Thursday, June 17, 2010

Street Food Vendors a Big Hurdle for Games

Ramashray Yadav’s case of kulfi has images of gods and goddesses pasted all over it. He needs the blessings. Never the most lucrative or even an easy means of livelihood, his kulfi-cart’s future is more precarious now. The MCD’s plan to evict street vendors before the Commonwealth Games begin in October this year will mean an end to Delhi’s street food culture. Yadav and thousands of his fellow hawkers will be robbed of their livelihood, and office and market areas to which they generally cater will go back to lunch boxes.

About 20% of the vendors about three lakh are into food, says Arbind Singh of National Alliance of Street Vendors of India. And this number includes the pedigreed ones in old Delhi as well as the newer ones catering to office-goers and budget shoppers in the rest of the city.

Running ‘Yadav ki Mashoor Kulfi’ at the same spot at ITO for over two decades, Yadav’s no upstart either. Originally from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, he learnt the job from his cousin who runs a successful trade at Jhandewalan. He enjoys the endorsement of ITO’s office crowd and has, on occasion, received their assistance. He and brother Rammilan split the day’s profit usually Rs 100-150 between them. That supports a family of 11 members.

‘‘They specialize in onetwo items only and become known for them. You get litti, machchi pakori, all kinds of naan. There’s no regional dish you won’t get in Delhi. Some vendor or the other is doing it. And it’s cheap,’’ says Singh.

At Hari Om Kashyap’s thela in Acharya Niketan market, Mayur Vihar Phase I, you get two-three varieties of subzi, raita and two naans of your choice there are about half a dozen varieties all for Rs 20. He is also the only one in the vicinity with Amritsari naan on the menu. This special bread has atta, maida, suji and when it emerges from the tandoor, he slaps some butter onto it. Around 250 customers, most of them regulars, have their meals at his cart every day.

And once a fortnight, the dreaded ‘‘committeewale’’(vendor-speak for MCD officials) come on rounds. ‘‘We run when they come. But sometimes the police take away our
carts,’’ he says. Police visits are less frequent but Kashyap has had his cart confiscated and been fined to the tune of Rs 1,000-1,500.

Yadav and Kashyap have done what they could to secure their positions. They applied for licenses in 2007, deposited papers and collected the ‘‘parchi’’ and a promise that licenses will be delivered to their homes. But nothing happened. The MCD’s eviction threat included the assurance that ‘‘authorized’’ vendors won’t be touched. And there lies the catch. ‘‘No more than 3,000 vendors are licensed in the city. Not a single hawking zone has been created but there are dozens of zero-tolerance ones,’’ says activist Madhu Kishwar, also a member of the expert committee on street vendors.

Food critic Vinod Dua is more confident about the walled-city vendors’ chances of survival. After all, they’ve had over a century to dig in their heels. ‘‘Street food is fine as long as it has roots somewhere. In old Delhi, it’s been around for centuries. Dahi Bhalla, Gol Gappa, they’ve been around. It’s a tradition, there are songs associated with people selling kulfis,’’ he says.

‘‘When we go abroad, we head for the flea markets, the hawker markets. Where do you go when you’re in Bangkok? They are a prime tourist attraction,’’ argues Kishwar. She and Singh maintain street food cooked fresh before your eyes is in fact more hygienic with less harmful bacterial content than restaurant food. ‘‘The condition of kitchens behind doors is appalling,’’ says Kishwar.

‘‘Street food is a major attraction for foreigners,’’ agrees Sunit Suri of Thomas Cook, but he is forced to direct his clients to ‘‘midway’’ joints like Nathus, Bengali Sweets and Dilli Haat to get a more hygienic though regrettably indirect taste of the streets and avoid the ‘‘Delhi-belly’’ at the same time. ‘‘Nobody wants to eat in a five-star. They’d rather go to Chandni Chowk and try the typical Indian food from the streets,’’ he says. ‘‘We should encourage them. If they maintain minimum hygiene standards, it will be a highlight,’’ he adds.

Singh agrees. ‘‘If there is security of livelihood, they can be taught
how to dress, to wear gloves and trained in handling food. That’s not difficult to do. Provide them a secure space, access to water and safe disposal of waste. Lay down the norms, they’ll follow.’’