With sales of air purifiers and masks rising as people struggle to cope with Delhi’s toxic air, for one group of people, it’s been business as usual. “What masks, madam?” asked Umesh, who delivers for a food aggregator firm. “We just drove like always, there was no word from the company, nor do we have any idea about these things. We just have to do our job, earn money and go home. Everything else is Ram bharose(god's will).”
Umesh was philosophical. The pollution happens every year. He can’t sit at home waiting for the worst to pass. “Yes, the sky was grey and I had some cough and wheezing problem but work is work. I took some medicine and went on. My mother made me a herbal remedy for five days and now I am much better,” he said.
The delivery staff who drop off packages for online retail giants or food or ferry passengers around the city in their taxis are among the worst affected by the capital’s foul air. Umesh is among the millions who do not visit a doctor when the pollution reaches health emergency levels.
When Local Circles, a social media platform communities, conducted its Coping with Pollution Survey 2019 recently, it found that 44 per cent of the respondents in Delhi NCR said they were suffering pollution-related ailments but had yet to visit a doctor.
“I suspect that a large majority of the gig economy personnel are in this category and are also one of the most impacted groups. There is an urgent need to ensure that all aggregators provide them with a mask, and, if possible, access to a physician,” said Sachin Taparia, founder, Local Circles.
Ironically, delivery employees are busy delivering air purifiers at this time of year. “They deliver the goods to us at home to help us to be healthy. We need to give them health support so that if they suffer an asthma attack or shortness of breath, there is a helpline,” said Sudeep Kumar Sen, business head, manufacturing and engineering at TeamLease Services.
The online retail giants and food aggregators say they have taken measure to help their gig workers. Spokespersons for Zomato, Amazon, Flipkart, and Uber said they had all provided masks to their delivery staff.
Some Uber passengers, though, were surprised. “I took cabs frequently during the last week or so and not only did my Uber or Ola drivers wear no masks, one even kept the windows rolled down,” said Seema Khurana, who lives in Vasundhara Enclave.
Uber executives working in offices were better protected. “We maintain strict air quality standards at work premises, ensuring that the level of PM 2.5 is never above 10 and is constantly monitored and maintained at all times, making the air at our office probably the cleanest in the city,” said an Uber spokesperson. Zomato’s offices also have air purifiers and, in addition, regularly provide yoga and meditation classes, along with health information. Umesh, meanwhile, continues to drive around the city, content with mum’s home-made herbal potion and the Rs 20 tip he received for delivering his latest food order.