For India’s rickshaw drivers, English pays off

Marketplace Contributor Apr 27, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: We’re told all the time that we’re in a knowledge-based economy in this country. That as manufacturing and industry move overseas, it’s brainpower that’s going to make us money.

But knowledge is kind of a fungible thing. It can be figuring out the next must-have app or cool new startup. Or, in a different kind of economy, it can be more basic. Like just knowing what your customers want.

From Rajisthan in northern India, Mara Zepeda has the story of an English-speaking rickshaw driver.

Mara Zepeda: Thirty-year-old Sheikh Musharaf has a talent for accents. During our ride together, I ask him to say the phrase, ‘Where do you want to go?’

Musharaf: In English, like “Where do you want to go?” In America, “Where do you want to go?” In Australia, “Hey mate, what’s up, what do you like to do today?”

You can blame globalization for Musharaf’s talent. It all came about because his father, a hand embroiderer, lost a lot of his work to China with their lightning-fast embroidery machines.

Musharaf: I had a conversation with my father, he said, ‘I can’t earn enough money to send your brother and your sister to the school, you know?’ I said OK. And I’m really interested to work with the tourists from the beginning because they’re nice, and also if I give good service, I get good money.

Musharaf noticed the drivers who knew English were raking it in.

Musharaf: I realized to know more English so I can tell them more story about the palaces, about the temple, about the culture and everything so I can make more better money!

So he taught himself the language.

Musharaf: So when I finished my job, when I used to walk home, I started to repeat the same word like 10 times, you know? So that’s how I learned. And said, ‘Where do you want to go?’ and ‘What would you like to see?’ and everything.

Musharaf used to make $4 a day; now he can make as much as $20. He’s the go-to driver for editors at top American fashion magazines. In his glove box, there’s a book of testimonials and business cards from professionals around the world. One impressed tourist gave him $1,000 so he could buy his own rickshaw. Then, Musharaf started teaching other drivers English, and their profits doubled as a result. Of course, he has to be selective.

Musharaf: And everyone comes and tells me ‘Hey, teach me some English!’ and all that. I say ‘No.’ I don’t teach them anymore. They’ll take my business away!

From Jaipur, India, I’m Mara Zepeda for Marketplace.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.