Srinagar, Mar 4: It is minus 6 degrees Celsius, but Farhan starts quite early as he does not like to keep his customers waiting. Most people are still asleep when the BTech graduate in his mid-20s leaves his home in Shehr-e-Khaas, the old city of Srinagar.
Wearing gloves, a helmet and multiple layers of clothing, he still shivers while riding his two-wheeler, which has an attached wicker basket containing harisa, a morning delicacy that keeps Kashmiris warm.
Daily frisking and “harassment” are nothing new for delivery executives, who have worked through successive lockdowns (from August 4, 2019, to February 6, 2021) triggered by the abrogation of Article 370 and the COVID-19 spread. That apart, vehicular and human surveillance poses a formidable challenge before them.
Farhan’s customers are scattered all over Srinagar downtown. He carries six hot harisa pots from Harisa by Kilo, a startup launched in 2020. The dish, which is available only in winters, contains minced meat cooked overnight with dal, spices and saffron.
Jammu and Kashmir saw a spurt in startups, mostly in the food and logistics sectors, following the abrogation of Article 370. While people became familiar with doorstep delivery during the COVID-19 period, ordering online was a struggle due to poor data connectivity. Hence, several orders were taken over the phone. Though there has hardly been an internet shutdown for a year now, many outlets continue to encourage phone calls fearing yet another data shutdown.
“Initially, it was quite a struggle to deliver harisa to my customers amid the snow and chill. I start at 7 a.m. and reach back by 11 a.m. This is my routine from October to February/March, depending on the demand,” says Farhan, who gets back to his accounting job from home after the delivery.
“Nobody wants a cold dinner”.
If Farhan has a difficult morning delivery routine, Imtiyaz Sheikh (20) has an evening one. Hailing from South Kashmir’s Kulgam, he delivers lunch and dinner in Srinagar and its outskirts from Tiffin Aaw, another startup. His work starts at 11 a.m. and ends around 9.30 p.m. daily.
“Usually, dinner is not ordered before 8 p.m. Nobody wants to order early and eat cold food,” Sheikh, who does not have the privilege of taking leave, tells 101Reporters. His mother back home gets anxious as he remains on the streets on chilly nights.
“One day, when it snowed very hard, I really got upset at the thought of delivering tiffin. I almost gave up, but went on for the sake of my family… Ultimately, we had to use the company’s four-wheeler as taking my two-wheeler out became a near-impossible task,” sighs Sheikh, who is the only earning member of his family after losing his father in a car accident.
Slipping of vehicles and breakdowns on snow-laden roads are common. Ghulam Mustafa (30), who delivers food from a cloud kitchen to Rajbagh, Bemina and nearby areas in Srinagar, once had to take an auto as it would have taken an hour or so to get his two-wheeler repaired following a breakdown.
“I do not have the liberty to waste time. I have to act instantly because people are waiting. Sometimes, customers refuse to receive parcels due to late delivery. All our hard work goes to waste then,” says Mustafa, who hails from Uri but lives in a rented room in Rajbagh with his wife.
Sajad Bhat (32), who worked with different courier services for the last seven years, now delivers parcels on commission basis for Ecom Express in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. Though his daily duty is for eight hours, overtime is normal as he sometimes delivers 60 to 70 parcels a day.
Under the Ecom Sanjeev Programme, a delivery partner initiative of Ecom Express, the agent can work part-time and choose a five/six-day schedule. He gets Rs 15 per parcel if he chooses to work for five days a week. For six days, Rs 16 is the norm, which encourages more workdays and less rest. Delhivery also provides flexible timings under its Last Mile Agent Programme.
Bhat alleges that the company told him and nine others to quit when they went on a day’s strike demanding that all be paid Rs 16 per parcel. Countering this, Ecom Express district head Rayees Ahmad Lone told 101Reporters that nobody was asked to resign. “They are only gig workers and not our employees. They have to follow the company’s protocols and policies.”
Though 40 parcels are delivered daily on average, there is no guarantee of getting this much every day. In addition, if a customer refuses to accept a parcel due to late arrival or any other issue, the delivery person gets no payment. “It is not possible to pay for an undelivered parcel because it basically does not guarantee that the worker indeed went out to deliver the said item,” Lone clarifies.
Workers make only around Rs 12,000 per month and get no additional benefits for working in harsh weather, riding through hilly and remote areas.
However, Tiffin Aaw owner Rayees Ahmad Dar told 101Reporters that he personally purchases high-quality thermal gloves, long boots, jackets and helmets for every delivery person, but nothing seems to help in extreme winter. He has also installed a bukhari (a cylindrical fire chamber with a chimney) at his unit, exclusively for his delivery drivers.
“I treat them as my family. I always eat with them. I want them to feel it is their venture by providing them with the best facilities because I know their working conditions,” he says, while adding that he personally rewards his workers and does not let others know about it. Incidentally, the delivery workers of Tiffin Aaw got double salaries during the COVID-19 period.
As for Harisa by Kilo, Farhan thinks his income of Rs 9,000, including a monthly performance increment of 25 to 30 per cent, is quite satisfactory for the three hours that he puts in daily.
“I regret working like this.”
Like Sheikh, Bhat also thinks of leaving his job when the chilly weather becomes unbearable. Nevertheless, he continues with the chore every day. Asked about his work during the COVID-19 days, he says, “Some people did not want me to touch their house doors or ring the bell. On several occasions, I had to leave the products far away from the persons receiving them.”
“At times, I would also fall sick. But nobody understands because people want their orders delivered on time, no matter what!” To make things worse, there are no fixed or uniform laws governing the work of delivery agents.
A BBA student, Tauseef Lone (20) works with Delhivery and tries to balance both college and work. “It was frustrating in the earlier days because I have to deal with different people every day. Not everyone was easy on me in case of delayed deliveries, caused mainly by VIP movement.”
Adil Ahmad Dar (21), who is into food delivery, says the recent Bharat Jodo Yatra also hampered delivery timings. “Several routes were barricaded. The areas that would take four minutes to reach took me 40 minutes because there was a different route plan for commoners. I had to apologise to my customers.”
“There are days when I regret working like this, but I have to earn for my family. We are five siblings,” says Adil, who recollects one such day. “I literally cried because I was drenched in snow throughout the day. My gloves and mask were all wet and I could not see the road properly.”
Farhan agrees that it is not always a smooth ride. “Customers sometimes misbehave, but I have to tolerate them with a smile. On the other hand, there have been times when they did not expect early morning deliveries on a snowy day. The happiness I see on their faces on such occasions is my driving force. Some even give tips for on-time delivery, which was uncommon a couple of years ago.”
“Appreciation drives you to do better when you want to give up. Kind gestures definitely help,” Farhan sums up.
(Farheen Qureshi is a Jammu and Kashmir -based journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)