SOCIETY: THE FREELANCE RIDERS OF HYDERABAD

Published February 26, 2023
Design by Zainab Abbasi
Design by Zainab Abbasi

The pandemic has vastly altered the way many of us work.

The advent of Covid-19 caused immense stress for some people, as many individuals lost their jobs. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that several people continue to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, with exacerbated symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.

However, the pandemic also offered an opportunity to revisit old ways of working. Of those who managed to maintain employment during these trying times, many were introduced to the option of “working from home” — for many companies like Google and Microsoft, this has become a permanent feature.

In other cases, the shutdown — mandated by the governments around the world to maintain social distancing to prevent contagion — created opportunities by exposing systemic gaps and faultlines that needed to be filled by common people.

One such example of what has led to discovering an alternative livelihood is visible in Hyderabad.

Given Pakistan’s lack of public transport services and the rising cost of fuel, some enterprising citizens are choosing to provide a cheaper alternative to the bike services provided by online bike-sharing apps

A few young men in Hyderabad frequent local bus stops on their bikes to pick up savaris (rides). They are the owners of what has become an informal business and they do not belong to any official ride-sharing organisation such as Bykea or Careem.

Asad Zangejo, a 33-year-old bike-rider who lives in Kotri, was the first one to inadvertently start an offline bike service in 2020, when he was stationed as a polio worker at the Badin bus stop in Hyderabad — earning a meagre amount of 400 rupees per day.

“After Covid broke out, the government imposed a lockdown that disturbed our daily life. My daily wage amount was not sufficient to maintain my family’s expenses,” says Zangejo.

“From 2016 to 2020 there was no salary increment, so I resigned from my job as a polio worker and, instead, moved to introducing an offline bike service for passengers.”

Zangejo is self-employed because he cannot afford to pay the commission demanded by companies like Bykea or Careem. Instead, he introduced an economical alternative to the people of Hyderabad. He would wait on his bike at the bus stop and offer cheaper rides to commuters. In time, other private bike-owners also joined Zangejo.

Today, there are 20 bike riders situated outside the Wadhu Wah bus stop. Some of them are working part-time, whereas others are full-time bike riders.

People who cannot afford a rickshaw or a taxi opt instead for a bike ride because of its reasonable fare and quick service, which helps them save time.

However, this enterprise is riddled with its own challenges. The bike riders report that they encounter many issues with the police. Most of the policemen ask for bike documents and a licence or permit from any online bike company, even though the police is fully aware that this is an offline service that is not using any app for riders.

“When we take a ride and go to Naya pull, Hyder Chowk and Qasim Chowk, policemen stop us without any reason,” complains Zangejo. “We do not violate any traffic law, but the police still create disturbance for us.

“They either issue a challan for our bikes that can cost up to 500 rupees or they ask for chai pani [bribes]. When we offer them 100 rupees as a bribe they allow us to leave. If any bike rider comes across some policemen on a given day it causes a heavy loss for our earnings, even though we have all the requisite documents.”

The police aren’t the only ones who are proving to be a thorn in the side of the bike riders. Despite providing an economical ride to citizens, rickshaw drivers are not happy with the provision of this offline bike service, since they feel it is eating into their customer base.

Some rickshaw drivers have even threatened these bikers and picked quarrels with them, with one driver threatening to throw a biker’s motorcycle into a nearby stream. When these bikers approach the police to ask for protection, their pleas usually fall on deaf ears.

“We have no problem with any rickshaw driver, since their vehicle can transport more people,” says 27-year-old Ahmed Soomro, a part-time member of the bike savari group, who is perplexed by the hostility of the rickshaw drivers.

“Families don’t want to ride on bikes, as they usually prefer rickshaws,” says Soomro. “We have limited rides and our time is specified. We come in the morning and leave at night. We are hardly any competition for them, since they also cater to school-going students, whereas our pool of customers is limited.”

One of the benefits of this set-up is that, since this offline bike service picks up passengers from designated bus stops, it reduces fuel consumption, because bikers don’t have to drive to a separate location to pick up their customers. Often, they also give their contact numbers to regular passengers, so that they can coordinate whenever they need a ride.

However, a gender disparity exists in the usage of this service, as only men choose to avail the offline bike facility. Most women instead opt for rickshaws.

The growing popularity of this bike service is a direct result of a lack of adequate public transport and the rising cost of available transport services.

“The recent wave of inflation has made people’s lives very difficult, especially those who belong to the working class,” says Rashid Leghari, a regular user of this informal bike service. “Hyderabad is the second largest city of Sindh, but unfortunately there is no proper public transport facility.

“The Sindh government has launched a people’s bus service, but these buses are not enough to cater to a densely populated city. Before the arrival of the offline bike service, I was using a rickshaw for my work commute. These bikes present an economical alternative. If I can reach my destination for 100 rupees via a bike, why should I spend 200 rupees on a rickshaw?”

A full day’s worth of work entails about 10 to 12 customers for these bike riders, with them pocketing around 1,500 rupees per day. They are of the opinion that this service makes them more independent and gives them greater control, as opposed to the rules imposed by formal organisations which provide similar services.

This is because they are not required to pay any commission to a head company and what they earn is theirs to keep. This does, however, come with its drawbacks. If any rider gets injured or embroiled in an accident, they are not protected by any medical or vehicle insurance.

Nonetheless, it seems like such ventures are on the rise across the region. As senior journalist and field reporter, Ishaq Mangrio points out, “This is a new trend in Hyderabad. However, in Naro, Chondko and Khairpur, the usage of bikes as taxis is a very common practice.”

Given the state’s inability to provide cost-effective transport facilities to the masses, it’s easy to see why.

The writer is a Sindhi fiction writer, blogger and journalist.
He can be reached at akhterhafez@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 26th, 2023

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