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Driving Change

U.S. State Department exchange program alumna Yamuna Sastry’s Bengaluru-based start-up, Cab Dost, helps taxi drivers secure their future by providing them different financial services.


Yamuna Sastry is working to improve the lives of cab drivers in India, including those who work for digital ride-hailing services like Uber and Ola. In 2016, she co-founded Cab Dost, with the aim of helping cab drivers take advantage of financial services like bank accounts, insurance and pension plans.

One of the key areas of focus for the start-up is providing tax filing assistance to cab drivers which, Sastry says, is a necessary step to access financial services and benefits. Without a tax declaration, she adds, “It’s hard for them to get loans. They fall prey to money lenders, who charge much higher interest rates,” as compared to banks and other lending institutions.

The cab companies often deduct a part of drivers’ earnings as TDS (tax deducted at source). When their income tax is calculated, many drivers are owed refunds from the government. But, they can only receive these refunds if they file income tax returns—something that many drivers have never done.

“We start from scratch,” says Sastry. “Filing an individual tax return may take 20 minutes. But we also create email addresses for them and make sure their names and dates of birth are the same on all their documents. And, we call up the drivers when the tax credit arrives.”

Cab Dost, which currently has 24 employees, has organized a dozen Tax Mela campaigns, during which free tax filing assistance is offered to drivers at airports, railway stations and outdoor locations. Sastry says that since 2016, the company has provided free tax filing assistance to over 7,000 drivers. In addition, it has provided the service for a fee of Rs. 500 to a slightly larger number of drivers.

During these campaigns, Cab Dost also helps raise awareness among drivers about other important issues like health and wellness, substance abuse, sanitation, women’s safety and financial planning.

All this may be public service, but Sastry says, it is also good business. The company is already profitable. As it grows, it plans to increase earnings by providing other paid services to drivers, like company registration and bookkeeping, as well as by selling them products like health and life insurance plans and small loans. The company has also started providing training to drivers in spoken English, tour guiding, behavior and etiquette, and road safety. The training sessions are paid for by tour companies. 

Sastry graduated in 2011 from Jain University in Bengaluru, with a master’s degree in commerce, and then worked for three years, doing risk analysis, for the Indian branch of the international accounting firm, KPMG. She then spent the next year and a half interviewing 3,000 cab drivers to learn about their financial problems, before creating Cab Dost with her partner, Shafeeque Thazhatheri, who owned a small car rental business at the time.

Sastry was invited to participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in 2017 in Hyderabad. The event, co-hosted by the governments of the United States and India, provided mentoring and networking opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs. Sastry was invited again to the 2019 GES, which took place in The Hague, co-hosted by the governments of the United States and the Netherlands. Sastry says the guidance provided at the summits as well as contacts with entrepreneurs from other countries have been invaluable for her work at Cab Dost.

In 2018, Sastry participated in the U.S. State Department’s Professional Fellows Program, during which she spent five weeks in the United States, mainly in Oklahoma. There she was placed at Goodwill Industries of Tulsa and Tulsa Area United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, where she learned about management practices and their free tax filing service. She also attended leadership classes at the University of Oklahoma.

The exchange visit was Sastry’s first trip to the United States. “I learned about people management, compliance and how, in the United States, they put people first,” she says. The leadership classes taught her how to focus on her core mission as a business founder, and “how to declutter,” she adds.

She also credits what she learned during her fellowship with helping her find better work-life balance. The experience changed her life, says Sastry. And it helped crystallize her goals for Cab Dost: “To build a business that makes profit, but with a purpose—to give back to society.”

 

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.