Street food vendors threatened after court ruling

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 30 June 2007

Street food vendors threatened after court ruling

-- (Credit: Samrat Mukherjee / CSE)Everyday as the evening settles, a 2-km stretch in Govindpuri comes alive. Food vendors line streets of this resettlement colony in the outskirts of posh South Delhi, trying to attract workers heading home after work. The anda parantha maker tries to outdo the chaat vendor, fruit sellers engage each other in a verbal slugfest and stir frying at the noodle shop gets brisker by the second with utensils screeching and clanging in a furious symphony that is sometimes broken when a nearby tea-shop owner lets loose a volley of invectives at his assistant for neglecting customers. A leisurely sip or a little munch over some friendly banter is the perfect salve for many after a hard day's work.

Subhash is one of these roadside culinary operators of Govindpuri. These days as he pipes flour batter and sugar into his jalebi spirals, Subhash's mind often strays in anticipation of a workshop.It's scheduled for the second week of June--and will probably be over by the time you get to read this. The National Hawkers Federation (nhf), which set up shop in Delhi on April 7, 2007, has organised this meet where street food vendors will get lessons in food safety. Jalebi- makers like Subhash are likely to be instructed on the harmful effects of artificial colours like metanil yellow, which they prefer to the expensive saffron. Others will be trained in preventing microbiological contamination. This is linked with poor personal hygiene and use of substandard water.

Food safety issues have acquired urgency after a recent Supreme Court order in a case between hawker associations and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (mcd). "Only cooked food properly packed may be sold," the order specified. This is in accordance with its earlier order in the 2004 case between Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union and the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation.
Hot comfort Rajkumar, who sells anda paranthas at the Inter State Bus Terminus (isbt), Kashmere Gate is another food seller looking forward to the nhf meet using good oil economically is his concern. But the apex court's directive has confounded him and many others. Selling stored stuff, of course, works in the West where climate protects food from going bad. But Rajkumar's anda paranthas are at their crispiest best when hot. Likewise, Subhash's jalebis are at their best when they are hot and bursting with sugar syrup. Some do like them soft, but it's common knowledge that jalebis cannot be stored for long.

More importantly, experts consider food served hot microbiologically safe, while cold meals such as rice and vegetable dishes mixed together and sold cold are classed "high-risk" foods.

Such considerations are perhaps not on the mind of 45-year-old Som Pal. But then there is nothing like a cold chole kulche plate. The boiled chickpeas he sells have become almost a staple for many like Lalit Satija. Topped with onion and tomatoes and served with hot puffy kulchas, they are a perfect refresher for this Gurgaon resident after a 30-km bus ride to work. He usually buys his morning snack from a pavement kiosk at the Kashmere Gate isbt, shelling out a princely Rs 5.

The stalls inside the terminus are regulated, but the food there is a little costlier. For example, 25-year-old Vaibhav Bhatia travelling from Bhilwara, Rajasthan, to Haridwar paid Rs 15 for an anda parantha. It would have cost him Rs 12 outside.
A way of life nhf estimates that around 70-80 lakh people depend on street food everyday. Not all of them are impecunious.Down to EarthLivelihood matters
For another street food buff Ritu, a cold plate of moong daal laddoos doesn't sound kosher at all. She likes them hot from the pan from her favourite stall in Central Market, Lajpat Nagar. It's owner, Avtar Singh Yadav, is in the process of getting his establishment legalised. But the Supreme Court interdiction has him stumped.

The court also told civic agencies to strictly maintain the width of pavements up to five feet for pedestrians before allotting a vending site. It's a prospect that pavement operators like Ram Deen are not prepared for. Many believe that the court has been unfair since pavements are regularly ripped away to make way for cars.

Ram Deen who sells chole bhature at the Kashmiri Gate isbt has had his share of run-ins with municipal authorities and the police, and has realised that greasing a few officials' palms is in his best interests. "Protection money" paid with scrupulous regularity to a local tough has ensured some more peace. The kickbacks seem a minor irritant, particularly because the Rs 10 a plate chole bhature business earns Ram Deen a neat profit of Rs 100 a day

He is no stray case. According to an nhf estimate, 20 per cent of a hawker's earnings goes in bribing the police and municipal authorities. But most still make a decent profit. The turnover of street vendors in the country is around Rs 2,000 crore. Most would be hard-pressed to find other jobs. A study by the Nutrition Foundation of India, a Delhi-based ngo, shows that a majority of street food vendors earn more than what they would as daily wagers.

The service we provide
"The state should support us and not mncs," says Shaktiman Ghosh, general secretary of the Hawker Sangram Committee, Kolkata. Losing their bread and butter to the mncs has become another fear for the street food sellers. "Nobody even considers that we provide important services," rues Ghosh.

Nutrition is not the least significant of these services. According to a 1992-survey by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata, on average a 500 g meal from a street food vendor in Kolkata had 20-30 g of protein, 12-15 g of fat, 174-183 g of carbohydrates and provided approximately 1,000 calories for only Rs 5.

Healthy eating is perhaps way off the minds of the boisterous lot who mill around Jasbir Chat Wala's shop in Mayur Vihar, Phase i, everyday. But the ubiquitous chaat, does pack a punch. A heady mlange of potatoes, boiled and diced, mixed with boiled chickpeas and fries, lentil patties, papris, served with a mouth-watering mix of spices and tamarind chutney, it's a complete meal replete with proteins, carbohydrates and other nutrients known for their anti-oxidant effects.

Down to Earth Many vendors plying such perennial favourites are prepared to improve matters. "We are ready to buy water from mcd but the municipal authorities do not provide it to us," says Jitender Gupta, president of the Pawanputra Rehri Patri Khomcha Sangh, an association of Delhi hawkers.

Slick food
If the Union ministry of food processing industry has its way, chaat and other street food will get an image change. Rickety pushcarts will be replaced by sleeker versions. More importantly, the ministry intends to confine street food to select parts of the city. A pilot project enforcing Bureau of Indian Norms on street food will be launched in eight cities, including Delhi and Mumbai. A section of hawkers has an open mind. "If the government regulates well, it can earn around Rs 100 crore from us every year as licence fees," says Ghosh.

The Kolkata way
As nhf goes about organising its hawker's workshop, it hopes to take a leaf out of Ghosh's organisation. The Hawker Sangram Committee was formed in 1996 after Operation Sunshine, an eviction drive by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, deprived thousands of hawkers of their livelihoods. Eighteen hawkers committed suicide; many faced extreme hardship. Matters improved after the hawkers joined hands with the West Bengal government, the municipality and the police to ensure hawkers' well-being.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation had to give licences to all the hawkers. At present, the city has around 143,000 food vendors, who constitute around 52 per cent of all street vendors in the city. "Ensuring cooperation from the police and the municipal officers was difficult since both made money from the vendors," says Ghosh. "Since the model was implemented, policemen in the city have become thin," he laughs.

So how will Delhi's street food fare? Common sense says unless the Kolkata model is replicated, harassment will increase and bribes will get fatter.

But street food is not likely to go away, whatever the court may say.

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