This article is a critical inquiry into the shifting nature of the local and the proximate during the COVID-19 pandemic, through the ubiquitous usage of food delivery software applications, or “gastro apps,” in Bangalore, India. I invite a new way to think about the local—both the lived experience of locality and its mapping in techno-location—in the face of the expanding virtual terrain of the global political economy and the foreclosing social worlds of the pandemic, to interrogate the growing disjuncture between local territory and subjectivity and the increasing conjuncture between locality and consumption. Through innovative methodologies using social media platforms, I trace the complex interactions on the popular Swiggy gastro app between migrant deliverymen and middle-class consumers in Bangalore in order to map social worlds of residency, immutability, and nearness, as well as migrancy, precarity, and distance, upon one another, which I argue form an “emergent gastro geography,” where critical interventions in taste, place, and want meet and in which the concepts of the local, the dislocated, and the locational take on new meanings.
September 15, 2020
Sanjay Krishnan, a young tech entrepreneur, and his spouse, Priya, a design consultant originally from Pune, were both working at home on their laptops, their phones nearby. Their young child, Siddharth, was playing in a corner of the apartment with his toys. Sanjay suddenly sat up and said, “It’s 7 o’clock! Siddharth, what do you want? Priya, you?” Priya replied distractedly, “Huh?” Siddharth was ready with his answer: “Idli from Brahmin café!” Sanjay smiled. “Can’t do Brahmin café. Too far! And too late for us to get the Dunzo guy to bring it. Let’s get it from around here. We’ll Swiggy it.”
He opened up his phone as Siddharth settled into his lap. They both peered at the screen. Up popped the Swiggy app. Sanjay: “You’ll have naan, sabzi?” Siddharth: “No!” Sanjay: “Okay, dosa? Like the way Ajji (grandmother) makes?” Siddharth: “Dosa! Dosa! Like Ajji makes!”
I had video-called Priya on WhatsApp earlier and now watched this scene unfold in real time in their home in Bangalore, 10,000 miles from where I sat in Boston. Unfamiliar with the Swiggy delivery app, I asked Sanjay to show me his phone screen. He held it up to Priya’s phone, a doubled interface.
He scrolled back to the “splash” entry screen. On it was an orange stylized “S” for Swiggy, set against an appetizing photo of a burger and a sweet corn casserole. The blurb read “Cooking gone wrong tonight?” The screen displayed a list of the 718 restaurants within a three-mile radius that were ready to fill an order. Sanjay clicked on a favorite South Indian restaurant and added Siddharths’ dosa to his cart, customizing the order. The interface discount with the code “PARTY” flared as he checked out. The whole process took a few seconds.
As Sanjay paid, the screen switched to a map of the neighborhood. The update chyron showed an icon of a red bubbling wok, noted that his food was being prepped by a cook, with the cook’s name “Ramesh” and his body temperature “98.6.” Sanjay was excited to see this new pandemic response feature. “This is totally new! They give you the body temp of the cook and the packer for COVID-19. His body temp is 98.6 [Fahrenheit]!”
Fifteen minutes later, the food was on its way—a red scooter icon appeared on the screen. Sanjay and his phone disappeared from my WhatsApp call, and I heard him in the distance: “Okay, Swiggy will be here soon. Where is my mask?” Off camera, Priya said, “I want some frozen yogurt!” Sanjay replied, “OK, I’ll get it. You want frozen blueberries? Sprinkles? Choco sauce?” They settled on frozen blueberries and choco sauce.
About ten minutes later, as Priya and I were chatting about a wedding of a mutual acquaintance and the government COVID-19 restrictions, Sanjay got up, went downstairs, and we heard him in the distance as he yelled out, “Hey, Swiggy! Swiggy, Illi! [Kannada: here]”
Priya took her phone to their balcony and directed it to the courtyard below. The image turned grainy as she moved away, but I could make out the figure of a young man in a black and red t-shirt in front of their massive gate. Because of the relative silence of the traffic due to the lockdown, I heard him say, “Hello Sir! Order is here!” as he pulled out two large restaurant-style takeout boxes. Sanjay seemed to know him. “Suresh, you going home for Dussehra?” he asked.
The Swiggy delivery man, Suresh, said, “If I get leave, sir, then only. Too much business now, sir!” He then closed out the order on his phone, bid Sanjay goodbye, and zipped off down the darkened street on his two-wheeler.
On March 25, 2020, in response to the global panic at the spread of the deadly COVID-19 illness, the Indian government issued a total national curfew order for two weeks, a curfew that became known as Janta1 (Peoples’) Curfew. The “lockdown,” as it was called in my hometown of Bangalore2, was instituted with less than four hours’ warning. Most businesses shut down immediately so as not to tangle with the police charged with ensuring that the population sheltered in place.
Food was listed as an essential service, and some restaurants and grocery stores stayed open initially. But restrictions in mobility and timing caused by the curfew, the lack of time for restaurants to prepare, and the fears of transmission of disease made food delivery virtually nonexistent during the first few weeks of the lockdown. However, as the pandemic and the lockdown wore on, month after month, customers in cities like Bangalore discovered online restaurant and food delivery applications. Many, like Swiggy, were conceived and first tested in Bangalore prior to the pandemic.
Online food delivery allows customers to order goods over the internet and receive them at their doorstep. The software curates food options and restaurants, allowing customers to browse a wide variety of cuisines. These food delivery applications, which I term “gastro apps,” are built on the democratization of easy-to-use and affordable cell phones in India. In 2020, the 1.2 billion cell phone customers in India downloaded billions of software apps—video-streaming apps like Netflix, financial payment apps like Paytm, connection apps like WhatsApp, and services apps like Dunzo.3 As a result, during the pandemic year, Indians spent nearly 40 percent more time on their cell phones than in previous years,4 with Bangalore topping all cities in online food orders, at 16 percent of the 2.2 million daily orders.5 In 2020, the online delivery market was approximately 4.6 billion US dollars, and analysts expect this number to grow logarithmically by 30 percent over the next five years.
As a means of making sense of the time and space in which we find ourselves during the pandemic, in what follows I engage in a critical inquiry into the ways in which gastro apps have come to be understood (Belasco 2002; Beardsworth and Kiel 1997; Harris 2016). I am inspired by Arjun Appadurai’s influential essay “The Production of Locality,” written in the foment of globalization, to think critically about the sovereignty of the nation-state and the feeling that a local neighborhood provokes (2018 : 178–199). I seek an attunement, a response to, a way of thinking about a shifting production of locality emergent in the nexus between food, place, and technology in the contemporary moment.6 Critically, I ask, some twenty-five years after the publication of Appadurai’s thought-provoking essay, what does the production of locality look like with regard to the food geographies7 of today? How does locality and the local intertwine with the lived experience of eating, technology and taste (de Certeau 1984; Simi and Matusitz 2015)?
In speaking of lived experience and space, let me note that my methodology of doing ethnographic fieldwork during COVID-19 was one of immediate improvisation, where geographic distance met affective proximity. Though I gathered data via newspaper articles, white papers, and industry reports, I also used WhatsApp video chats and FaceTime video calls, Zoom calls, and an exchange of photographs and screen shots in real time to connect to my interlocutors. These tech portals enabled me while living in Boston to be present in Bangalore in ways that I had never thought of before. Through my long-term relationships with many interlocutors in the city and their networks, I was able to conduct “live” fieldwork, to interview Swiggy customers, delivery men, managers, and gastro app users to think about food in India (Nandy 2004). The methodology I employed provokes the very questions this article raises—does the virtual world deliver lived experiences of proximity and convenience to overcome geographic distance? The larger question that haunts this method is, what does this virtual link mean for participant observation? As anthropologists, how do we think of geography, technologies of connectivity, and lived experience during a pandemic that forces us into isolation?
But to return to the question of food geographies, I do not suggest that these gastro app sites are pandemic specific—most of them existed before COVID-19—but rather that COVID-19 acted as an accelerant, aiding in their scaling up to ubiquitous usage in metropolises like Bangalore. Focusing on the gastro apps, through the illustration of Swiggy, the most popular one, interrogates the production of the local in a world that has become geographically and imaginatively de-territorialized, through the migration of people, ideas, goods, services, and viruses (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), and simultaneously re-territorialized, through geospatial smart mapping and other technologies.
In the following pages, I will argue that the gastro apps recalibrate the idea of the “local,” moving it away from the agricultural (where it is the environmentalist argument for eating sustainably and locally, termed locavorism) (Nestle 2002; Gray 2013, Nonini 2013) or the cultural (where it is seen as the endurance and importance of certain ethnic, religious, or regional food as the expression of identity) (Ray and Srinivas 2012; Nandy 2004) towards the technologically recognizable. I draw the question of the local into an ethnography of these gastro apps that pivots around the geographically proximate, as I aim to interrogate the growing disjuncture between local territory and subjectivity, and the increasing conjuncture between locality and consumption.
Appadurai argued that the contemporary moment was one of a “steady erosion” of the task of producing locality, due to the “force and form of electronic mediation” (2018: 189). To the contrary, I argue that the production of locality inheres, though it is often transformed to suit emergent political economies, technologies, and global threats, such as the pandemic. Which leads to the question: how can we understand the technology and teleology of localization in this moment of the pandemic? Taking the illustration of Swiggy, I invite a new way to think about the local—both the feeling of locality and its mapping in location—in the face of expanding virtual terrain in global political economy, and the foreclosing social worlds due to the pandemic.
I explore the twinned worlds of food delivery through consumers like Sanjay and deliverymen like Suresh, to map social worlds of residency, immutability, and nearness, as well as migrancy, precarity, and distance, upon one another. I suggest that spatial understandings of distance and proximity are analogous to social distance and access. Ultimately, I seek to interrogate class and power through these “emergent gastro geographies,” which describe emergent spatial mapping phenomena and their physical and social terrain—their plurality, imperfections, movements, and the ways that they accrete and accrue and are represented and practiced. Taken together, these interrogations allow us to add to the debate in the digital humanities, drawing away from the too-easy dialectical tropes that see the virtual as delinked from the material, and as threat or opportunity. Through the twinned faces of Swiggy, these emergent gastro geographies begin to take form as a composition, a recognition, a collection of materialities and a spatial and local form of eating, in which both the immutable and the precarious come to life.
Emergent Gastro Geographies: Cartography, Taste, and the Local
Arjun Appadurai has noted that the sites of the material production of the local and of Geertzian local knowledge is really about producing “reliably local subjects” where subjects can be “produced, named and empowered to act socially” depending upon the seamless interaction between local subjects and locality to produce and reify local knowledge (Appadurai 1990, 181; Geertz 1983).
In food studies, this local knowledge has been understood as the cultural category of terroir or the taste of place (Trubek 2008; Trubek and Bowen 2008; Bourdieu 2017). Heather Paxson has rightly suggested that such terroir emerges as and when a place is culturally constructed to “hold” taste, along with other ideas and ideologies (Wilk 2002). She argues that terroir “reverse engineers” the food system, re-territorializing it in new ways, allowing taste to inhere in unexpected places and to be expressed differently (Paxson 2010). As Weiss notes, Paxson’s ideas on locality, taste, and place are a twist of Lefebvre’s model of the production of space as “perceived-conceived-lived,” which combines attention to the political economic restructuring of everyday life under (neo)capitalism, with considerations of the felt qualities of lived experience in taste (Weiss 2012).
As Sanjay’s Swiggy order demonstrated, the technology of the gastro apps offer a different geographic notion of locality, where the local aligns with neoliberal convenience and proximity, returning to the spatial and rendering the social immutable. Though taste is a significant consideration, it is thought of as a matter of individual desire and choice of food no longer rooted in a landscape (Mintz and Du Bois 2002). Food is located through a cartographic rendering of urban environment as a two-dimensional interactive map of the city, layered upon Google maps. These interactive maps become an emergent epistemology—a way of knowing the geography of the city and its closest and most distant food geographies—that explains consumption phenomena through an uneasy and fragile marriage of the territorial and the technological, allowing us to plot where this eating happens, and also how it happens.
Gastro Apps and Gig work
Domino’s was one of the first fast-food companies to realize the value of online and mobile ordering and to take advantage of the expanding market in India.8 India liberalized and globalized its economy in the early 1990s, and restaurants, cafés, cinemas, pubs, bars, fast-food joints, and coffee shops/bakeries became part of everyday urban middle-class public leisure culture (Fernandes 2006, L. Srinivas 2016). In the past twenty years,9 the Bangalorean food landscape has widened yet further to include hyperlocal foods—kheema naans from Avadh compete with biryani from Lucknow, and carnitas with mole sauce do battle with Hong Kong style dim sum on menus for the middle-class gourmands of Bangalore (Jhodka and Prakash 2016). By 2019, the gastroscape of Bangalore was vibrant and dynamic, similar to New York or any other global metropolis, with over 12,000 restaurants doing business in the city.10
The target audience for gastro apps is the “millennial generation—young working professionals between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five with disposable incomes, intense work schedules, and no time to cook” (Gundemeda 2020). A large concentration of the young working population with a high disposable income and readily accessible internet facilities in these metropolitan cities have helped to stimulate the growth of the online food industry in India (Gupta 2018). In addition, experts agree that an increasing ratio of women being employed in big corporations (known as “corporates” in India) has resulted in the growth of packaged foods and online ordering industries (Srinivas 2006).11
According to a McKinsey report12 in 2016, gastro app orders (worth approximately $100 million) accounted for just 4 percent of total earnings of the restaurant industry, though gastro apps like UberEats and GrubHub were redefining the consumer experience: “Consumers accustomed to shopping online through apps or websites, with maximum convenience and transparency, increasingly expect the same experience when it comes to ordering dinner.”
Swiggy allied its goals to the McKinsey report. No longer a simple aggregator function where online delivery orders were bundled and sent to restaurants for their delivery systems to fulfill, Swiggy allowed consumers to compare menus, scan and post reviews, view photos of dishes, and place orders from a variety of vendors with a single click. The new culinary and cultural connections were determined by the algorithm of the on-demand suppliers (Murdoch and Miele 2003). Swiggy’s head of data science, Dale Vaz, when interviewed by the Indian tech website expresscomputer, stressed the importance of geospatial tags to “micro-optimize the dynamic demand-supply,” through “operating a 3-way hyperlocal marketplace where we match consumer demand with supply from vendors (e.g., restaurants, stores) and delivery executives (largely gig workers).”13 As McKinsey notes, “in terms of the online orders per internet user per month, Bangalore has the highest percentage at 37%, with Pune trailing at 23%.”
But all this came to a crashing halt in 2020 when the pandemic took hold.
Bangalore: “Foodie Heaven” During Social Isolation
November 15, 2020
Shwetha, a young, highly successful, biotech executive, stared at her iPad interface, her round face screwed up in concentration. On the wall in front of her was a buzzing flat screen television, paused on Julia Roberts’s face starring in a Netflix movie. She excused herself from our FaceTime video conversation—“one second”—and yelled into the empty room, “OK, kiddos! I’m ordering veg and chicken burgers, french fries, fettucine alfredo from Sunnys, vegan hummus salad, and some chicken biryani for Daddy and me from Swiggy…what else you all want? If you don’t tell me fast, I won’t order!” She then turned back to me on the phone and said happily, “Thank god we all live in Bangalore, no? Remember Sunnys’ on Lavelle, or Koshys? Now the kids go to Fiero pizza in Indiranagar or some TexMex joint. During this pandemic, I had to send the cook off, paid her to stay at home, so thank god for Swiggy! Here we get solid variety even in the middle of COVID-19. It’s a total foodie heaven! So YUM everything is! Rahul found this bakery from a cloud kitchen here…Super it is! It’s even better then when we were in Houston. You order online and then you can pick up or get delivery of baked Raagi (local millet) loaf, brown bread, French bread, croissants, you can open and just eat! It’s warm from the oven and just delish! And he MUST have his paan,14 na? So he gets a subscription to a paan site called the Betel Leaf Co.15 Can you imagine? He signed up for the Betel Bribe, a sort of flexi subscription, and they just drop a nice box of paan at home every week. Sada paan (plain), meetha paan (sweet) whatever! Tooooo good, it is!”
In the Indian national imagination, Bangalore is a hi-tech, urban laboratory of innovative science, biomedical, genetic, and engineering expertise. The direct employment figures of the Information Technology (IT) industry are roughly 1.3 million, which translate into several million other support jobs, in a phenomenon that Aneesh has referred as the “liquefaction of labor” (2006: 9), where growing labor is dispersed based on technological needs and controls. Accordingly, in 2002 to 2005, the city received the dubious distinction of being the “fastest growing city in Asia” (Kripalani and Engardio 2003). The estimated population of the city is a staggering twelve million that grows, I was told, by an approximately 8,000 undocumented in-migrants every day (Harris 1995).
Many migrants into the IT industry, called “techies” in Bangalore, form the bourgeois, consumer-hungry, middle class of which Shwetha was emblematic, for whom Bangalore’s varied gastronomic landscape is a foodie’s delight, and whose social technologies transform and mediate the relationship between subjects to create and sustain networks of information and consumption upon which their whole lives run.16 The city responded to the techies’ skyrocketing incomes17 and foodie desires by offering services such as cloud kitchens, Swiggy's own “Insta-Markets”, and restaurant delivery that accelerated during the lockdown (Selvan, Samuel, and Andrew 2019) creating a consumer ecology of on-demand online ordering18 that drives the individual customizable experience.
But zoonotic diseases like SARS (2003), Nipah (2009), Ebola (2014), and now COVID-19, which escalated to pandemics through animal–human interactions in the food system (Loureiro and Umberger 2007; Marty and Jones, 2020), have refocused the Indian media discussions toward food hygiene and sanitation. In India, a deep suspicion of restaurants as agents of infection, borne out of long-held, caste-based prohibitions and pollutions and class-based hierarchies (Staples 2014), combined with modern sanitation fears, saw an initial dip in online orders.
As families went into lockdown and accompanying social isolation and professional women began to work from home, household chores such as cooking and child rearing which were previously the purview of elderly relatives, cooks, and ayahs (nannies) now fell on their shoulders, as women are still thought to be the primary provisioners in Indian households (Ray and Qayum 2009, T. Srinivas 2006). Amita, a young bank teller from Delhi, explained:
Before I would happily go to the restaurant nearby, chaat, chole batura, Chinese, now I’m scared…I’m simply trying out recipes from Sanjay Khan’s kitchen. My husband Madhu bought all these recipe books and everything is online only. My mother says, “Thank god for COVID-19…maybe now you’ll learn to cook…it’s time! After all you’ve been married for three years now…you have a kid!
The news reported within the first few weeks of the epidemic that a pizza delivery person in New Delhi had tested positive for COVID-19 on April 16, 2020, merely confirmed consumer suspicions.19
A Zomato online delivery statement reported a dip in gastro app delivery due to young professionals either eating at home in large cities or moving back to their parents’ homes, “where home-cooked food is the norm.” But, presciently, Zomato predicted a sharp recovery in orders as the lockdown eased through the summer of 2020 (Zomato mid-performance report, 2020). And, sure enough, as the pandemic reached its fifth and sixth months, gastro app orders surged. In response to a young user asking for a tasty chole recipe that involved no cutting of onions on an online food site, irritated users urged her to “Dial Zomato!20 Or Swiggy!”—Bangalore’s two most popular online food delivery platforms.
Let’s Swiggy It!
Swiggy, the gastro app that Sanjay used, was so popular in Bangalore that Bangaloreans took to yelling out the tagline, “Swiggy it!” to denote rapidity, an appreciation of the sureshot one-and-done character of the takeaway app. Celebrities and cricket stars advertised the platform and celebrated its success—“5 million users!”—and Swiggy fans generated memes that went viral on social media.
Swiggy was founded in Bangalore in 2014 by two tech entrepreneurs, Nandan Reddy and Sriharsha Majety, who designed an e-commerce site called Bundl to facilitate courier service within India21 and then delimited it to restaurant and grocery delivery. Swiggy curates an endless online list of restaurants and menus, with detailed photographs of customers’ favorite dishes and price points attached. It is a review and ratings app like Yelp, a curation of prepared food like Amazon, and an online delivery system like UberEats or Grubhub. Its primary competition is Zomato, another hyperlocal gastro app.
In the Swiggy world, both men and women in the household begin the takeaway process by asking those around them, “What do you feel like eating—Chinese? Pasta? North Indian?” Conversations about what to eat are often relatively short in familial groups because members know others’ tastes and inclinations, but these same conversations can get very complicated among groups of college-going friends, who discuss taste and price with lively animation: “I can’t staaand this type of chaat-vaaat unless it’s at a chaat ghar [Hindi for house of snacks] like in Delhi, you know?…These guys down south don’t know how to make good chaat.” Or when diets misalign: “I’m full veg and Baps is trying Keto, so…” Price is often a point of contention: “That maha (too) costly! Cancel that order!”
Once the Swiggy app is opened, it locates the customer geographically through geospatial tags and automatically offers a list of restaurants in the “locality,” as Bangaloreans term the neighborhood, usually between one to four miles away. These gastro apps are all structured to geographically pinpoint the customer via their phone sim card and organize their delivery through geospatial tags via GIS systems. Whether on Swiggy or UberEats, the location of the customer dictates the algorithm’s range from which to draw possible restaurants to deliver. So the “local” is dictated and organized around the end consumer and their phone. What is “local” here depends upon the geo-location of the phone.
In this new gastro geography, the locavore is no longer the consumer who eats locally but rather the consumer who is geographically proximate. This new food landscape illuminates the phenomena of eating that is immediately tethered spatially, yet increasingly untethered culturally, allowing consumers a wide variety of foods from all parts of the world, not just from India (Taylor Sen 2015). Customers are able to search the Swiggy portal through a particular cuisine, a particular dish they may want to eat, a particular restaurant they may like, or a price point. In most middle-class families, price point seems to be the last criterion—the availability and tastiness of the food comes first. As one Swiggy manager said, quoting the Swiggy manifesto: “Customers should be satisfied! Satisfying their cravings and providing convenience is our motto, so to say.”
Once the customer logs in and chooses a restaurant, the Swiggy portal then curates the restaurant’s dishes, with promotions, specials, and customers favorite dishes highlighted. The dishes are appetizingly photographed and appropriately priced. Customers can customize the dish, such as increasing the heat value, making it less greasy, or as one customer put it, “even adding extra blue cheese.” Customers have just one minute to change their mind. The portal features a stop-clock that ticks down, alerting customers that their order is processing through the payment portal. One can pay via debit card or credit card, cash payment on delivery, or SwiggyWallet, an online payments system22 (with an option to include a tip). There is also a loyalty program to promote and benefit return customers. As one customer said of the payment portal, “It’s so smooth, you don’t even notice that the money has gone!”
As Swiggy offers the platform to curate the restaurants, they charge the businesses a 35 percent fee on every Swiggy order. Though restaurants are intended to absorb this cost as part of being listed on the Swiggy app, they frequently pass some of the burden to the consumer, adding a surcharge to the food order. Shwetha said she felt the convenience was well worth the extra cost.
Swiggy has worked on excellent packaging options (unfortunately, most are ecologically damaging, made of plastic packets and Styrofoam containers, though most customers seem fine with this), which they sell as a bundle to smaller restaurants that might not have their own branded packaging. Such standardized packaging and labeling help Swiggy to lead the market in brand recognition.
Once the order has been processed, the Swiggy app moves into a delivery mode inspired by Amazon and Uber. As with Sanjay’s order, customers can follow the food via Google maps with the name of the delivery man (and they are nearly all men), his head shot, and his cell phone number. Customers can leave elaborate instructions, including “touchless delivery” to leave the food near doors or gates, a popular option during the lockdown.
Food as Big Data
Swiggy, like its competitors, Amazon food, UberEats, Zomato, and others, is really a big data company with a small food delivery system as its intake portal. At the backend of the consumer experience is the big data engine that curates macro- and microdata. Swiggy has the largest databank of any food retailer in India, storing customer choices, likes, and requests among other data. Vaz said that their microdetailing of customer likes and geospatial tags grew their business by 200 percent over a year.23
Swiggy retains customer data and uses the massive computing power of artificial intelligence (AI) to create a relevant and personal context of choices for each of their millions of consumers, including gastronomic preferences and payment details. They also use AI to create a dynamic mapping system of real-time traffic to allow their drivers to move swiftly through the city, and “dynamic” quicker menu options for restaurants to respond to the changing marketplace of taste using tags like “bestseller” and “preferred.”
Swiggy curates all this customer and urban information and, executives say, sells it (at a huge premium) to big food players in the marketplace. Their macrodata suggest that Bangalore’s favorite dish is biryani. Anyone wishing to start a fail-safe restaurant can buy Swiggy’s data to design a menu that accounts for customers’ idiosyncrasies and personal tastes.
As one Swiggy manager put it, “This is not like in the US where customer data is protected with privacy laws. Here it is like gold mining. Consumers are uninterested (even those in IT) with their data protection as regards to their menu choices, but restaurants pay big money to find out fail-safe choices.” He and other managers at the headquarters are very proud of their ability to micro pinpoint customer preferences using AI, suggesting with enough computing power they could even “drill down” to food choices of a single household. They have curated the favorite dish of each and every neighborhood and microlocality in the city, the price point it can bear, and the time to delivery.
Vaz says he sees a need for expansion of the computing power of the gastro app to further the marketplace through a greater reach into the vernacular market via guided self-discovery of the app through voice chatbots, and a hyper-personalization of the customer’s choices as well as better real-time mapping of the city.
In the Swiggy ordering scenario, locality is no longer central to theorizing food and taste. Instead, the location of the consumer shifts the meaning of the local to a geographic and cartographic sense rather than a cultural one. Through a disruption of what constitutes the local, the gastro apps forge an emergent gastro geography in which taste is delinked from place and moved from the food itself to the consumer, from object to subject.
Social Distancing, Cloud Kitchens, and Locational Inclusivity
During the pandemic, as social distancing became the norm, other food spaces besides restaurants accelerated and scaled up to meet the rising demand. Known in industry jargon as “cloud kitchens”—a part or whole of a kitchen accessed online—that supplies prepared food for customer “takeaway,” these remote kitchens offer restauranteurs solutions to the high rent and the costs of running brick and mortar restaurants, with customer “covers,” waitstaff, and other overhead. Customers enjoy the safety of eating at home within their pandemic social isolation bubbles.24
Kartikeyan Selvaraj of the cloud kitchen Briyani2Home25 stated that the pandemic had made people wary of eating in public spaces like restaurants, where social distancing is difficult to enforce. Cloud kitchens offer an alternative. Vinay Mehta, the owner of another cloud kitchen in the city, said in early December 2020, “Takeaway is here to stay. We have been doing takeaway since April, and the market is only growing. We now have different chefs for different menu options and food offerings so people can get variety.”
For name brand restaurants, such as the five-star ITC chain, cloud kitchens function as remote location kitchens that work in tandem to create the prepped foods for the end takeaway consumer. Many five-star restaurants run a main kitchen in which they prep batters, doughs, soups, and sauces, and cook kebabs and rice. They then dispatch the prepared materials to the cloud kitchens in various parts of the city. When a customer logs onto the gastro app, the food order is routed via the app to the nearest cloud kitchen. This cloud kitchen will prepare the meal from the pre-prepared menu items and dispatch it to the customer. Deploying the cloud kitchen based on proximity to the customer using geospatial locations allows bigger players to save time and ensure customer satisfaction with standardized menus across hotel chains. Cloud kitchens thus allow for a remote inclusivity where consumers can get certain foods at standardized quality. They are hyperlocal in that the food is cooked close to the consumer and dispatched.
I assumed that cloud kitchens would have a deadening effect on the wider gastroscape, delimiting dishes to a few standardizable options that work their way through the entire gastro system as the fashionable dish to eat and replicating itself across the entire gastroscape. But speaking to a consultant who works with brand management for several five-star hotels, I learned that the packaging or delivery time does not truly matter. What matters to the Bangalorean consumer is the tastiness and price of the food. Customers base food orders primarily on appetizing photographs, reading reviews only when trying a new dish or new restaurant.
In assessing Swiggy metadata accessed through a customer survey, the most important trend that emerged during the pandemic was behavioral. Customers had stopped “even heating food,” the consultant noted. Whereas previously they would use their own plates and cutlery, fearing contamination and religious pollution, now they simply opened boxes and bags, used plastic or bamboo forks, and sat in front of screens and televisions, eating their meals directly from the packaging. “Heating food, setting the table is for special occasions only. No one has that bandwidth anymore. We started increasing the packaging, serviette and cutlery service,” she noted.
Dislocated Migrant Lives: “We Work to Eat”
This on-demand ordering ecology that gastro apps create is fulfilled by India’s unorganized, informal workforce of over 140 million migrants, like Suresh, who work in precarious daily wage jobs in construction, manufacturing, and the food sector. Some are migrants from rural areas around Bangalore and others from states thousands of miles across the subcontinent. Escaping poverty in their villages, most of the estimated 100 million of these migrants live in squalid housing in congested urban ghettos and aspire for upward mobility.26
Overnight, when the pandemic struck, these migrants became dislocated economic refugees, their dreams and aspirations shattered. With the national lockdown in March intermittently closing the metropolitan areas through June of 2020, all transport—roadways, airways, and railways—were suspended. Most businesses remained closed, and millions of migrant workers had to deal with loss of income, food shortages, and an uncertain future. Several million undertook a long and risky journey, walking back across the subcontinent to their villages,27 accompanied by their children28 often subsisting on meager food donations.29
When the lockdown lifted in the summer of 2020, many returned to their urban workplaces to find their regular jobs gone due to a contraction in the economy. Young men, many waiting for jobs in the IT sector, such as those Jeffrey has written so eloquently about (2010), who had their own two-wheeler form of transport and mobile phones, signed up to be food delivery men, essential workers during the pandemic. Suresh, who had delivered Sanjay’s meal, said;
I had to come back from my village for work. No work and no food in the village. Here in Bangalore at least I can earn money, so my family can eat. I can send money to my aged parents in the village. That is all Bangalore is for us poor people, Madame, a place where we work so we can eat!
For these migrant workers waiting for their dream jobs, the gastro apps provide gig work that is both precarious and contingent.
Suresh’s Story: India’s Pandemic Hunger Games
Suresh is a migrant from a village near Dharwad, about 200 miles (one day’s train ride) from Bangalore. In his late twenties, he dresses professionally—clean T-shirt, baggy blue jeans—and has a pleasant expression. He has the latest Android phone and drives a sporty two-wheeler, pieces of technology he is proud of, and that allow him to be a Swiggy man. He told me, “Yenu jaasthi bekakodilla, ee kelsa madokai…ondu mobile ashtey” (“You don’t need much to begin this work, only a mobile phone.”)
Deliverymen are invariably between the ages of twenty and thirty. Most speak Kannada or Hindi, though some in the more upscale parts of the city may also speak a smattering of English. They are gig workers, working two or three jobs to make ends meet, often just one generation removed from working on the land. Many who are drawn from the region surrounding Bangalore city return home during the harvesting season every year to help their families get the harvest to market.
Suresh’s story is fairly typical among Swiggy deliverymen.30 He came to Bangalore in 2012 to live with his uncle after finishing a diploma degree in Commerce and Accounting from a small college in Dharwad, hoping to join an IT company. He took additional classes in English, and for three years was employed at a call center and a medical transcription company. He helped both his sisters get married. His uncle, who owned land in the village, ran a profitable food cart near an IT company. They roomed together in a small pucca house in an informal housing layout known formerly as a “slum,” but had since gentrified into a “colony.” They paid a rent of Rs 14,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, and Suresh bought his bike, a cell phone, and a small television.
After three years, Suresh was abruptly laid off in 2016. His parents needed money, so he found a job as a courier, still hoping to return to IT work. Then the pandemic struck. Suresh’s uncle’s stores of food didn’t last long. In April they heard there would be free trains to Tumkur.31 They went to the station, hoping to reach Tumkur and figure out the trip north from there. There was a huge crowd of people there, and not everyone wore masks. His uncle got COVID-19. Suresh took him to the hospital, where they refused to treat him without a deposit of one lakh rupees.32
His uncle suffered for two weeks. Suresh depleted his savings buying oxygen and medicine on the black market. They decided to return to the village on Suresh’s bike. By the second day, his uncle was exhausted. Suresh used the last of his money to buy a ride on a truck home for his uncle. He then ran out of petrol, and he walked the 200 miles on the metaled road in the heat of the Indian summer. Hungry and exhausted, he reached his home after ten days. He described his harrowing journey as “too far to walk”:
Too far it is to walk, Madame. Thumba doora. Whenever I had some battery, I opened my phone to GoogleMaps and used it to see how far I had to go to the village.
Suresh’s dislocation from his metropolitan life, along with his hunger and his wretched walk, mirrored several million migrant stories of harrowing journeys back to their villages, a feature of the pandemic, a crisis of mobility, late capitalism, and government inaction (Benjamin 2000). He spoke of how the map dictated his life (Venkatraman, Chauhan, Dey, and Mishra 2020).
I kept looking at the map on my phone hoping I could find a shortcut to go! But I stayed on the road no matter how hot, how long. It was crowded with people trying to get home. No cars, no buses. We helped each other with what little we had. Village shops gave us some biscuits, we drank at the village ponds. Today, I look at the map only to see where is my next delivery.
In the precarious circuits of the road that Suresh followed, intensities passed from body to body—human bodies, bodies of thought, ecosystems and visceralities—as they formed spaces of attunement to precarity of work and life. Suresh felt anxiety and sadness at his invisibility:
When I looked at the map I felt so sad. So far to go, no food, no money. I did not know if I would get to my village or I would die on the road. Maybe a lorry would smash me! but nobody would stop.
He added that life was “different before”:
Before, when I had [my] IT kelsa (job) then they took care of you…for building house, marriage, when you were sick. The owner would advance loan, like that to help. It was like a big family. Now, with this work they don’t care if you live or die!
For Suresh, the geospatial tags that allowed Sanjay and Shwetha to order from the closest restaurant were evidence of his distance from home, his precarity, his hunger, invisibility, and instability. Through this emergent gastro geography, precarity gets hardwired into existence as a kind of attunement to personal suffering and violence. The precarity of gig work, where to lose a job can mean losing life itself, increases one’s sense of one’s frailty.
Proximity and Precarity
LiveMint, an online economic newspaper, surveyed the gastro app market place in 2016 two years after Swiggy’s inception, and concluded that Swiggy deliverymen earn between Rs 25,000 and 50,000 per month in the capital city of Delhi based on the number of orders they complete and the miles they cover.33 But there are discrepancies. Suresh explained the delivery system based on gastro geography models:
For [the] first 5kms, they will pay ₹5/km and from 6 to 8 kms, they pay ₹10/km and from 8–15 kms, they pay ₹15/km. Also for the wait time at restaurant, they pay ₹1/min. The distance to the restaurant from where we start is called First Mile, and [the] distance from [the] restaurant to the delivery location is called Last Mile.
This incentivizing structure drew Manjunath, who has a BTech in software design, to move to Bangalore from Chennai to join Swiggy. He seemed content with his choice:
They asked me to study two [or] three sentences and take an exam. I was hired. They asked me to choose a zone and I did close to my house and I picked weekend shifts because they pay more. I paid Rs 650 for a Swiggy bag and T shirt. Last weekend I logged on Saturday and worked from 11am to 11pm with 3 hours rest and same on Sunday. Next day I got Rs 2300 credited into my account.
In contrast, Kunal Gaur, a Swiggy deliveryman from Allahabad, was full of complaints about the company:
My experience with Swiggy is quite bad…In part time jobs they say are giving 200 Rs per day as minimum guarantee amount. In office during interview they will spread so many lies…all they want [is for] people to join somehow and pay money so that they can sell their bags and t-shirts to us.
Kunal refused to be swayed by the argument of proximity that Swiggy stated was the delivery model:
First problem—your manager commands you to stay near the restaurant while waiting for orders, which means you are getting no money for travel to restaurant because you are already at the restaurant. Second problem—you only get paid to deliver from restaurant to customer location. So no payment for that return. Third problem—they lie and say you will travel no more than 5 kms, but they sent me to a restaurant 10 km away. So finally yesterday I did 6 orders and was driving like crazy for 60 kms burning petrol of 80–90 Rs and what did I got in total?? 200 Rs for a day!!
Kunal added that working at Swiggy felt like an insult, as the suits in the office acted as though they were giving him charity:
It’s a huge task to get more then minimum guarantee money of Rs 200 for part timers and Rs 300 for full. When you work in Swiggy [it] feels like you are begging for Rs 20–50.
Deliverymen like Kunal see a politics to the Swiggy system that keeps them distant, hungry, and precarious.
These fucking bastards from [the] office or from [the] help center start poking their nose in…and seriously they do nothing…they just start giving orders—do this! do that! They need to come to the field and see what the problems are. Too much tension!
For Swiggy delivery men like Kunal and Suresh, living in a world of pins and tags makes them aware that being proximate thwarts precarity and that precarity composes a geography of attachments and materialities for people like Sanjay and Shwetha—but for Kunal and Suresh it forms a cartography of intensities and durations.
Suresh added that when he was hungry, he sometimes ate leftover Swiggy orders. He mentioned he was always careful to ensure they were indeed leftovers. He did not want to lose his job.
Conclusion: From Local to Geospatial and Back Again
Geeta, a successful professional in her early forties with a family, said emphatically,
I can’t imagine going back to the days before Swiggy, Donzo and all! I think many people will order in now. Who wants to get dressed, sit in traffic and go eat out unless it’s a celebration or some get-together? Better when you are tired and come home to simply Swiggy, watch some TV, Netflix and chill!33
By the end of 2020, India felt it had conquered the virus. The lockdowns were lifted, and though people still tended to stay home, there was a sense that life could return to normal. Tech giant Amazon had entered Bangalore’s food delivery ecology,34 and people were eager to see how this changed the game. So, in these expanding hyperlocal gastro geographies, we are left with the question of what will happen to the agency of the local subject in the future? How will these emergent and changing gastro-geographies impact our understandings of food, identity and the local?
Tracing the complex interactions that the new gastro apps produce, between migrant deliverymen and middle-class consumers in Bangalore, has invited a mapping of the social worlds of residency, immutability, and nearness, as well as migrancy, precarity, and distance, upon one another, which I have argued form an “emergent gastro geography,” where critical interventions in taste, place, and want meet and in which the concepts of the local, the dislocated, and the locational take on new meanings.
Objects of analysis like the gastro apps register the significance of something coming into form through an assemblage of technologies, routes, conditions, sensibilities, and affects. We attune ourselves to these emergent worlds, “their brightenings and darkenings” (Deleuze 1998: 145) as a composition in which both the immutable and the precarious intertwine.
But in 2021 as I wrote this essay, COVID-19 cases began to surge again in India through a second wave of the virus, and Bangalore became one of the epicenters of the disease. By March of 2021, hospitals and morgues were full, doctors exhausted, and an oxygen famine reigned.
Still, the gastro apps appeared to be thriving. Suresh received a new T-shirt with the heroic catchphrase “Hunger Saviors” printed on it.
I thank Sharath Srinivasan, Darshita Thakur, Ankita and Kunal Reddy, Lakshmi Iyer, R. Suresh, Amrita Lal, Annie Matthew, Shwetha Reddy, K. Nanjundappa, H.K. Yogesh, and Shalini and R. Sampath in Bangalore for their help and generosity while I worked on this article. I am also indebted to Andrew McDowell for commenting on the article as it took shape. My thanks particularly to Rukmini Srinivas for her generous suggestions and encyclopedic knowledge of Indian food and Bangalore city, and to the two anonymous reviewers of Gastronomica for their thorough and helpful critique.
In Kannada, the language of the Bangalore region, pronounced Janatha.
Bangalore’s name was changed to the precolonial name of Bengaluru on November 1, 2006, by official decree, but every interlocutor I spoke to called it Bangalore, so I retained that name and spelling.
Many of the apps that Indians used were created in Bangalore’s hot house IT campuses.
The Mobile Broadband India Traffic Index released in February 2021 suggested that Indians were spending more time on their smartphones than ever before. The average time spent by Indians on smartphones is the highest in the world and the duration for watching short videos is likely to rise 4-fold by 2025, said Nokia. https://www.deccanherald.com/national/indians-spend-highest-average-time-on-smartphones-country-second-globally-in-broadband-usage-nokia-report-950114.html
In 2018 the National Restaurant Association noted that Bangalore topped all Indian cities in ordering food on smartphones. Manu Chandra, the director of the National Restaurant Association, said “This city orders like crazy!” https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/bengaluru-tops-indian-cities-in-ordering-food-study/articleshow/69420505.cms
The gastro apps, including UberEats, Zomato, and Swiggy (which is the most popular), scaled up to meet the pandemic demand. The end result was a thriving marketplace discovered almost on the fly.
In thinking about gastro geographies I am less concerned with food geography as it relates to the body, such as in Blauch’s theorization of a “geography of digestion” where the question is where food goes once it is ingested. Rather, I seek to understand the relationship between consuming subject and the physical and virtual environment, what some might term a critical food geographies project, where our current notion of what constitutes food geography, located in Western colonial understandings of geography, are expanded to include the marginal and the forgotten.
“How Domino’s beat Papa John’s and Pizza Hut in India’s pizza war.” CNBC. April 28, 2020. www.cnbc.com/2020/04/28/how-dominos-beat-papa-johns-and-pizza-hut-in-indias-pizza-war.html
With the arrival of Instagram in 2010, Bangalorean restaurants saw the potential to leverage appetizing photos of their food to add to their advertising. Instagram has particularly accelerated the circulation of food-centric images because of its user-friendly character, as photos can be shared easily. Restaurants now pay extra attention to making their food and décor look “presentable” and “instagrammable” (Herman 2017).
Data analysis by Zomato delivery service suggests that food delivery services can be mined for other consumer preferences. “The basic idea of analyzing the Zomato dataset is to get an idea about the factors affecting the establishment of different types of the restaurant at different places in Bengaluru, aggregate rating of each restaurant, Bengaluru being one such city has more than 12,000 restaurants with restaurants serving dishes from all over the world.” The Zomato data set uses different tools to harvest consumer data and mine it for relevant information regarding food choices and price points. https://medium.com/analytics-vidhya/zomato-bangalore-restaurant-analysis-and-rating-prediction-101fd635ab15
But food delivery per se is not new to India. In fact, one could argue that metropolitan India invented the food delivery system. Around 125 years ago, while under British rule, the dabbawalla (lunchbox men) meal delivery system was birthed in busy metropolitan areas, such as Mumbai, to bring home-cooked meals to office workers. The meal delivery system relied on delivery men called dabbawalas, most of whom were illiterate. The dabbawalas, as depicted in a Bollywood movie, have an intricate system of symbols by which they sort the millions of meals in boxes, or dabbas, that they collect from suburban homes and deliver with stunning accuracy to workers in offices in downtown Mumbai. They repeat the entire process in the reverse direction to get the empty dabbas back home.
In 2016 the research giant McKinsey noted that the food delivery systems of the world particularly in Asia and the Middle East were changing and that consumes were getting food delivered with merely a “tap of their smartphones.” Although many of the platforms had been highly valued, a few even crossing the 1 billion mark, in reality very little research had been done on the emergent marketplace or on consumer behavior and the market share of the food industry that such aggregators and delivery services provided. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/the-changing-market-for-food-delivery
Abhishek Raval interviewed Dale Vaz, the head of Artificial Intelligence and Data monitoring at Swiggy. Vaz stated that Swiggy leveraged big data to increase their orders by 200 percent. https://www.expresscomputer.in/news/ai-and-data-science-models-are-at-the-heart-of-all-the-systems-that-we-build-at-swiggy/44566/
Paan is an after-meal digestive comprised of a betel leaf painted with lime and betel nut. Often, specialty paans include silver leaf, sweetened rose petal jam, roasted fennel seeds, and other luxuries.
The betel leaf company is a specialty paan company in Bangalore, providing a subscription service for customers who crave after-dinner paan. The paan is made, gift-wrapped, and delivered in a hands-free mode. https://thebetelleafco.com/
It is estimated that by 2020, 200 to 250 million Indians will shop online. See www.news18.com/news/tech/130-million-indians-will-shop-online-by-2020-report-1202656.html
According to Credit Suisse’s 2015 Global Wealth Report, India now ranks on the list of Top 20 countries, as the number of ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) individuals rose by 100 people since mid-2014, to now stand at 2,100. www.retaildive.com/ex/mobilecommercedaily/how-luxury-brands-should-target-indias-super-rich
Of course, the longstanding forces of cheap labor and fierce competition between local shops had meant that, for decades, middle- to upper-class urban Indians were accustomed to getting everything—meat, vegetables, and milk; medicine; cooked meals—from nearby shops and restaurants delivered to their doors, usually with no extra charge, just by making a phone call to a neighborhood retailer and paying in cash at the door. A variation of that system carried over into online shopping via Flip Kart and Amazon approximately a decade ago, although they often levied a modest delivery charge, especially when they used local courier companies for last-mile delivery (delivered usually via three-wheeler transport).
A pizza delivery boy in Delhi tested positive for COVID-19 early in the pandemic, which negatively affected food delivery orders. Kunal Kumar, “Delhi pizza delivery boy tests positive for COVID-19, 72 families, 17 other delivery boys quarantined.” India Today, April 16, 2020. www.indiatoday.in/india/story/delhi-pizza-delivery-boy-tests-positive-for-coronavirus-1667501-2020-04-16
Zomato is the second largest food delivery site in India.
Anirban Sen, a financial journalist with Livemint, states that despite being a late entrant to the food delivery space, Swiggy galloped past competitors like Zomato to receive a billion dollar valuation in just four short years, making it the latest tech “unicorn.” https://www.livemint.com/Companies/NsVFwJMvONZm8qEDJuGoOM/How-Swiggy-became-Indias-fastest-unicorn.html
Banks like HSBC and Citibank reward their customers with Swiggy discount coupons that promote use of the app. Swiggy also has a customer loyalty program known as SwiggySuper where customers can bundle deliveries together to pay a discounted rate up front (say Rs 125 for ten deliveries; each delivery is then debited from the customer’s loyalty account).
In a laudatory interview with Dale Vaz, the chief technology officer at Swiggy, he makes clear that the big data that the food portal collects from individual users, is mined via AI and data science modelling to shape the portal and direct consumer behavior. www.expresscomputer.in/news/ai-and-data-science-models-are-at-the-heart-of-all-the-systems-that-we-build-at-swiggy/44566
Unlike in the United States, where many restaurants were forced to close and restaurant labor was unemployed for the duration of the pandemic, the gastro apps, cloud kitchens, and other restaurant innovations in Bangalore ensured that restaurants opened soon after the lockdowns eased.
Bangaloreans were wary of eating out during the initial phase of the lockdown due to concerns over hygiene. hhttps://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/cloud-kitchens-are-bengalurus-answer-to-those-looking-for-safe-takeaway/articleshow/76774715.cms
BBCs India correspondent Soutik Biswas tracked several migrants on their long homeward journey during the lockdown, tracing the contours of the unfolding human tragedy. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52086274
The lockdown in India left many urban workers stranded. Many migrants are from the rural hinterland of India’s megacities where they work, serving as day laborers or domestic help. Hungry and homeless they began a journey across the subcontinent to their home villages. www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/31/822642382/coronavirus-lockdown-sends-migrant-workers-on-a-long-and-risky-trip-home
Migrant workers walked thousands of miles from the capital city of Delhi to their home villages in central India, surviving on biscuits and water for days. www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/surviving-on-biscuits-and-water-migrants-walk-back-from-delhi-to-jharkhand-120051400280_1.html#:˜: text=The%20migrant%20labourers%20had%20started, surviving%20on%20biscuits%20and%20water.&text=%22We%20started%20walking%20from%20Delhi, one%20of%20the%20migrant%20workers
In my fieldwork I asked everyone I knew in Bangalore if any women delivered for the gastro apps and was repeatedly told that no one had encountered a woman delivery person. But in July 2021, my nieces in Bangalore WhatsApped me excitedly to tell me they had finally encountered a woman delivering Swiggy meals.
Whereas Dharwad is an eight-hour train journey north of Bangalore, Tumkur is about an hour north by train.
Indian ₹ 100,000. Approximately $1,500, a fortune for a daily wage worker like Suresh.
In this article journalists Aakansha Ahuja and Anirban Sen argue that deliverymen (called delivery “boys” in local parlance) can earn between ₹25,000 to ₹50,000 depending upon the distance they cover. But they also warn readers that such sudden growth and rise in worker’s salaries is a replication of the growth model for Uber in India in 2014 -15 which ultimately proved unsustainable. www.livemint.com/Companies/cYbdfsYk93HFhMuC0XgaNN/Swiggy-Zomato-hike-delivery-boy-salaries-as-competition-gro.html
I don’t think Geeta understood the sexual connotations of the phrase, “Netflix and chill.” She meant it quite literally.
In April 2021, Amazon announced it had expanded its food delivery service, called Amazon Food, across sixty-two zip codes in Bangalore in what is the first public news since entering food delivery services in India in May 2020. The company has committed to investing $5 billion in operations and said it has amassed 2,500 restaurants and cloud kitchens in Bangalore.