A Diwali For Gig Workers?

A Diwali For Gig Workers?

Even as most Indians are at home with their families for Diwali, thousands of gig workers have to be on the road in challenging conditions to make sure that the celebrations go on

Wish You A Very Happy Diwali From Everyone Here At Inc42. Here’s To Another Great Year Ahead For You And Us! 

We are taking a short break from our regular publishing cycle from November 11-13, which is why this Inc42 Weekly Brief is different from what you are used to seeing every Sunday. Team Inc42 will be back on Tuesday, the 14th, recharged and ready for the months ahead! Hope you have a great festive season! 

Every Diwali for the past few years, conversations in North India tend to go to pollution before parties. In fact, the daily AQI is the predominant ice-breaker at startup events these days, with the talk often turning to how pollution has changed Delhi or about how everyone’s leaving town.

Unfortunately for one critical part of the startup ecosystem — i.e gig workers — escaping the pollution or other infrastructure problems is far from possible. Not only in Delhi but also in Bengaluru and Mumbai where rains and bad roads have become a permanent hurdle for gig workers to jump over.

Even as offices shut for the festive season, and everyone is at home with their families, thousands of gig workers still have to be on the road to make sure that the celebrations go on. In many ways, the convenience of ecommerce, quick deliveries has come at a high cost for gig workers, especially in the smog season in North India.

We can bemoan firecrackers and stubble burning practices all we want, but it has not changed the status quo. So we wanted to dedicate this Sunday’s piece to the smoggy Diwali for gig workers. As with every Diwali, it’s time to clean up the mess that has become a huge burden over the years and has piled on the problems for gig workers, besides the stress of their everyday jobs.

No City For Gig Workers 

While the month of November brings the focus on Delhi NCR and air pollution, the reality is that gig workers have to deal with bad roads, accidents and other infrastructure gaps on a daily basis in any city. Delivery workers faced hardships due to floods and waterlogging in Bengaluru in August and September, and deaths related to gig workers have been reported in Noida and Hyderabad this year.

“There are so many issues affecting gig workers and platforms have known about all of them for a number of years. Pollution is not new, and as usual, companies will talk about EVs, but not directly address the problems,” says Shaik Salauddin, the national general secretary and cofounder of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers.

He added that in the past, health problems among gig workers were never addressed with real measures. The talk about pollution comes around every winter, but gig workers are out in the open all year long.

Salauddin believes that most companies resort to PR rather than taking actual steps. For instance, when it comes to pollution, platforms such as Swiggy, Zomato, Zepto and others talk about their transition to an electric vehicle (EV) fleet. However an EV does not change the air that the worker is already breathing.

“Covid was an outlier and there was a real threat to life and the government had mandated masks. But now even masks may not be enough for some parts of Delhi,” added the founder of a NCR-based last-mile delivery firm.

Inc42 reached out to Zepto, Zomato and Swiggy for responses on how they are looking to tackle the smoggy Diwali for gig workers. But none of these companies — two unicorns and a listed giant — sent us a statement in relation to our questions, or any clarity on their health policies for gig workers when it comes to air quality.

According to Salauddin, when seasons change, we tend to forget what happened in the months prior. He bemoaned the uncertainty around the Social Security Code for gig worker safety and insurance, which is yet to be implemented by the government.

“There is a heatwave, which then becomes monsoon and now it’s pollution, but there’s no solution for any of the concerns that gig workers have. They spend hours on the road, often unsheltered and in the midst of traffic snarls. Air pollution or floods, the situation is the same in any city.”

The Pollution Problem

It’s impossible to address pollution and how gig workers are exposed to the health risks without asking serious questions about what’s happening on the farmlands in north India.

The stubble burning before the change of season and crop results in vast quantities of smoke being released into the air. This smoke combined with the still air in Delhi NCR during this time of the year creates a smog box. Efforts have been ongoing for the past half a decade to curb stubble burning, but the practice continues unabated.

An agritech founder from Mohali told us that technology solutions as alternatives to stubble burning have failed to take off due to the low ROI for such innovations. “You cannot do this at scale unless the government steps in and makes such tools mandatory. Innovation can be private, but the enforcement of its usage still comes down to the government. Private companies cannot make a dent by themselves,” the founder added.

Indeed, there is some evidence that private intervention is slow and has low efficacy. This past week, Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra claimed that regenerative agriculture is the solution to the stubble burning problem, but his post on X on November 7, 2023 is almost exactly the same as his tweet in November 2021.

Meanwhile, in the two years between those posts, not much has changed. The fact is that solutions have been offered, but none of them have made a dent in the problem.

Are Things Improving?

A Delhi NCR-based founder of a listed company believes that no one wants to hear about children or gig workers falling ill because of pollution, but that things are gradually improving, even if there seems to be no real progress.

“Just think about our roads and highways 15 years ago; things are improving in India for all businesses. Of course, pollution is one of those problems that cannot be solved just by stopping stubble burning. There are many parts to it, so I think governments are doing what they think is possible in the short-term,” the founder added.

Privately, some seasoned entrepreneurs are mulling making representations to government bodies about the recurring infrastructure problems and potential health hazards not just for gig workers but other daily wage labourers as well.

“If schools and colleges are shut and offices are coerced to take steps to reduce emissions, the situation is not good for anyone. But with each Diwali, our reliance on gig workers is increasing.”

In many ways, gig workers are the unheralded brand ambassadors for platforms and services giants. It’s time gig workers get a chance to celebrate Diwali like the rest of India.

With that, we hope you have a great festive season, and stay safe.

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