Zomato: Indian food delivery giant forced into U-turn over ‘pure vegetarian’ green fleet shirts

One of India’s largest food delivery companies has been forced to reverse its decision to have drivers delivering “pure vegetarian” food wear green shirts over fears of discrimination and attacks by food vigilantes.

Food delivery app Zomato’s CEO Deepinder Goyal announced the company’s intention to launch a “pure veg fleet” – which will deliver vegetarian food only from restaurants that do not cook egg, fish, or meat – in a post on X/Twitter on Tuesday.

His post was accompanied by photos of Zomato agents who would deliver the food wearing green shirts in place of the usual red. They were also seen carrying green bags instead of Zomato’s red.

But on Wednesday Mr Goyal said in an update that Zomato has decided to remove the “on-ground segregation” after multiple people on social media pointed out how the colours could potentially be used to target people who ate meat.

Some raised concerns that the delivery personnel – a section of whom are from minority religious and caste backgrounds – themselves could be targeted by landlords and residents of vegetarian-majority building complexes.

“While we are going to continue to have a fleet for vegetarians, we have decided to remove the on-ground segregation…This [all delivery executives wearing red] will ensure that our red uniform delivery partners are not incorrectly associated with non-veg food, and blocked by any RWAs or societies during any special days… our rider’s physical safety is of paramount importance to us.

“We now realise that even some of our customers could get into trouble with their landlords, and that would not be a nice thing if that happened because of us,” Mr Goyal said.

In this photo taken on 24 December 2018, an Indian delivery man working with the food delivery app Zomato sits on his bike in a business district in Mumbai. (AFP via Getty Images)
In this photo taken on 24 December 2018, an Indian delivery man working with the food delivery app Zomato sits on his bike in a business district in Mumbai. (AFP via Getty Images)

He explained the need for a separate fleet to cater to people who are put off by the “smell” of food containing eggs, fish, or meat.

“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. For this reason, we had to separate the fleet for veg orders,” he said in a post on X.

Users pointed out that a fleet of this kind, which will “only serve orders from these pure veg restaurants” and ensure that “even a veg meal served by a non-veg restaurant will never go inside the green delivery box meant for our pure veg fleet”, will serve to reinforce caste beliefs in a country as diverse as India where food habits vary across its length and breadth.

Meat-eaters and meat sellers – especially Muslims – have in the past come under attack from a section of Hindu right-wing vigilantes pushing a vegetarian agenda. Beef is banned in several states across India as cattle is considered sacred in Hinduism.

Mr Goyal stated in his original post X that “India has the largest percentage of vegetarians in the world”. This is mainly owing to Hinduism being a predominant religion, however, not all Hindus are vegetarians. In fact, a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center stated that only 39 per cent of Indian adults describe themselves as “vegetarian”.

However, Mr Goyal clarified that the “Pure Veg Mode, or the Pure Veg Fleet doesn’t serve or alienate any religious, or political preference”.

Sheikh Salauddin, president of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), the largest platform-based drivers’ union in India, said: “The last time someone on Zomato requested for a delivery partner of a particular religion, Mr Goyal said ‘food has no religion’. Today, he seems to have gone back on this. I ask him directly, is he now going to categorise delivery partners on the lines of caste, community and religion?”

In June last year, Zomato issued an apology after it ran an ad campaign depicting a Dalit character from the Hindi film Lagaan being “recycled” and used as various inanimate objects, but ultimately said the “noble intention” behind the ad was “twisted so much by certain sections of the media giving it a colour that we didn’t even remotely conceive”. Dalits are at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy.

The Independent has reached out to Zomato for comment.