involvement, reading, blog writhing and poetry. She loves to voice on various issues of the society.

Valerie Mendonca is a Research Associate 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 or ask your questions in the comments section below.

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