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E-Commerce, big pain for India’s deliverymen

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One morning, Ashok Kumar hoisted a huge, 110-pound pack jammed with books, cellphones, blue jeans and other items onto his back and cinched the shoulder straps.

Then he donned a helmet, climbed onto a motorcycle and, balancing precariously, headed out into the traffic-clogged streets of the Indian capital for his daily rounds.

Mr. Kumar and thousands of men like him fan out across the crowded cities of the world’s second-most-populous nation every day—foot soldiers on the front lines of India’s e-commerce revolution.

This low-tech army of urban sherpas hauls bags of online purchases down narrow alleys and up flights of stairs, lugging everything from laser printers and kitchen appliances to cans of Coca-Cola for their country’s burgeoning consumer class.

“It’s a risky job,” said Mr. Kumar, who has to dodge potholes, erratic drivers and the occasional cow—all while carrying loads that at times weigh more than he does. “Sometimes people order dumbbells and then the bag gets really heavy,” he said.

Men like Mr. Kumar are the muscle behind the billions of dollars global investors are pouring into local online sellers like Flipkart Internet Pvt. and Snapdeal.com as well as Amazon.com Inc.’s Indian arm in a bet on the rising purchasing power of shoppers in this still-poor South Asian country.

Already, Internet orders are doubling every few months. Morgan Stanley estimates that Indian online sales will hit $100 billion a year by 2020, up from $3 billion in 2013.

Without the big-backpack men, effectively delivery vans with feet, growth in the industry would grind to a halt. Real trucks have difficulty navigating gridlocked streets. And India’s postal service, while cheap, is slow.

“Stuff needs to get to people. If stuff doesn’t get to people, e-commerce would not have grown the way it has,” said Rohit Bansal, the chief operating officer of Snapdeal.

Mr. Kumar, 30 years old, has been in the delivery business for three months. When he set out recently from a warehouse, his pack looked to be three-times the width of his body.

Dressed in a blue-and-orange polo shirt, khaki pants and scuffed white sneakers, Mr. Kumar, who said he weighs 150 pounds, was leaning far forward while walking with the bag on his back. In addition, he carried a bulky display case under his arm.

His first stop was in a warren of small streets in southern Delhi. He made his way down a narrow path to the drugstore of Kashif Jauhar to deliver the case.
Mr. Jauhar said he would use his purchase to hold his growing collection of watches. On his wrist was a replica of a Tag Heuer that he said he bought for about $20. “This is my work watch,” he said.

All the while, Mr. Kumar, who earns 8,500 rupees, or about $136, a month, kept a close eye on his pack. Even if he has to schlep up five flights of stairs, he needs to carry his entire load, he said, lest something gets stolen. “You can’t trust anyone in this city.”

“This job gives us a lot of pain in our heads,” Mr. Kumar said, as deliverymen stress out about losing or breaking valuable goods, “and in our backs.”
Another source of strain: Road hazards.

Delhi is a city of terrible drivers: lane markings are ignored, turn signals seemingly are considered inadvisable advance warning and the preferred mode of inter-car communication is leaning on the horn.

“You never know when a vehicle will stop and where,” said Yogesh Sharma, a rail-thin 25-year-old who has worked five months delivering packages for Amazon’s India unit.

On a recent morning, Mr. Sharma, carrying a 50-pound bag filled with thumb drives, a yoga manual and other parcels, got cut off a number of times by auto-rickshaws and had to slam on the brakes.

The condition of the streets themselves is also an issue. There are manholes without covers. Roads flood in the rainy season. They are also home to a plethora of animals.

“You have to watch out for cows,” Mr. Sharma said.
Amazon sometimes uses auto-rickshaws in India to deliver goods and once delivered a package by canoe in the southern state of Kerala, when “the only way to get there was in a canoe,” a spokeswoman for Amazon in India said. Amazon regularly gives safety training to its delivery men, she said.
Men with big backpacks mounted on motorcycles were a quick, and cheap, way to meet booming demand for speedy deliveries in India’s congested cities, but some say that may need to change.

“We are not very fond of the bike, from a safety point of view,” said Surjeet Kumar, supply-chain head of Flipkart, which is India’s largest e-commerce company by sales. The weight of Flipkart’s bags is limited to 40-50 pounds for safety reasons, he said.

Flipkart is trying to deliver more packages using vans, he said, but around 40% of its packages are still delivered by men with big backpacks.
A big issue for the big backpack men is finding their customers. Addresses in Delhi, a city of 16.7 million, can sometimes be inscrutable. Deliverymen spend a lot of time asking for directions.

“Someone once wrote as their address: 115A, left-side bell. How do I find that?” Mr. Kumar said. Even when written in complete form, Delhi addresses are a complicated combination of a neighborhood name plus a block and house number. Within districts, the numbers aren’t always arranged sequentially.
On a recent day, each of Mr. Sharma’s deliveries involved at least four stops to ask cycle-rickshaw drivers, security guards or roadside barbers for directions.
Each time the response was the same: an outstretched finger and a one-word answer: “Straight.”

Mr. Sharma’s route includes posh villas in the Indian capital’s diplomatic enclave, the part of his job that he said he likes best. “I get to meet a bunch of different people and see how they live,” he said.

His daily roster also takes him to dirt tracks in villages on the far western border of the city. Finding customers there is more taxing.
“I ask: This person’s address, is it here? They ask me the name of the person’s father or grandfather. That’s how they know addresses there,” Mr. Sharma said.

“How am I supposed to know his father’s name?”
(Courtesy: Wall Street Journal)

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