E-coolies are paying the price of propping up a happening economy, says Sharmistha Ghosal
You’ve seen him climbing up the stairs of your building or waiting at the office reception area or zipping through the city on a two-wheeler. He is youngish, wears a T-shirt, sometimes a cap, both sporting the logo of the brand he works for, and on his back is a towering backpack.

Yes, he’s the e-coolie, the guy who delivers to your doorstep your online indulgences. And every day, he carries about 35-50kg weight on his back.

The e-commerce boom – according to a 2014 Google report, India will have no less than 100 million online shoppers by 2016 – has not only given urban India a new swagger, but has also generated jobs for a sizeable portion of the country’s unskilled and semi-skilled labour force. There is an increased demand in particular for delivery boys, who form the backbone of any e-commerce and logistics company.

According to Sonal Arora, assistant vice-president of TeamLease Services, a recruitment company, almost two lakh delivery boys were recruited across e-commerce, logistics and hyperlocal companies in the last three or four years.

However, for many of the delivery boys, the job comes at a cost. Take the case of Montu Manjhi, 28, who works for a Pune-based logistics company in Calcutta.

Ten months ago he was jobless, but now he earns a monthly salary of about Rs 15,000. In a single day, he delivers at least a dozen consignments. Had it not been for a debilitating back pain, he would have been a most contented man.

“I have a recurrent back pain which travels down to my waist,” he says.

Subroto Dey, who has been at it longer than Manjhi, is in a worse state. The 27-year-old commerce graduate is currently bedridden. “I tore a ligament while lifting a heavy item,” he says, as he awaits his turn at the orthopaedic department of IPGMER and SSKM hospital in Calcutta for surgery that will get him back on his feet.

“The condition of these delivery boys is no better than the coolies we are familiar with at railway platforms,” says Dr Snehadrit Mukherjee, a city-based orthopaedic surgeon who treats 20 to 30 such cases every day.

These men, mostly in their late 20s or early 30s, are also falling prey to early arthritic changes and severe long-term degenerative spine problems, besides a host of other bone-related problems, mostly caused by the heavy backpacks they carry.

“Bending down and lifting weights can tear the paraspinal muscle fibre around the waist, causing back strain. There can be neck muscle strain or even wrist ligament tear and tennis elbow. One minor injury leads to another, since the body lacks balance,” explains Dr Ananda Kishor Pal, head, department of orthopaedics, IPGMER.

The fact that most of them use two-wheelers to ferry around these heavy packages makes them more vulnerable. “It increases chances of fracture or dislocation of the spine. If a person brakes or comes to a halt suddenly, the axial loading might injure the spine and also the adjoining nerves, causing paralysis in extreme cases,” warns Dr Mukherjee. Axial loading refers to the application of weight or force along the course of the long axis of the body.

However, there is little relief available for these men, as they belong to the base of the labour pyramid. Dey has no health coverage and cannot shell out Rs 60,000-70,000 that will be needed for his surgery in a private hospital. And as he waits for his turn at state-run hospitals, he remains without a job.

Arora explains that since this is a nascent sector, there are no special rules or norms followed by the industry or mandated by the government.

“On an average, most delivery boys carry 25-40kg of weight. Many of the larger and organised e-commerce and logistics service providers offer basic medical insurance and employees are also covered under the government’s Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC),” she says. TeamLease has nearly 10,000 employees deputed to various clients in this sector, and they are all covered by a medical insurance plan and ESIC.

According to e-retail giant Flipkart, a check is kept on the weights the men carry. “We ensure that the weight doesn’t exceed a particular limit per delivery boy. No delivery boy working for eKart [Flipkart’s logistics unity] is overloaded,” says an official spokesperson. The company, which employs 14,000 delivery boys, remains silent on the specifics of the weight limit though. While enquiries to Amazon India and Swiggy elicit no response, Snapdeal has refused to comment on the issue.

Big Basket, an online grocery store, has about 1,100 express delivery executives across eight tier-I cities, including 50 in Calcutta. “We are constantly working on improving the convenience factor for the riders… We also take their feedback on how to improve the ergonomic design aspects of the delivery bags,” says Hari Menon, CEO of Big Basket.

So, in the absence of company policies, is there no preventive measure the delivery boys can take?

According to Dr Pal, many of the men lack the kind of physical fitness required of them for their kind of job. But rest is the medicine, holds Dr Sisir Kumar Mandal, an orthopaedic surgeon at Belle Vue Clinic. “But since they cannot afford to rest, we prescribe multivitamin supplements and painkillers,” he adds.

Dr Rajiv Chatterjee, consulting orthopaedic surgeon, Columbia Asia Hospital, Calcutta, prescribes daily exercise. “One should brisk walk, run or skip rope. Swimming is also a very good option,” he says.

Another suggestion from Dr Pal is that instead of putting all the items in one large backpack, they can be packaged in several smaller bags. “Also, their bikes should be fitted with carry boxes to avoid carrying backpacks while driving,” he adds. Care should also be taken to remain hydrated, in order to avoid an electrolyte imbalance, which can cause dizziness and lead to road accidents.

Flipkart claims its men are given shorter routes to optimise deliveries in an area, thereby making sure they don’t carry a lot of weight. Besides, all Flipkart delivery hubs have energy drinks, such as glucose, for the employees to have in case of extreme weather conditions.

Given the circumstances, better safe than sorry.

This article was published in Telegraph India


Sonal Arora

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