In India’s Demonetization Chaos, Rent-a-Body Startup Makes Hay

  • Bookmychotu.com offers employees for lining outside banks
  • Surging demand for service prompts start up to add staff

Call it the triumph of the on-demand economy.

A Delhi-based startup is on a roll after it began renting workers by-the-hour as placeholders to busy professionals in India’s capital to stand in serpentine lines outside banks and ATM machines.  Customers are queuing up to exchange old currency or withdraw cash after the government took 86 percent of cash out of circulation.

BookMyChotu.com which rents a ‘Chotu’ - an Indian generic for an errand boy - for 90 rupees (less than $1.5) an hour said it cannot cope with the demand for its two-day old service. “We are adding staff and scaling up,” said Satjeet Singh Bedi, the startup’s founder who did not foresee the surging demand when he circulated news of his service on messaging apps.

In an overwhelmingly cash-based economy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Nov. 8 flash announcement that the country was scrapping its 500-rupee and 1000-rupee notes has created chaos but some startups are jumping to the rescue.

Users can book the on-demand helpers via its website or a call-in number. “Which busy professional has three or four hours to spare after an eight-nine hour workday? Our people can do that and the customer can replace the ‘Chotu’ just as his or her turn arrives,” said Bedi. The service offering in Delhi and neighboring Gurgaon and Noida, has found takers from the country’s largest companies, he added.

Helpers cost 170 rupees ($2.5) for two hours of standing, 260 rupees for three hours and so on and bookings post-8 pm are charged an extra 200 rupees. In India where ‘Chotu’ can also be a name for an under-age worker, the startup took pains to clarify that its helpers are all over 18 years old and had no problem being called by that name.

Demonetization is testing Indians’ long-held aversion for disciplined lines. But with the scramble for cash, mile-long queues in some places have become inevitable. In the local media, heartrending stories abound of people suffering heart attacks whilst waiting their turn at the bank and daily wage laborers having to forgo their earnings to get legal tender to buy basic necessities.

Bedi’s eight-month old startup offers helpers by the hour for occasions such as cleaning up after a party or helping pay the bills. The founder said he thought of a smart pivot when he himself urgently needed cash following his mother’s hospitalization. “My three-hour wait came down to 30 minutes so I thought why not help others too?” he said.

On social media, the startup has been accused of helping launder ‘black money’ through its helpers. But Bedi says his staff will not step inside the bank. The customer was expected to come and replace the helper 20 to 30 minutes before his expected turn. He is now looking for venture funding for his business.

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