‘Pure veg fleet’: How Indian food app Zomato sparked a caste, purity debate

Delivery workers worry that vegetarian-only fleets today could pave the way for caste-based delivery systems tomorrow.

A delivery driver for Zomato, the food-delivery group, prepares to pick up an order from a restaurant in Mumbai, India, July 13, 2021 [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

Rajesh Jatavad*, a delivery rider for Zomato, a food delivery app in southern India, is worried about his full name being displayed for customers on the platform – because his last name reveals that he belongs to a marginalised caste.

More privileged communities among India’s caste system historically considered castes like Jatavad’s “untouchables”.

Jatavad’s worry is based on lived experience. “It is easy for others to identify my caste from my surname. Some of the customers, after reading my surname from the app, they won’t allow me near them, or even [allow me to] hand over the food packet. They will tell me to place it down and then leave,” Rajesh told Al Jazeera.

Then, in mid-March, his employer announced a decision that threatens to make Jatavad’s already perilous daily struggle against caste biases even tougher.

On March 19, Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, declared on social media platform X that the company was launching a “Pure Veg Mode along with a Pure Veg Fleet on Zomato, for customers who have a 100% vegetarian dietary preference.”

“India has the largest percentage of vegetarians in the world, and one of the most important feedback we’ve gotten from them is that they are very particular about how their food is cooked, and how their food is handled,” he wrote.

The Pure Veg Mode allows customers to pick from curated list of restaurants that serve only vegetarian food and excludes eateries that serve any meat or fish. The Pure Veg Fleet, Goyal announced, would consist of riders who will only carry food from Pure Veg Mode restaurants.

And in the future, Goyal wrote, the company plans to introduce other specialised fleets – a comment that left Jatavad anxious and that betrays, said sociologists, an ignorance of a complex reality that undergirds India’s enormous app-based food delivery industry, valued at $7.4bn in 2023.

More than half – 54.5 percent – of delivery workers belong to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, according to a March 11 study by the University of Pennsylvania.

These communities are designated “scheduled” by the government because they have suffered centuries of discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantages. In India’s caste-stratified society, they are also often associated with being “impure” by privileged castes.

Zomato’s latest policies could end up reinforcing those stereotypes and deepening the discrimination workers like Jatavad face, said sociologists and workers’ rights advocates. There are 700,000 to one million food delivery workers on platforms like Zomato in India.

Zomato delivery riders
Delivery riders – many working for Zomato – wait in line to collect their orders outside a mall in Mumbai, India, on August 10, 2023 [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

‘If that happens, I’m in trouble’

Jatavad learned about the specialised fleets from a screenshot shared by his colleagues. Instantly, his mind went racing.

“’What is the company aiming for?” he said. “Will they create fleets based on religion and caste next? If that happens, I’m in trouble.”

In his posts on X, Goyal explained his rationale for the separate fleets. “Because despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes the food spills into the delivery boxes. In those cases, the smell of the previous order travels to the next order and may lead to the next order smelling of the previous order,” Goyal reasoned. “For this reason, we had to separate the fleet for veg orders.”

Following pushback over the risks colour-coded uniforms could pose to riders, if neighbourhoods that view meat as impure decide to attack or abuse delivery workers, Goyal backtracked partly.

“All our riders – both our regular fleet, and our fleet for vegetarians, will wear the colour red,” he wrote in a follow-up post. “This will ensure that our red uniform delivery partners are not incorrectly associated with non-veg food and blocked by any during any special days … our riders’ physical safety is of paramount importance to us,” his post read.

But while riders carrying vegetarian and non-vegetarian food will not be distinguishable by their uniform, they will still belong to different fleets – and customers will be able to pick the “Pure Veg” fleet on the Zomato app.

Workers are worried.

“Today, they will say veg and non-veg; tomorrow, they will bring in religion and caste,” Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary and co-founder of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), a trade union federation of ride-sharing and other gig transport workers, told Al Jazeera. “They will say, upper-caste customers have demanded upper-caste delivery boys. This will create a further division among workers.”

Shaikh questioned why Zomato was wading into sensitive food and culture-related issues in a country as diverse as India. “This company is dividing people,” he said. “If they’re here to do business, let them do business.”

‘Purity and pollution’

Asked by Al Jazeera about the concerns of delivery workers, Zomato said that customers would not be able to choose delivery partners based on the rider’s own dietary preference.

It added that the “delivery partners onboarded on Zomato are not and will never be discriminated against on the basis of any criteria (including dietary/ political/religion preferences).”

But that’s easier said than done, according to Mini Mohan, a sociologist based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, who argued that by segregating vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, Zomato was exploiting religious and caste-based divisions.

“The caste system in India links food with purity and pollution,” she said. “Vegetarian food is considered ‘pure’, while meat and occupations associated with lower castes are seen as ‘impure’. This shapes dietary practices, with higher castes even avoiding food handled by lower castes.”

Zomato considered special green uniforms for its ‘Pure Veg Fleet’ delivery riders rather than the red uniform pictured here, but has backed away from that plan, Kolkata, India, July 13, 2021 [Rupak De Chowduri/Reuters]

Zomato’s approach “not only discriminates against certain groups but also risks widening social rifts. When food choices dictate treatment, it creates conflicts and undermines social harmony,” she added.

And the intersection of deep-seated biases and food delivery isn’t new for India – or for Zomato.

In 2019, Zomato faced controversy when a customer cancelled an order due to the delivery person’s religion. Zomato’s response, highlighting that food has no religion, was widely praised on social media. Five years later, the company now find itself on the other side of the fence.

‘Rise in Brahmin restaurants’

The concept of pure and impure food in Hinduism dates back to the Dharmasutras, Vedic texts written by different authors between BCE 700 and BCE 100, TS Syam Kumar, a Sanskrit scholar and teacher and debater told Al Jazeera.

“Dharmasutras are ancient Indian texts that functioned as guides for dharma – a concept encompassing duty, righteousness and ethical conduct. They are considered the earliest source of Hindu law,” he said.

Quoting chapters from Dharmasutras, the scholar said that the scriptures declared that food that has been touched by an impure person becomes impure, but is not rendered unfit to be eaten. On the other hand, food brought by a Shudra – the lowest rung of the traditional caste hierarchy – is unfit to be eaten.

The caste system often associates traditionally disadvantaged castes with meat consumption and considers them “polluted”, justifying their social exclusion. That’s true even in Kerala, a state often seen as a progressive bastion in India.

Kerala, too, he said, “is witnessing a rise in Brahmin restaurants”.

“People prioritise to buy certain brands of ingredients with upper-caste names,” Kumar said.

Meanwhile, Shashi Bellamkonda, a marketing professor and former hotelier said Zomato’s controversial approach is the outcome of a failure of communication and of not understanding the customer.

“Instead of introducing a separate ‘Pure Veg Mode’ and ‘Pure Veg Fleet’, the company could have focused on improving its existing processes to ensure that vegetarian orders are handled with the same care and attention as non-vegetarian orders,” he said. “And communicated that to customers.”

*Name changed to preserve anonymity


Source: Al Jazeera