3 Questions: Enabling informed migration in India

DUSP alumni Rushil Palavajjhala and Jacob Kohn empower vulnerable workers using social entrepreneurial and technical skills gained at MIT.

The World Economic Forum estimates there are approximately 139 million domestic migrant laborers in India. These workers are drawn from rural areas to India’s urban centers like Delhi or Mumbai because of the density and volume of economic opportunities in these cities. These migrant workers frequently rely on the opinion of a “bandhu” (Hindi for friend/brother/relative) to make migration decisions. A bandhu can provide insights into the opportunities and may reduce the risks of relocating. Labor contractors, third party brokers who link migrant workers with potential employment, are another actor critical in the relocation decision making process.

In summer 2018, Rushil Palavajjhala (Master of City Planning ‘19) traveled in the Ahmedabad-Mumbai corridor to study value capture in labor migration decisions for his Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) thesis research. Palavajjhala’s travel and research was supported by a grant from the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) India Program. MISTI-India facilitates student research and internship opportunities at India’s world-class companies, universities, nonprofits, and NGOs. The program provides students, researchers, and faculty with an opportunity to be at the forefront of India’s research, technology, and innovation activities, and contribute to India’s existing and emerging needs.

During his time in India, Palavajjhala observed how various aspects of the reliance upon third-party actors in the migration system negatively impacted seasonal labor. For example, labor contractors’ agreements were often only verbal promises of a job in workers’ desired location, leaving such workers with no recourse if they migrated and there was no employment opportunity. He quantified the lost value in uninformed migration decisions and found huge arbitrages in the informal real estate rental markets available to these workers.

Upon returning to MIT, Palavajjhala reflected on the challenges faced by migrant workers – the difficulty finding reliable and safe housing; job security; and the ability to demonstrate their skills for a potential job – with fellow MIT alum Jacob Kohn (Master of City Planning ‘19). Kohn’s interests lay in information gaps due to informal networks in urban ecosystems. For example, Kohn’s thesis, also supported by MISTI-India, examined Mumbai’s informal recycling networks and sought to leverage on-ground surveys and computational analysis to increase our understanding of these informal systems.

In 2019, Palavajjhala and Kohn combined their experiences, technical skills, and passion for greater equitability to design Bandhu within the MIT entrepreneurship ecosystem. Bandhu is a mobile phone platform that minimizes information asymmetries so that low-income workers can make confident migration decisions using packages of jobs and housing – while also intelligently building customized work teams for potential employers. They refined Bandhu during their time at MIT DesignX, an academic program in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) dedicated to design innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Bandhu app launched in June 2020 and is currently accessible for users in western India. Palavajjhala and Kohn reflect here on how MIT helped to shape Bandhu, the value of social entrepreneurship at MIT, and how they hope students will continue to use the technical skills acquired at MIT to serve vulnerable populations.

How did your time at MIT and MISTI influence your outlook on the world?

Palavajjhala: We took different approaches to our coursework; I went down the policy implementation and business development path, while Jacob focused on adapting technology for on-ground implementation and visualization. Having spent my time at MIT focusing on the finance and development of real estate and public infrastructure, the limitations of government and large organizations were apparent. To be able to solve the apparently intractable problems of the developing world, one needed to be nimble. The “hacking” mindset inculcated at MIT was a critical influence; importantly so when working for the most vulnerable in fragile ecosystems. You tread carefully and find ways to have maximum outcome, with minimal intervention. MIT SA+P practica were key to these learnings, right from trying to solve for digital infrastructure in rural Peru, to creating market based tech-solutions for the government in Mexico.

Kohn: Rushil and I focused our time at MIT on considering how technology and data could empower those most vulnerable, in Bandhu’s case in the migration process. We can design tech solutions for nearly everything, but it is much more challenging to design tech for systemic change in an informal ecosystem. MISTI gave us the support and freedom to test our thesis topics in the real world and learn from on-ground realities. Having studied Hindi previously, I hoped to deepen my understanding of India’s urbanization and informality processes, and also leverage MISTI’s strong networks as I studied Mumbai’s informal recycling ecosystem. I got connected to many players in India’s recycling ecosystems, from large-scale players like UNDP to local municipalities doing pioneering, successful waste-management pilots. My thesis gave me a better appreciation for the sheer diversity of implementation strategies in India, and what that could mean for Bandhu’s chances of success in any region of the country.

Why did you choose to work through entrepreneurial efforts to attempt to address structural challenges?

Palavajjhala: Having previously worked with the private sector, non-profits, government and academia, it was apparent that the gaps between plan and action couldn’t cope with the pace at which the world was changing. Most of these systems also found it hard to reach scale in time. While ecosystems like DUSP (Department of Urban Studies and Planning) helped us dive deep to investigate such problems, other coursework at MIT and Harvard furthered these realizations. My exposure to the world of blended finance, impact investing, private equity and venture capital suggested that markets and private capital could play a crucial role. The effect of technology’s externalities on society seemed to justify a degree of “techno-pessimism.” Yet, MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, with a keen eye for social impact (especially DesignX), was an ideal place to mould the learnings from my DUSP thesis into a potentially scalable solution that could solve systemic causes of socio-economic inequity. I believe that if one can find ways to leverage technology to balance information and power asymmetries, markets are the most powerful medium to make an impact. Entrepreneurship allows you to do that unbridled!

Kohn: My experiences studying political science and working as a management consultant in the Washington, DC area helped me identify a disconnect between high-level policy ideas and on-ground implementation, where bureaucracy can sometimes stifle technological innovation. MIT represented an opportunity for me to bridge the policy and technology spheres. As I volunteered and studied in India, I saw how informal systems and deep-seated cultural norms would often render top-down policies ineffective by the time they reached the local level. I also saw how gradual nudges, strong relationships and trust, and technology can all go much further in making sustainable behavioral change. To me, these strategies are well-suited for an entrepreneurial environment, like the one that Bandhu inhabits.

What are the next steps for Bandhu?

Emerging from the controlled testing phase during the COVID-19 lockdown,  we’re starting small by piloting the latest MVP of Bandhu this month as a simple job-matching platform. Our plans over the next year are much bigger. As we collect frequent data points and learn about our users’ preferences for jobs and housing, we’ll be able to build a trusted platform that recommends safe migration paths for our users – particularly urgent during the COVID-19 crisis, as workers struggle to reconnect to the job market, and employers struggle to find workers and restart India’s economy. We’ll be collaborating with on-ground local and regional NGOs as we scale. We look forward to continuing to work with the MIT community, hosting talented and passionate interns and team-members – fostering new ideas and cultural experiences, working with MIT mentors, and finding a way to contribute our learnings from our small successes and failings back to the MIT ecosystem, to which we owe much.

This article was originally published on MIT News on August 11, 2020.