Big Picture: The Last Mile Boyshttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/big-picture-the-last-mile-boys/

Big Picture: The Last Mile Boys

He is 24, BA in Hindi Literature, and more than 250 km away from home in UP. For Rs 10,500 a month, he tackles Delhi roads six days a week as part of the ecommerce industry’s nameless delivery force. Amid a protest by 400 online delivery staff in Mumbai, The Indian Express follows him for one day.

They are the backbone of the $16.4 billion, and growing, e-commerce industry of India. A rough estimate puts their number at more than 1 lakh, whizzing through traffic and tackling India’s cities and suburbs to deliver everything from books to furniture and vegetables on the doorstep. In the heady convenience of online shopping, it is easy to overlook what stands in the way of that package in the real world. But last week, over 400 online delivery and sorting staff brought the message home. For eight days now, they have been on strike in Mumbai, demanding, among other things, regular offs, uniform, bike maintenance, laundry allowance — and toilets.

The 24-year-old from Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh is part of this nameless force.

It’s 8.20 am and he is at Okhla Industrial Area in South Delhi, having left his home in Faridabad at 7 am to cover the 20.4 km in time for his shift. The delivery warehouse located in a huge depot, where he has to report by 8.30 am, is buzzing already. Over 10 vans and nearly 30 bikes are lined up outside while the 40 delivery staff on duty at this hour make their way up to the first floor to collect their parcels for the day.

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10:00 am, B P Singh Slum:
The 24-year-old hands over a parcel with a phone at a makeshift cyber cafe in the slum. An argument breaks out as the customer claims he was led to believe the phone would be cheaper; beginning the second part of his shift.

On the ground floor, the packaging staff are sealing parcels with tapes bearing names of the respective e-commerce brands. The delivery company the 24-year-old works for is a third-party logistics provider, carrying out last-mile deliveries for big online commerce portals which outsource their work to such firms to ensure faster transportation.

While some companies like Flipkart have in-house companies such as eKart taking care of deliveries, most (including Flipkart), now hand out these jobs to third parties such as Delhivery, Ecom Express, Blue Dart, Gojavas, Dotzot etc. The 24-year-old works for one such firm (he doesn’t want himself or that firm to be identified).

In Okhla Industrial Area itself there are close to 15 such companies, each with around 40-60 delivery staff, forming the last link in the online delivery chain. Most of the delivery staff is between the ages of 18 and 28, earning Rs 10,000-15,000 a month, with one weekly off.

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Noon, Tughlakabad Railway Colony:
He took a break to escape the heavy downpour that started at around 11 am, but still got drenched. “If I fall ill, they will cut my salary,” he fears.

The supervisors are yet to arrive, and right now junior managers and warehouse staff are seeing off delivery staff like the 24-year-old, with sheets listing the addresses and phone numbers of customers.

He had skipped breakfast to ensure he wasn’t late. “Leaving early helps me beat the morning traffic jams,” he says, wiser after three months in the business.

After signing in and collecting his parcels — 35 in this round — he checks each individually, to ensure he doesn’t get the rap for any damage later, before adjusting them into a big blue backpack. By 9 am, he is ready to leave.

He is pining for some tea by now. “I wish the company at least gave us a cup,” he sighs, heading towards his bike carrying the backpack, weighing more than 10 kg.

In 2010, he graduated from Allahabad University with a BA in Hindi Literature. After failing to get a job in his hometown, he first came to Delhi in 2011, and through a cousin, joined an electronic goods repair shop in Greater Noida. He had been working there for more than two years when he had to go to Mainpuri to attend to his ailing father. When he returned after a month, he says, he was asked to resign. Disheartened, he returned to his village, only to come back to Delhi in April this year, when the same cousin helped him get a job as delivery staff.

“I had learnt to ride on my father’s bike and fortunately even had a licence. I borrowed some money and bought a bike for Rs 18,000,” he says. “They just asked for my Pan card, Aadhaar card and driving licence.” The company gives him Rs 2.15 per km for the fuel.

“We need to carry out two trips in a day. The first trip has a maximum of 50 parcels and the second about 20-30 deliveries,” says a fellow delivery staff, loading his own bike. While most of the deliveries are carried out on bikes, which are easier to manoeuvre through narrow lanes, there are vans for the bigger packages.

The staff are assigned parcels as per pin code. “I, along with two more boys, are responsible for 110044 pin code,” says the 24-year-old. It has seven large areas under it.

Before he sets off, the 24-year-old dials the number of the first customer on his list, in Vishwakarma Colony, 8 km away. The recipient doesn’t answer, so he decides to head to Tughlakabad Railway Colony first. “This happens often. We keep the parcels for three-four days in such a situation and then cancel the order,” he explains, strapping on the backpack and a helmet.

The traffic is heavy as he makes his way to the colony. By 9:45 am, two deliveries are made. After another call, he gets off the main road onto a broken lane with water puddles, and heads to a make-shift cyber cafe near B P Singh jhuggi. A customer is waiting for him — cyber cafes, it turns out, are a common dropoff point for online deliveries.

The customer has to pay Rs 1,100 for the phone he has ordered. When told the amount, he flares up. Soon a crowd gathers around the Mainpuri youth. “Ye newspaper clip dekho, yehan 899 rupay likha hai, le jao wapas ye phone (See this newspaper clipping, it says the phone is for Rs 899. Take the phone back),” fumes the customer.

Hassled at the crowd around him, the delivery guy tries to keep his cool, pointing to the fine print below the newspaper advertisement. “See this, Rs 199 is the delivery charge,” he says. After a brief argument, the customer pays up. Driving away, he shrugs, “It’s just been three months, but I have got used to such encounters.”

Not all arguments with customers end as quickly. “Once I delivered a phone in this same colony and the customer just refused to pay up. He even opened the parcel in front of me and insisted it was an exchange offer. When I called my supervisor, he simply said I needed to sort it out on my own or else pay the company from my salary. I had to call the cops ,” he says.

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4:00 pm, Molarbund:
Beginning the second part of his shift, he hopes to return home early but is soon caught in evening traffic jams.

He asks his next two customers to come to a water tank in the same colony to collect their deliveries. “It is difficult to get to the interiors of some areas. People make online orders from all sorts of places, it is not restricted to just the wealthy,” he says.

His destination now is Pul Prahladpur village, a kilometre away. A drizzle has begun by now; he decides it is light enough for him to continue.

Outside the house of the next customer, a big bulldozer is excavating the road to lay down water pipes. The mud guard on his bike is damaged as he makes his way, so he parks it and decides to cover the rest of the distance on foot, minding his steps. His company doesn’t provide maintenance, and he can’t risk further damage. “I will have to repair it on my own,” he says.

Making his way up a spiral wrought-iron staircase to an address on the third floor, he adds, “I have delivered here many times, so finding houses is not a problem.”

But this part took getting used to. When he joined, he was given “training” of all of two days — basically accompanying a delivery staff to understand the job — and then left on his own. “Of 40 parcels on my third day, I managed to deliver just 10. I got an earful from my supervisor,” he recalls.

It’s a little over 11am now, and he is back on the street near his bike. The scanty rainfall has given way to a heavy downpour. After a few seconds of deliberation, he decides to take shelter under a bus-stop. “The backpack is water-proof, but I need to protect myself too. If I fall ill, they will cut my salary,” he says. “Ten-twelve days ago a few boys put their foot down and asked for raincoats. The management just said they could resign if they wanted to,” he says.

Amit Kumar, a career consultant with Teamlease, which helps provide delivery staff to companies, says that is not true for most firms. “They provide basic facilities, including a raincoat,” he claims.

Adds a regional head at Ecom Express, who declines to be named, “We give all kinds of social security benefits.” He doesn’t specify which benefits though.

But, as the 24-year-old notes, the companies hold all the power. “Customers often end up blaming us for bad products, some talk to us like we are terrorists. If a parcel is opened and then returned, we have to cough up the money. The other day two laptops were stolen from the company, and the boys on duty had to pay Rs 45,000. But I need to deliver at all cost, otherwise the company holds back our salaries,” he says.

The staff on strike in Mumbai have accused e-commerce retailers Flipkart and Myntra of denying basic employee benefits to them. All pickup and delivery services of the two firms there are at a halt due to the agitation.

The rainfall has reduced to a drizzle again, and the Mainpuri youth, by now completely drenched, has got back on to his bike. The next three customers are at Jaitpur, 5.5 km away. After delivering two of those parcels at a cyber cafe, he dials the next customer, who dismisses him saying he had cancelled the order. “I will just return his package to the company,” he says.

Ready to leave for his next stop in Badarpur, he gets a call from his supervisor, who asks him to collect a “faulty package” from Gautampuri. With little time to waste, he quickly makes the detour.

By the time he reaches his next destination, a boys’ hostel in BTPS colony, his phone has died. He speaks to the guard at the gate, who fortunately calls the customers down. “I would have had to go back to the office otherwise,” he says relieved.

With three more destinations on his itinerary, he spends the next 20 minutes at the guard’s room, charging his phone. “They give us Rs 250 for phone bills, but I usually end up spending much more. There is no point arguing,” he says.

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6:00 pm, Vishwakarma Colony market:
At congested places such as these, he often calls customers to a common, easily accessible point to collect their packages

He is now in a congested lane in the noisy Badarpur main market. He halts under an old archway and calls his next three customers there. “It’s a very unorganised colony, some of the homes don’t even have proper addresses. This system works,” he says.

His backpack is almost empty now, but the cash pouch is full. He admits he is nervous. “I have to be careful about the money,” he says. “A few days ago, I heard, a boy from a company was thrashed by the customer, locked up in a bathroom, and robbed of his cash and the delivery bag.”

The maximum cash he has had on him at a time is Rs 43,000.

His first shift is done only by 3 pm, when he heads back to the warehouse in Okhla. He first goes to a counter to hand over the cash paid by customers and return the cancelled/uncollected items. After making required entries in a computer, he heads up to the first floor to have his first meal of the day — two chappatis and bhindi.

He cooks his own food and gets a tiffin from home. “I can’t spend on food, there are no reimbursements here,” he says, gulping the meal in big morsels.

He hasn’t taken a toilet break as well so far since morning, and has to ensure he manages to get his turn while here. The warehouse has a single toilet used by 80 people.

Again logistics firms disagree with charges of lack of basic facilities. “We always ensure our boys get all the facilities and that their salaries are given on time,” says Santosh Gupta, who heads the South Extension Branch of Dotzot, an online delivery firm.

None of the officials though denies a high attrition rate. “Koi bhi ladka 7-8 mahine se zyaada nahin rehta (No one stays more than seven-eight months),” says Hari Prakash, one of the in-charges for van delivery services at the 24-year-old’s warehouse.

Amit Kumar acknowledges that the high attrition is partly due to how companies treat their staff. “There is no denying that some companies delay salaries,” he says. Inadvertently, he also lets out why the firms may not be overtly concerned. “These boys continue to work because they have a need,” he says.

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6:30 pm, Badarpur:
Towards the end of his day’s delivery run, he takes first halt within duty hours, for a cup of tea. It would be another two and a half hours before he goes home

Finishing his meal, the 24-year-old talks about the time he wanted to join the Army. “I failed the medical test because of a fracture in my thumb.”

Soon he is back at the collection counter, picking up parcels for his second shift of the day. There are just 11 deliveries on the list, he notes, smiling.

By 4 pm he is back on the road, headed first to Molarbund, 11.7 km away, for five of those deliveries.

His hope of finishing his day early is soon crushed though. The evening traffic jams have set in and he takes about 40 minutes to get to just the first destination. “I never manage to leave for home on time. Even on the one off day I get, Wednesday, I get calls to report to work,” he sighs.

“Sometimes there is pressure to deliver packages when the boys can be called, but usually they are allowed their weekly offs,” insists Santosh Gupta.

After Molarbund, the delivery guy turns towards his next stop, which is again Vishwakarma Colony. On the way, he makes a brief halt for a cup of tea.

As he sets off again, his bike suddenly splutters to a halt. He has run out of fuel. He tries not to lose his cool as he looks around for help, finally hailing down a passerby to help push the bike to a petrol pump, luckily just 5 minutes away.

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6:50 pm Jaitpur
Two kilometres from his final delivery destination, his bike runs out of fuel. He pushes it to a nearby petrol pump.

It’s almost 7 pm when he reaches his last stop of the day. “Evenings have fewer parcels, but end up taking more time because of the traffic jams,” he says, ruing the lack of fixed hours.

Finally, all the deliveries are done, and he is back at the warehouse by 8 pm. Here he repeats the afternoon procedure of handing over cash and making the entries.

He doesn’t leave for home immediately still, waiting for the supervisor in case “there is more to do”. It’s only by 9 pm that he gets onto his bike to head for Faridabad to his one-room home.

The salary of Rs 10,500 a month, the 24-year-old acknowledges, is barely enough to make ends meet. The rent for the room alone is Rs 2,500, and he sends Rs 6,000-7,000 back home. “My younger sister is married, but my brother is still studying, I need to take care of them too,” he says.

“I have heard of a bonus but I am not too sure,” he says, driving away. “I am looking for other jobs.”

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