Mahesh knew he was running out of time. Although he had already spent eight hours darting across the notoriously busy city of Bangalore, India — already driven his two-wheeler 70 miles to deliver half a dozen broccoli, 11 pounds of flour, and more — he needed a few more orders during the dinnertime surge to earn his weekly bonus. Right before he was about to call it a day, however, the 35-year-old met with an accident that’s crippled him for the past seven months and may mean he never delivers again.
Mahesh worked for Instamart, which currently promises to deliver groceries and other daily essentials in 15–30 minutes. It’s part of Swiggy, one of the top two food delivery companies in India. As demand for home grocery and goods delivery spikes in India during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a dozen startups have scrambled for ways to one-up each other and capitalize on that demand. Some, like Zepto and Blinkit, now promise to deliver items in just 10 minutes flat. But it’s the gig workers who’ve borne the brunt of these promises with little to no safety net.
Instamart’s weekly bonus — awarded to drivers who make roughly $47 in wages in a week — was the difference between Mahesh living paycheck to paycheck in the city and sending a surplus back to his family in his native village. Since it was the end of the week, the clock was ticking, and over fears of cancellation or, worse, a poor rating from the customer, he rushed to fulfill his last batch of orders.
It was the peak traffic hour, and Bangalore’s pothole-riddled roads, as expected, were jammed bumper to bumper — so much so that two-wheelers often resort to climbing footpaths to circumvent the heavy traffic. The Google Maps screen, which he had to keep an eye on to make sure he follows the route assigned by Swiggy’s algorithms or risk getting penalized, was bleeding red. Because of the Metro rail construction on his right, the road had shrunk to fit just one car at a time.
Mahesh had to squeeze in through the gaps between other vehicles to progress, almost as if he were playing Tetris with his scooter. Once he found a relatively empty street, he sped up on the left side, nearly brushing against a line of parked cars. Suddenly, one of the car’s drivers abruptly opened their door, and at 40 miles per hour, Mahesh crashed into it before he could even react and broke his right leg’s bone.
Though gig workers have become more crucial than ever in lockdowns, their earnings, as well as benefits, have only deteriorated. More importantly, the race to be the quickest has made them even more vulnerable on the road. Every other day in India, there’s news of a delivery worker dying.
Mahesh, who says he joined Swiggy because it offered decent wages without the physical toil of blue-collar industrial jobs, is on bed rest for a year. Though Swiggy covered his initial medical costs, he no longer has a source of income to support his family of four and has fallen into a circle of debt. If and when he returns to work, he won’t have a livelihood either, as he lost his scooter when its loan payments defaulted.
“No scooter, no work. I don’t know how I’ll survive even after my leg recovers to pay back all the money I’ve borrowed from friends and family,” he tells The Verge.
Mahesh isn’t alone. The Verge spoke to over a dozen delivery workers who were injured while working for instant grocery services, many of whom spent months recovering and had to pay out of pocket, receiving little to no help from the companies they worked for.
Bibhu Nandan, a former Swiggy rider, fractured both his arms on the way to a delivery location three months ago while chasing an extra 25 cents per order in the breakfast surge period. Unlike with Mahesh, Swiggy refused to cover Nandan’s medical costs because its system incorrectly showed it happened off duty. On top of that, his phone broke in the accident, and a new one set him back $150 — nearly his entire month’s earnings.
While startups have now begun to offer health insurance, they don’t cover the myriad of other expenses drivers have to struggle with in an accident, including vehicle damages, family support, and, as we saw in Nandan’s case, smartphone payments.
Nandan is now back on his feet, but he has ditched Swiggy for Zomato, another food delivery startup, because it doesn’t promise ever-shorter delivery times. “I’m fine with delivering food, but the pressure of 10-minute deadlines is impossible to handle,” Nandan says. (Swiggy / Instamart doesn’t specifically promise 10-minute deliveries, but others Nandan might have considered do.)
Shaik Salauddin, the head of India’s biggest app-based worker association, the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers, isn’t surprised that instant commerce has caused more road accidents and claims he’s getting more requests for help than ever from injured drivers seeking compensation from startups. Salauddin often tries to force action on an accident case (and sometimes succeeds), either by shaming startups on social media or requesting his sources inside these companies to make reviewing it a priority.
“With time-based targets, all these startups are putting a time bomb on workers’ heads,” Salauddin tells The Verge.
It’s completely unreasonable to expect humans to deliver groceries in just 10 minutes, Salauddin argues; within minutes, workers have to find parking spaces twice in congested cities — once to pick up, once to drop off — grab and pack bags of items that typically weigh 10-15 kilograms (roughly 20-30 pounds), follow the navigation on their phone while driving a two-wheeler, walk multiple floors to reach the customer’s doorstep (since they’re usually barred from using the resident lift), and more.
“You can’t make promises like that sitting in your air-conditioned offices,” Salauddin added. “There’s no sense of humanity anymore. It’s all profit.”
“Accidents involving delivery workers have at least doubled per week”
Several local traffic police stations The Verge spoke to echoed Salauddin’s fears. “Accidents involving delivery workers have at least doubled per week,” one senior officer told The Verge on the condition of anonymity since they’re not authorized to comment on subjects the government has no official data on, “and although most of them are not fatal, we’re concerned whether this 10-minute trend will escalate these cases.”
Startups like Swiggy and Blinkit, in statements to The Verge, claim that they’re optimizing for speed at their “dark stores” instead of asking workers to drive faster.
Instant delivery platforms are powered by a network of mini warehouses — dubbed “dark stores” because they’re often nameless hole-in-the-walls — where startups stock the most frequently ordered grocery items. The startups explain that if enough such warehouses are available within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of a platform’s most active locations, delivery workers would be able to meet the deadline with time to spare. Blinkit claims its “average distance of delivery in most locations is now under 900 meters” and that it “can pick and pack an average order within 60 seconds.” “Our delivery partners spend way more time at the entry gates and guard posts than they do on the road,” writes Blinkit chief people officer Naina Sahni.
Startups also reject the idea that injuries are common and medical insurance is lacking. “Statistically, in 2021, 98% of the claims were settled within 3 days,” writes Swiggy communications manager Sanjana Shetty. “There have been 7 insurance claims by our partners in the last year. Roughly one claim for every 6 million orders delivered,” writes Blinkit.
But three Blinkit drivers tell The Verge they were unable to get insurance money after their accidents and that the claim process is too complicated for an uneducated workforce. And though startups say they don’t directly incentivize workers to deliver in a specific amount of time, that’s not what workers are hearing.
Saleem, a 21-year-old Blinkit driver from Mumbai, India, was on his way to his first order one Saturday morning. At a crowded traffic signal, Saleem brought his scooter to a halt amid the cacophony of vehicles honking, heat, and smoke, switched off the ignition to save fuel (which eats up 20 percent of his daily earnings), and put his feet down on the ground. As there’s barely any lane discipline in India’s traffic, a noisy public bus was waiting right on Saleem’s shoulder, and as the light turned green, it accelerated. Before he could move out of the way, it had rolled over his foot and dashed off.
Before Saleem could call in for help, he recalled his manager’s warning from an hour ago: “Deliver in 10 or don’t come back.”
“Deliver in 10 or don’t come back.”
Instead of rushing to the hospital, Saleem knew he had to take care of the order or risk a penalty. Despite the excruciating pain, he rang his friend and asked him to deliver the order on his behalf. His next call went to the customer, Geetarani Lourembam, and begged her not to file a complaint about the delay. Loureumban agreed. But by the time Saleem reached the hospital, he realized he didn’t have any money, and Blinkit refused to wire the amount before reviewing the case. With no other options, he called Lourembam again, asking if she could help in any way. To Saleem’s surprise and relief, Lourembam handed his friend some cash for the doctor’s visit.
“I didn’t need anything urgently, and I told him I don’t care about the order,” Lourembam, who we later learned is someone who fights for human rights at an anti-trafficking NGO, tells The Verge. “It wasn’t like emergency meds. So placing this kind of pressure for groceries is a bit ridiculous because someone’s life is at stake,” she says, recalling the incident.
Saleem, who started delivering food on a bicycle when he was 15 after his parents passed away, says he was lucky and grateful for Lourembam’s support and returned to work after two weeks of bed rest. (There was no lasting injury, but the hospital asked him not to move his feet for 10 days.) But he’s still looking to move away from 10-minute services because, despite assurances, dark stores are still located at least 5–6 miles away from delivery spots — an issue many other delivery workers brought up while speaking with The Verge. “Can we do seven miles in 10 minutes, especially in Mumbai?” he asks me. Mumbai is the second-most congested city in the world.
The dilemma many face, including both riders and customers, is that they no longer have an option. Nandan and Mahesh didn’t sign up for Instamart by choice. They were automatically enrolled in instant deliveries because they worked for Swiggy, and it’s the same at many other delivery startups across India. And even though startups don’t directly incentivize deliveries under 10 minutes, they’re deeply tied into a driver’s earnings, as per conversations The Verge had with drivers and investigations conducted by independent agencies like the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork.
To earn their bonus, for instance, drivers are required to deliver dozens of orders in a day within the deadline. Instead of raising the base pay, startups run “peak hours” windows around mealtimes, where drivers rush to earn the extra money available during those brief periods. The delivery apps dole out periodic rewards and incentives based on a driver’s ratings and performance as well, like monetary bonuses and branded merchandise.
Kaveri Medappa, a University of Sussex researcher who’s studying India’s gig labor, believes startups are “gamifying” aspects of workers’ livelihood by orienting much of their earnings around incentives and offers (such as the substantial bonus that drove Mahesh to break his leg). The strict time limitations, she adds, increase the chances of lower ratings and insecurities among drivers. “All this ultimately pushes workers to work under more stress and in constant hurry,” Medappa tells The Verge.
Instant deliveries are making headway across the world as new startups enter the space in droves. In New York City alone, there are now more than half a dozen startups promising grocery deliveries in 15 minutes or less, including DoorDash, Gorillas, Getir, Buyk, Jokr, Gopuff, 1520, and Fridge No More. UberEats is experimenting with a similar model in Paris. Gorillas, in particular, seems to be going broad; the German startup now offers 10-minute deliveries in 60 cities and has reportedly fired dozens of workers for striking over pay and working conditions.
However, India, where two-wheeler crash deaths have doubled in the last few years and which has some of the most congested cities in the world, has accelerated and highlighted the concept’s potentially deadly consequences. It offers a glimpse into what’s possibly to come for other countries as startups race to expand speedy deliveries in more crowded cities. And it will only get worse as quick commerce — the “delivery of consumables” within 45 minutes — is expected to grow by 10–15x in the next five years in just India alone.
India’s gig workers, however, aren’t ready to settle and walk out from an industry they helped build yet. In the last couple of months, startups in India have faced an unprecedented uprising from their gig workers. With anonymous Twitter accounts, in-person protests, and mass walk-outs, delivery riders are holding startups accountable and demanding a better system. And after complaints, India’s advertising standards body is questioning Zepto about whether its ads promote dangerous driving.
For people like Salauddin, who has filed a plea for gig workers’ social security benefits with the country’s highest court, the fight has only just begun.
Correction February 9th, 3:17PM ET: This story originally stated a backlash forced Swiggy into announcing two-day period leaves for women. However, the public debate around period leaves actually occurred after India’s delivery companies introduced them. We regret the error.