Fresh out of the "religion of food" controversy, food-tech startup Zomato has found itself at the heart of another communal issue as its delivery agents in Kolkata's Howrah region staged a protest and went on a strike on Monday. The delivery partners had stated that they were protesting as they are not willing to deliver pork and beef to customers.
However, it has now turned out that what began as a protest against their pay cut, soon acquired religious colours, perhaps to gain media attention. On Tuesday, multiple news reports claimed that a local BJP leader named Sanjay Kumar Shukla had backed the protesters and helped them to gain access to media. Shukla, who describes himself on Facebook as "in-charge BJP membership programme and secretary, BJP Uttar Howrah Mandal", was photographed with the protesting Zomato delivery agents on Monday.
West Bengal: Zomato food delivery executives in Howrah are on an indefinite strike protesting against delivering beef and pork, say, "The company is not listening to our demands & forcing us to deliver beef & pork against our will. We have been on strike for a week now." pic.twitter.com/tPVLIQc2SZ— ANI (@ANI) August 11, 2019
Shukla's involvement in the protest has led to speculations that a communal angle was brought in to corner the food-tech company over its "food is religion" comment. The episode can be traced back to July 31 when Zomato stood up to a user who demanded that the food delivery service allow customers to choose the religion of their delivery agents. Zomato had then tweeted back saying, “Food has no religion. It is a religion”. However, Zomato's response had led to widespread backlash against the company on social media, with calls for boycotting and uninstalling the app.
It is important to note that the Zomato delivery agents protests are confined only to Howrah, a communally sensitive region. After Shukla's identity was shared widely on Tuesday, the BJP state leadership has distanced itself from the issue saying they have no comments or links to the Zomato protests. It is also learnt that the local TMC leadership has advised the agitating Zomato staff against giving a "religious colour" to their protest.
"In a country as diverse as India, it is impossible to ensure that vegetarian and non-vegetarian preferences are factored into delivery logistics," Zomato made its stance clear on Monday.
Meanwhile, Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal has written to his employees clarifying about the fresh controversy. "The issue was primarily related to a recent rate card correction in that area, something which we routinely do," he said, adding, "Occasionally, a handful of delivery riders don't understand the rate card corrections and start protesting against the change. In this case in Howrah, instead of constructive engagement with their local Zomato execs, these riders approached a local politician and deliberately framed the issue incorrectly."
A Zomato delivery agent quoted by HuffPost India concurs with Goyal's statement. “We told them that we cannot work for such a low pay and went on a strike immediately,” Brij Verma, the delivery agent has been quoted in the report.
Verma said that Shukla helped them arrange a press conference on Monday, where some delivery agents, including Verma, told ANI they were on strike because Zomato was forcing them to deliver beef and pork dishes in violation of their religious beliefs.
(With inputs from Rabi Banerjee)