The Delivery Business Booms as Chennai Decides to Stay In

Chennai | 03/15/2013 11:51am
Mili Sinha | Informal City Dialogues

Home delivery is surging in Chennai as congestion chokes the city. Photo credit: McKay Savage via Flickr Creative Commons

“I had never seen a city before moving to Chennai,” says Lakshman as he packs rice, dal, vegetables and salad into small take-out containers. A resident of Bihar, a state in eastern India, the 21 year old left his family and moved here in 2006. “My uncle asked me to come here and work with him in a guest house as a caretaker. I earned Rs 2,600 ($48 USD) per month.”

Soon, however, Lakshman found himself a new job delivering food to Chennai’s increasingly homebound masses. “I had come to Chennai with the aim to earn for my family, so whatever job came my way, I took it up,” he says. His timing was impeccable – this is a city in the midst of a take-out craze, and while there’s no single reason for the surging popularity of home-delivered food, one factor seems likely: A growing middle class has led to a dramatic leap in car ownership in Chennai, and in turn, a near-constant state of debilitating traffic congestion. A 2005 World Bank study found the city had 324 vehicles per 1,000 residents; last year, a study by the city’s traffic department revealed that there is now one vehicle on the road for every two residents. Meanwhile, the share of trips made by public transportation has plummeted from 52 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 2008.

All of which has made driving to a restaurant on a busy night an exercise in masochism. Interestingly, the formal economic boom that led to this surge in car ownership has fueled an informal boom to mirror it. Today, the home-delivery business – once a short-term, part-time gig for most of its workers – has become a full-time career option as take-out food finds more and more fans.

Wearing ripped jeans and a faded t-shirt as his uniform, Lakshman’s work commences as early as 8 a.m. and doesn’t conclude until the last order of the day is delivered. He works for a woman who cooks homemade food, which he delivers to many of Chennai’s neighborhoods: Mandaveli, Royapettah, Gopalapuram, Nandanam and R A Puram. Unlike delivery boys who work for big restaurant chains, Lakshman mainly conducts his work via bicycle. “I do not have a driver’s license yet, so cannot drive a two-wheeler,” he says. When there’s an especially big order, he enlists the help of a friend with a moped.

“I earn Rs 4,200 ($78 USD) a month now,” says Lakshman, a portion of which he sends home to his family. “We have a small farm. The crops that grow are sufficient to feed our family,” but not plentiful enough to sell.

As he heads to his bike with food in hand, he is given a receipt for all of the orders. “I never went to school,” he says, “but I can write my name and count money.” He spends about twenty nights per month staying at the guest house where his uncle works, and the rest sleeping in a corner of the house owned by the woman who cooks the food he delivers. “I get free food at her home. The rest of the time, I am always delivering here and there.” Eventually he wants to get his driver’s license to expand his delivery range.

There are many like Lakshman in Chennai, young people who were forced by poverty to drop out of school and who work far from their hometowns to earn a living for their families. They might not understand the language of academia, but they do understand the language of money. The growing informal business of home delivery provides employment for more and more of them each year.

“Many of us come from the outskirts of Chennai with the aim of earning a livelihood,” says Anand, a food-delivery boy who earlier worked as a delivery boy for an online store. “I have a couple of friends who do not know the language that well, but due to their knowledge of routes they are doing well in this business.”

“The option of home delivery comes in handy for residents who wish to enjoy the taste of restaurant food from the comfort of home,” says a senior officer working at Yo Potato, a local home-delivery chain. Some restaurants have partnered with such formal home-delivery service providers to make sure their food is delivered on time when their delivery boys are too busy to handle the workload.

For instance, Yo Potato has engineered a concept wherein a person can order food from any of restaurant in Chennai, no matter where in the city they live. “It has been designed so that people don’t feel bad about the fact that they cannot have food from a particular restaurant just because their area doesn’t have the home-delivery options of the restaurant,” says the senior officer.

Some of those working in the industry hope to use their experience to transition into the formal economy. Those who know the routes well and have a driver’s license, for instance, can look for a career as a courier or even a job in logistics. “You have many for whom this is like an extra income,” says Anand, pointing out that many delivery boys, like lots of informal workers in general, already have one foot in the formal economy. “They will work during the morning in offices while doing home delivery during the evenings.”

“I delivered hardware products for a company in Ambattur,” says E Lokesh, who earns Rs 8,000 ($148 USD) a month. He changed to food delivery four months ago because the meal-oriented hours – 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. – allowed him to pursue other opportunities during the day.

And like Lakshman, some in the delivery business find that the perks of free food and lodging are as valuable as the salary. “I make around Rs 9,000 ($166 USD) per month,” says Prabhat Das, a resident of Odisha who delivers food for a Kerala kitchen. “I not only deliver food but also cook at the mess. I get to stay at the mess as well.” Not paying rent is an example of ““reducing the negatives”:,” a key strategy in making informal employment profitable.

“We usually go out to eat on weekends, but seeing the rush in the restaurants and on the roads, I now end up calling for home delivery,” says Anupa Chakravarthy, a homemaker who lives in Perungudi, a suburb of the city. The traffic nightmare that keeps people like Chakravarthy at home may not be good for the economy of Chennai at large, but for one group at least, it’s bringing home the bacon.