Sony Tirkey was among the estimated 10 million Indian migrant workers who traveled back to their villages and towns when the Covid-19 pandemic started. Before 2020, Tirkey worked at a tile shop in Kerala. But when he went back home — around 1,300 miles away in Gumla, Jharkhand — he struggled to find full-time employment.

He dabbled in gig work in Jharkhand’s capital city, Ranchi, working with grocery delivery firm JioMart, ride-hailing platform Ola, and food delivery companies Zomato and Swiggy. In May 2021, he settled into a routine with the motorbike transport app Rapido. “If Rapido wasn’t there, I would have to go back to Kerala,” he said when Rest of World met him in Ranchi in August.

But ask him if he plans to stay in this job for long, and he shakes his head vociferously. “No, no, no, no,” Tirkey said. “I’m doing it now, but not life-long. This is for pocket expenses. I am still looking for work, but it doesn’t come easily.”

Rest of World spoke to around 45 gig workers in Ranchi and smaller cities in Jharkhand — Dhanbad, Bokaro, and Hazaribagh. A fourth of these workers had returned to their home state Jharkhand during the pandemic. Almost all of these returning migrants echoed Tirkey’s sentiment: Gig jobs were a last resort to tide over the pandemic, but they were not sustainable, long-term jobs. 

This is in stark contrast to the Indian government’s stance, which often positions gig work as a solution to the country’s employment crisis. 

In a 2022 report, the Indian government’s public policy think tank, NITI Aayog, charted the “job creation potential” of the platform economy. “(I)t increases the earnings of its driver-partners, while providing affordable mobility solutions to consumers,” the report said. “In the larger picture, digital platforms increase economic output and have a tremendous positive impact on the labour market.”

However, labor experts worry the Indian government is relying too heavily on gig work as an alternative to full-time jobs. 

“Most governments in developing countries believe in the notion that platforms are here to create employment and they are the problem solvers for our poverty. All we need to do is invest in digital infrastructure and digital literacy,” Uma Rani, an economist at the International Labour Organization, told Rest of World. “But we don’t see platforms as a ‘silver bullet.’ They are making workers’ lives more precarious.”

“We don’t see platforms as a ‘silver bullet.’ They are making workers’ lives more precarious.”

Mohit Sardana, chief operating officer of food delivery at Zomato, told Rest of World that the vision of the company is not to replace formal jobs, given the inherent fluctuations of food delivery in a day. “A 100% of people should be using me for supplementary income … but it should be respectable to come and do this,” he said, adding that an overall 30% of partners work part-time for Zomato.

This becomes even more difficult in India’s smaller towns. “We call them oversupplied cities,” Sardana said. In small towns, for almost 45% of its workforce, Zomato delivery is a full-time job. In India’s bigger metros, that number is as low as 5%. “There are just no jobs for people to do there and the onus and responsibility to solve that falls on us, which is a little unfair,” he added.

Ever since Swiggy started expanding to smaller cities a few years ago, the company has “seen a trend of partners who have chosen to stay back in their native [place] or even return from the metros due to the income opportunities now available in their hometowns,” a Swiggy spokesperson told Rest of World in an email. “This was especially true during the peak of the pandemic when many moved back while others in metros turned to Swiggy to earn a livelihood.”

Rapido did not respond to a detailed questionnaire from Rest of World.

There has been little research or reporting on India’s gig economy beyond Delhi, Bengaluru, and India’s other megacities (those with more than 10 million people).

In Jharkhand, one of the country’s smaller states in terms of population, many gig workers who met Rest of World were reluctant to call what they do a “naukri” or an actual job. For them, jobs were what they did before the pandemic hit: work at a steel factory in Bihar, a jute mill in West Bengal, a welding workshop in Pune, or a construction site in Saudi Arabia, to name a few. 

Such work is now hard to come by because of the severe jobs crisis in India, which was exacerbated by the pandemic that pushed an additional 230 million Indians into poverty, snatched salaried jobs from 117 million people, and left them — young people disproportionately  — with forms of self-employment. Sardana said Covid-19 brought in a large part-time and formerly white-collared workforce to his fleets.

“No one in the gig economy would say ‘I am employed.’”

“No one in the gig economy would say ‘I am employed,’” Laxman Kumar Mishra, who runs Swiggy’s sourcing and onboarding department in Jharkhand, told Rest of World. “But if you ask a boy working at a petrol pump earning 7,000 rupees [$85.97 a month], they would say they are.”

Mishra estimates that, since 2021, around 50 return migrants have called him for work in Ranchi, where 500 delivery agents had been working at the time. In that same time period, Amazon manager Harish Chandra in Dhanbad told Rest of World almost 25 people coming from outside his town had approached him in his warehouse of 40 workers.

Yet, Mishra, citing the fluctuating pay rates, said that “no one can say the gig economy is a permanent solution.”

Tirkey said in the first three months of working with Rapido, the platform gave him 20 bookings and 1,000 rupees ($12.28) a day. Now, he doesn’t even reach 10 bookings a day, earning barely 500 rupees. “They create a habit for you. Then they decrease it,” he said. 

Lalan Kumar Matho, 33, has worked in at least 15 cities in the last 12 years. When the pandemic started, he was employed at a power plant in Uttar Pradesh. Once the lockdown started, he returned to his native village in Giridih, Jharkhand. Six months ago, Matho moved to Ranchi and started working as a delivery agent for Zomato.

“If you think about it, there are very few places where I haven’t worked,” he told Rest of World. “Now, I work more and earn less here. If I get a good situation here, then why would I go out? But Zomato is paying less than half what it paid before. Now, I have already thought about going out again.”

Disgruntled with the shrinking pay rates, in September, Matho joined 50 other Zomato workers in Ranchi to start a union under the All India Gig Workers’ Union (AIGWU), which is affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

Under a drizzle, the crowd of delivery workers swelled with murmurs of “bike loans” and “accident insurance.” They met Sudhanshu Shekhar, a former CITU leader, who handed them a union sign-up sheet and a national list of grievances, asking them to add their local problems from Ranchi.

“When you are out riding, you feel competition with the other workers, right?” Shekhar told them. “But here, you are all against Zomato. You are now thinking about the exploitation from the company. If you don’t listen to another’s difficulties, then you won’t understand what is happening in the industry. You won’t even know what’s happening to you.”

The group conducted its first strike on September 8, calling for the reinstatement of a previous payment system. The new system, called “Gigs,” solves a previous inefficiency in Zomato’s operations that was especially prominent in these “oversupplied” small towns, Sardana said. 

When asked if he thinks another system change might come next year, he was unsure. “We are trying to become more understanding of the problem that we face so we can make our systems better, but unfortunately, the way things are, it is an iterative process,” he said.

“In other jobs, you get promoted. Here, you continue to get demoted,” Rohit Kumar Yadav, who led efforts to unionize the Ranchi workers, told Rest of World. The group conducted another three-day strike in early December. “In all the apps, it’s the same thing. Gig work is fine, but the money you told us you would give us, you should give us. You keep changing the amount in between.”

Tirkey said he has seen that half of those who returned to Ranchi at the start of the pandemic and joined the gig workforce have left for larger cities again. “They weren’t getting any benefit from it,” he said. “And there really isn’t any. But just because there isn’t any other work, I’m here. It’s because I am never thinking about going back (to Kerala) again. This is better than being empty-handed.”