Pooja Gour, 20, felt angry and agitated when her parents turned down her frequent requests to let her visit Connaught Place with friends. The distance between her Sangam Vihar home in south Delhi and CP is barely 20 km but her parents always said no as they were worried about her safety. “I wanted to explore the city and felt caged,” says Pooja, dressed in blue denims and a half sleeve T-shirt pulled over a red sweater.
So when one of her friends told her that a company was hiring women to deliver products at home, she decided to go for it. “I saw it as an opportunity to go out into the city on my own,” says Pooja, sitting at the small office of Even Cargo, a logistics start-up. It is 5pm and she has just arrived after delivering the day’s last parcel in Janakpuri.
Pooja is one of many women from the underprivileged sections who are now working as delivery girls -- considered a male bastion -- in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. They offer different reasons for taking up the profession but they all have a common belief -- that being able to ride a scooty firmly put them on the road to freedom and economic independence. Most of them have studied up to high school and earn about Rs 10,000 a month.
Even Cargo’s headquarters in Saket, a one-room affair with a bean bag and a couple of tables and chairs, has a portrait of Charlie Chaplin with his quote, “You will find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.” Next to it are framed photographs of smiling girls on scooties. The office has 10 employees, all women except the founder Yogesh Kumar, 28, who says his social enterprise attracts many young women interns from prestigious institutes, including IIMs.
“People expect women to be in certain kinds of jobs. We want to change that. Gender is in fact at the core of our operations. We want to ensure women have equal access to public spaces,” says Kumar, 28, an electrical engineer-turned-social entrepreneur. “Out of the 100 WOMEN we trained, only six completed training and joined as permanent employees. Others dropped out mostly because of lack of support from their families.”
His start-up, Kumar says, only works with companies that deal in women’s apparel and accessories. “The idea is to build confidence among the women and reassure their families about the safety of their daughters.”
As we talk to Yogesh, we hear the sound of a scooty coming to a halt outside the ground-floor office. In walks Yasmeen, 21, another delivery girl, holding a helmet in one hand and a bag in another.
Yasmeen, who is as chirpy as Pooja, was teaching computer basics at an institute near her house before she decided to become a delivery girl. “There was little money in that job; besides I wanted to do something more exciting. My parents were not happy when I quit my previous job; they felt door-to-door delivery is not a job for girls,” says Yasmeen, who has a good sense of humour.
“I delivered my first parcel at the house of a school principal. She was not at home and I had to wait a while. When she came she hugged me tightly, gave me a pat on the back, offered me tea, and asked me many questions about my job,” says Pooja, sharing her experiences. “But then there was another woman who took pity on me and gave me her number, offering to help me find another job.”
Pooja says delivering in Karol Bagh has always been a pleasant affair. “A lot of people here speak to me in Punjabi and treat me very well,” she says.
“I had my worst experience in Rithala. It is a rough place where even women were very disrespectful towards us,” says Yasmeen.
Pooja is doing BA through correspondence and attends an English-speaking course. “I have figured out that English is an important tool to get ahead in life. Every underprivileged girl should learn it,” she says.
Hey Deedee, another logistics start-up, employs about 48 women riders in Mumbai and eight in Bangalore, who deliver parcels for companies such as Amazon and Subway. Ravathi Roy, CEO and co-founder, says another 1,500 women are currently under training to become riders. Both Even Cargo and Hey Deedee train women in driving, soft skills, self-defence and handling logistics and finances.
“What we are trying to do is give women from the underprivileged background a platform for self-employment to make them self-reliant. They own the scooters they drive and we facilitate loans. We plan to train about 10,000 women in one year to become riders,” says Roy.
The average age of delivery girls in Delhi is 21, while in Mumbai it is 32. Their reasons for joining and their aspirations differ too. In Delhi, most delivery girls talk about freedom but in Mumbai and Bangalore, they say it is about a better source of livelihood.
Anjali Tarve, 32, an employee of Hey Deedee who delivers parcels for Subway in Mumbai, says she decided to be a delivery girl to supplement her family income. “I want to ensure a bright future for my daughter. I have put her in a convent school. Besides, as a teenager, I always wanted to ride a scooty but there was no way we could have afforded one,” says Tarve.
Does her family support her? “My husband feels it is a risky job but he is supportive,” says Tarve. “A lot of people are shocked and surprised when they see me delivering parcels. Now I want to learn to drive taxi”.
Afsana Banu, 33, an employee of Hey Deedee who now delivers parcel for Amazon in Bangalore, used to be a beautician before she became a delivery girl five months ago. She says her earlier job did not fetch her good money.
“My 13-year-old daughter wants to be an IAS officer; I am working hard so that she can fulfill her dream. Many in my family want me to marry her off in a couple of years but I will not allow that,” says Afsana, who has studied up to class 10 and is the only bread winner of her family as her husband is ailing.
“I get more kudos from women than men. A lot of men tell me that I should do something else. But what they do not understand is that one of the reasons I took up the job is that I can do everything that a man can do. I wanted to make heads turn”.