Krishna Kumar used to spend his days listlessly gathering scrap in garbage dumps across Motihari in Bihar.
On most days, the Class 4 dropout took home Rs. 60, just enough to buy a little dal and rice to feed his six younger siblings and aged parents.
Then, five months ago, he was among 46 ragpickers hired by Waste Ventures, a start-up that offers a professional garbage collection service.
Today, the son of a retired sweeper goes to work in a blue uniform, a pair of gloves tucked into his pocket. He collects garbage in a neat, bicycle-drawn garbage cart, blowing a blue whistle to signal his arrival.
"My mother cried the first time she saw me in a uniform, as if I were a soldier setting to fight a war," he says, laughing. "But that's how happy she was."
Kumar now earns R4,500 a month. "We can now afford to stock a week's rations at a time, including oil and vegetables," he says.
Besides the income and job security, Kumar says he likes the routine, respect and dignity of being a formal employee in a company.
Parag Gupta, the US-returned management consultant behind Waste Ventures, ultimately aims to employ 1.5 million garbage collectors across the country. For now, he has launched two projects - in Motihari, and in Damanjodi, Orissa.
"We need gainful and meaningful employment not only for the next generation of business management and engineering graduates but just as much, if not more so, for the next generation of electricians, plumbers and sweepers," says Gupta. "This is the key to tackling homelessness, poverty and crime. Besides, by creating a bonafide waste management profession with benefits and safety equipment, we can tackle an enormous - and growing - livelihood need in India."
Accordingly, for R60 per household per month, Waste Ventures (WV) offers professional garbage collection, including segregation of organic and inorganic waste and recycling of dry waste. The garbage collected thus also becomes a source of revenue, with WV selling compost to farmers and dry waste to recyclers.
So far, 4,500 homes have subscribed, with subscriptions growing at a rate of 75% per month.
"As a customer, I don't mind paying R60 for a service that promises permanent jobs to so many poor people - and helps me discard my house waste in a responsible manner," says Arvind Pandey, 40, a grocery store owner in Motihari and a Waste Ventures subscriber.
With more than 90% of India's workforce concentrated in the unorganised sector (See box: Reality bytes), a growing number of young entrepreneurs like Gupta are leveraging existing human resources to gain a foothold in unexplored markets such as garbage collection, electrical and plumbing repairs and maid and chauffeur services.
In the process, they are raising standards of earning and living for the employees and raising service standards for the client base.
"Today, social entrepreneurs and bootstrapped start-ups understand that unorganised workers represent a raw, untapped human resource," says Rajendra Joshi, managing trustee of Saath, a Gujarat-based NGO that has worked for 24 years to help unorganised workers work their way up into the organised sector.
Start-ups first began appearing in these sectors in 2010, says Joshi, cashing in on the availability of venture capital and the trend towards a more organised services sector.
"This will be the next stage in India's entrepreneurial boom," says Joshi. "This is where the future lies for the workers too. After all, there is only so much that government welfare schemes and NGOs alone can achieve."
Some labour studies experts, however, caution that such industries could become a merely more organised form of exploitation.
"It will be important to see if these start-ups succeed in breaking traditional occupational patterns," says Sharit Bhowmick of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "For people at the bottom of the pyramid in India, any additional income is a huge relief. But will the former labourer really be treated like an employee, or will he just be a labourer with a contract?"
Electricians in uniform
After fixing a geyser at a customer's home three months ago, Srikant Maurya, 23, bumped into a man in a yellow T-shirt outside, hammer and pliers jutting out of his back pocket.
"He looked like an electrician, but in a uniform," says Maurya. "I asked him if he was with Philips or Surya."
A short chat revealed that he worked with a start-up called TimeSaverz, on a project-by-project basis. Maurya, a Class 8 dropout and an electrician for eight years, applied for and bagged a job there.
Three months on, his monthly earnings have risen from R10,000 to R15,000. "I can now afford to buy milk for my daughter, eat fish or chicken once a week and sometimes take my wife out for pani-puri on Sundays," he says.
He also likes it that TimeSaverz customers don't haggle after he has done his job, since the charges are pre-determined. "They see me as a professional," he says. "They talk to me politely, sometimes even offer me juice or tea. It feels good."
Busy individuals in urban India are encouraging the at-home services sector, and encouraging adventurous business people like us, says Debadutta Upadhyaya, co-founder of TimeSaverz. "This means better service for the customer and a sense of security for the workers."
Beauticians at your door
Arts graduate Hema Baramati, 24, worked as a beautician at a small parlour in Sakinaka for three years, earning R1,500 a month.
She had no weekly day off, was not allowed to keep her tips and found it a struggle to support her parents and sister. In 2011, Baramati learnt of Belita through a friend and joined at a starting salary of R5,000. A year on, she earns R15,000 a month.
"I no longer fear falling ill and having my salary deducted," she says.
Baramati says her uniform makes her feel like a professional. "Belita has given me a chance to dream," she adds. "I'm now saving up to paint my house and buy a car for my parents."
She's also in line for promotion to branch manager, handling one of the company's four bases in the city, which means her monthly salary will double to R30,000 per month.
"It feels good to think I could get a promotion," she says. "I feel confident. I feel positive."
Garima Jain, founder and CEO of Belita, says she believes this is a sustainable business model. "Youngsters today have big dreams and aspirations. Through Belita, we want to empower young women by giving them steady employment in a sector that has traditionally been unorganised," she says.
A website to help find better jobs
Sri Sailam, 28, a Class 7 dropout, left home eight years ago, moving from a village in Hasnabad to nearby Hyderabad in search of work. Unskilled and illiterate, he worked as a cleaner in a restaurant for five years.
"At Rs. 3,000 a month, it was too much work, too little pay and very little dignity," he says.
So Sailam learnt how to drive, and found a job as a chauffeur, earning R6,000 a month. With R1,500 paid out in rent, this still wasn't enough to support his wife, two-year-old and his aged parents back home.
Then, four months ago, Sailam met a NaurkriSMS volunteer in his chawl and signed up.
In four days, he had a new job driving a car for a software engineer, earning R8,000 a month. Better still, the job came with accommodation, a small room, which is now his home.
"I know it's only temporary, as long as I have the job, but it's still a huge relief," he says. He is now also able to send money home to his parents. And he plans to enrol his daughter in an English-medium school.
"I didn't study. But I want my daughter to study and become an engineer like my boss," he says.