By Megha Bahree for The New Yorker
The Delhi-based delivery service Even Cargo, which employs only female drivers, was started with the aim of getting women into male-dominated professions.
On a hot, sticky day in a cramped residential neighborhood in south Delhi, Priyanka Sachdev, a slender nineteen-year-old, wrestled with her white "scooty," a two-wheel scooter that is slightly smaller than a regular one and made for women. The push-button ignition had been ruined in recent monsoons, so she had to kick-start it. Sachdev had packages to deliver, and she was already late. Dressed in denim capris, a black-and-yellow striped T-shirt, and white loafers, she gave it a firm kick, and then a few more, but it wouldn’t budge. A small crowd had started to gather in the narrow street. She grabbed a passerby, who helped her gun the engine. She barely had time to offer a wave of thanks before speeding off in the noon-hour crush.
Sachdev works for Even Cargo, a six-month-old startup that offers delivery services for e-commerce companies in the Indian capital. All of its half a dozen delivery personnel are women. Yogesh Kumar, the company’s founder, started the business with the express purpose of getting women into professions typically dominated by men.
A delivery job might seem an odd, or at least extremely modest, choice for breaking gender barriers, but in India such jobs are relatively well-paid for people without a college degree. Moreover, it was important for Kumar that he help women not only get into better-paid position but into jobs in which they would be required to venture out. "Gender is at the core of our operations," Kumar told me in an e-mail. Giving a woman a delivery job allows her to reclaim "her share of public space."
Kumar, who is twenty-eight and is a trained engineer, was working in Delhi when, in December, 2012, a young woman was brutally raped on a moving bus that she had boarded with a male friend after seeing "Life of Pi." The brutality of the rape and the woman’s subsequent death, from her injuries, shocked the capital and made international headlines. Women and men took to the streets, demanding that public spaces be made safe for women. The police responded with water cannons and chased the protesters with sticks and batons. Kumar was one of those protesters and says the experience was one of the factors that influenced him to do something. He quit his job with a German engineering firm and enrolled in a graduate program in social entrepreneurship at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in Mumbai. While in school, he hatched an idea to create a business of female drivers to compete with taxis and Uber (and its domestic competitor Ola). But he soon discovered that none of the women he wanted to hire could afford a car or get a loan for one. So he changed course. India’s e-commerce industry is booming and logistics companies have sprouted up to deliver their packages. Kumar decided to start one that would hire only women. Last year he won a grant of about fourteen thousand dollars to pursue the idea.
On a recent Sunday, I went to visit Kumar at Even Cargo’s headquarters, a small room he has rented in a residential area in south Delhi. The room is at one end of a narrow hallway. I walked past a laundry service, a couple of sleeping stray dogs, and a handful of chatting residents whiling away the afternoon. Kumar’s office is furnished with a desk, a couple of chairs, and a mattress on the floor to sit on. Lanky and bespectacled, with a thick mat of hair, Kumar started his business by procuring two secondhand scooties. He then reached out to female entrepreneurs, assuming that they would want delivery girls instead of boys. One of the companies, Vajor, sells women’s apparel and accessories; another, Flyrobe, is a clothing-rental startup. Since making its first delivery, in late July, Even Cargo has been making an average of ten deliveries a day. Kumar is still losing money, but the losses are starting to narrow.
Getting clients was the easy part. Recruiting workers was much more difficult. He tried a few nonprofit organizations that help girls from poor neighborhoods to find jobs, but the response was not encouraging. When he did find prospective employees through community elders in those neighborhoods, he often met resistance from the women’s parents. Some said delivery was not a girl’s job. Others objected to the dangers of driving a scooty on Delhi’s jam-packed streets. A few had no idea what e-commerce was.
Most of the Even Cargo drivers I spoke with told me that their parents’ main concern was whether their daughters would be safe travelling alone and interacting with strangers. Kumar’s attitude on this point was stubbornly idealistic, and is contrary to the predominant view that women, for their own safety, should restrict their movements to so-called safe areas. "This is the precise reason we have started this company," he told me. "This feeling of insecurity or putting yourself in danger has to go away. We’re taking all the precautions we can, of course, but we want to change the mind-set of how people see women in public spaces. We can’t always think of women as a species in danger. . . . That is maintaining the status quo, and we need to change that thinking." Kumar promised the parents that the drivers wouldn’t make deliveries after dark, and, if an address or neighborhood didn’t seem safe, he would either not accept that order or he would accompany the driver. They would deliver only women’s products, such as women’s clothes and accessories, to limit interactions with men.
Kumar started out with ten female drivers. They learned etiquette for greeting customers and how to use a smartphone and Google maps. Most important was learning how to ride. Honda Motorcycles & Scooter India, a subsidiary of the Japanese firm, sponsors a free two-day workshop in which women are taught traffic signs and rules, and how to drive a two-wheeler. I sat in on a session in which one young Even Cargo driver-to-be was accompanied by her father. The father kept answering questions, until the female instructor had to rebuke him.
All the drivers came from poor families; all had finished high school and knew some English. Four dropped out after their first day on the job, after the reality of driving around the city to deliver packages to strangers in the heat and rain set in. Of the rest, three are regulars, and the others are called when needed.
The average wage at Even Cargo is a hundred and forty dollars a month, which is less than the hundred and sixty dollars that its larger competitors pay their male employees, but the Even Cargo scooty drivers deliver fewer packages than drivers at other companies. The drivers I talked to said that the job has given them a measure of independence. One bought herself a shirt from Zara. Another spent her earnings on an eye operation for her mother. After completing a month on the job, Pooja, who is twenty, was able to buy her first smartphone. Recently, she was robbed on the street in her own neighborhood, and the thieves stole her phone. One of the women, Pappi, is nineteen and carries a small knife in case she needs to defend herself. When I asked her if she felt unsafe and if she would want to quit, her response was an instant "No." Her salary pays for her college fees, and for clothes for her sister and herself. But more than the economic independence, she said she loves driving the scooty. "I feel really proud that I’m getting the same work as boys," she said. "When I heard about this job I was so excited I can’t describe it. I learned to drive the scooty in one day."
I rode along with Sachdev recently, to pick up a package for Flyrobe. As we hit the first of many potholes, the scooty wobbled. She informed me cheerily that this was only her second time driving. Luckily it was a Sunday and the traffic wasn’t at its usual level of chaos. As we drove along, a white BMW gave a loud honk, right behind us. We moved to one side, only to brush past the branches of trees lining the street. We went back to the middle of the road and a mini truck pulled up. The driver leaned out and said rudely, in Hindi, "You, girl, drive on the side." Sachdev hollered back. We stopped at a traffic light and two men on a scooter bumped into us from behind, then an auto rickshaw cut us off. Sachdev pulled up next to the auto rickshaw and politely admonished the driver while I turned to the men behind us. The signal changed and we turned onto a relatively clear street. Sachdev revved the scooty and it charged forward. Freedom.