Dear Hawkers, Thank You For The Food We Eat…

Posted: March 12, 2014 in Socio - Economic Issues and Politics in India

I love food. The first thing that I was enthusiastic about after I landed in Mumbai was the variety of food available to satiate one’s taste buds and hunger, of course! Mumbai is known for its wide variety of street food, especially since it has people coming in from all over India laden with their own skills and talents. The mouth-watering sight of Paani Poori, Bhel Puri, Ragda Puri, Vada Pav, Bhajjiya Pav, Batata Vada, Masala Dosa, Idli/Vada Shambar, Chaats, Seasonal fruit juices, Kulfi, Tender Coconut, Poha, momos and what not… is enough to make even a diet conscious person give in to temptations.

1Sai Ki Palkhi, a street stall selling colourful and mouth watering flavours of Kulfi at a beach in Mumbai

Street food is not just about taste. To me and to thousand others like me, street food is an attractive alternative to home-cooked food at affordable prices. At a price that ranges from Rs. 5 to Rs. 30/- per plate they provide significant relief to the local population in times when we speak of inflation as one of the major hurdle to be tackled. Street food hawkers provide food at really low cost compared to restaurant meals. They provide an essential source of inexpensive ready-to-eat food for workers of every class and occupation. Street site hawkers (women and men) who make and sell ready to eat food on the street, provide significant income for themselves and their families, as well.

These stalls are usually temporary stalls run by one or two person, usually in a busy street corner. In F.G. Winarno and A. Allain’s words, “…customer orders the meal which can be consumed where it is purchased or taken away.” However, despite certain similarities, street food and fast-food enterprises differ in variety, environment, marketing techniques and ownership. To delve into the depths and behind the scenes story of street food, I chose to speak to them to have a better understanding of their lives. Every stall has its own story to tell – stories of despair, stories of life away from loved ones, stories of struggles for daily bread, struggles of love, hope, satisfaction and finally, stories of triumph.

8Young Karthik from Mysore has been working at the early morning and late night stall outside Chembur railway station (Mumbai) for over one year. He sells Poha, Idly/Vada Shambar, Sheera etc. from 4 am to 10 am in the morning and after 11 pm at night. Karthik is employed by the stall owner who also hails from Karnataka. Early risers or later sleepers come in hordes to this stall for odd-time meals.

2Suresh, who hails from Kerala sells coconut water at MG Road, Mumbai. He gets his supply of tender coconut from Mysore, Orissa and Gujarat. The stall his not his own but he works for his seth who also is a Keralite. Suresh works from 8.00 am to 8.30 pm, i.e. for over twelve hours a day with no off-days at all. He lives with his family in Mumbai.

3Anil Patel who hails from Mirzapur (Uttar Pradesh) sells sugarcane Juice at MG Road, Mumbai. He has been selling sugarcane juice in the same spot for over 6 years. He earns a meagre six thousand Rupees salary that he uses for his sustenance and sends the rest to his family of four who still live in his village house. He works for over 15 hours a day.

5Karuna Karan from Tamil Nadu has been selling Dosa, Idly/Vasda Sambhar near Govandi Station (Mumbai) for over fifteen years. The energy with which he makes delicious masala dosas and his capacity to remember orders is astonishing. He says he derives satisfaction from feeding so many people, everyday. He too does not own the stall but rather works for his boss who is of Tamil origin too.

9Santosh sells Chinese Pakoda (with and without Pav) in the street near Govandi station. He has left his home and come to Mumbai just 3 months back. This is his first job. The owner of the stall is also hails from Uttar Pradesh. Heavy rains and hailstones ruined all crops in his village and he had no choice but to leave his home-state (Mirzapur, UP) in search of a job to sustain his family back home. He says he likes Mumbai and is enjoying his job.

7Ramesh Gupta owns the Paani Puri stall that he puts up every day outside the HP Gas station at Deonar, Mumbai. Young Ramesh began his journey as a street food hawker 14 years back owing to financial constraints back home. He has been selling Paani Puri at the same spot for over five years now. He was completely disdainful when he spoke about people who write about hawkers like him. He had started to believe that no one could be of any help to improve the condition and situation of street hawkers, no matter what they write.

6Heeralal has been selling Vada Pav and Bhajjiya Pav outside TISS campus at Deonar for past 14 years. He hails from Jonpur and so does his owner. His family still live in his village. When asked how come he chose to sell Vada Pav (a Maharashtrian speciality) despite being an UPite he replies, “dimag lagana hota hai… business samajhna hota hai” (translation: you have to understand business and use brains accordingly).

4Shiv VadaPav, at MG Road (Mumbai) during the busy lunch hours. Employees from nearby offices, policemen, Autowallas, Taxiwallahs and travellers flock to this street food vendor for hot, spicy, on the spot cooked food.

In the process of enjoying economical yet delicious food at road-side hawkers, we often tend to forget the people involved in the business. Despite its huge presence and popularity in daily life, it is not a recognized industry. Complex or non-existent licensing system makes life difficult for them. Instances of organized bribing and evacuations often play havoc in the lives of these vendors. The street food hawkers are not always owners of the business, as we have already seen in above mentioned examples. They are usually employed by old and experienced hawkers, who had started their profession in a similar manner.

IMG_4116Vishal’s tea stall adjacent to Heeralal’s VadaPav Stall. It is interesting to note that different fast food and tea/juice vendors form a cluster so as to give a complete package to the customers in terms of food, beverage et al.

We may consider street food as poor and unhygienic but (barring certain unpleasant instances) in fact, street food vendors use fresh ingredients compared to restaurants and other eateries. They do not use refrigeration and hence prepare fresh food and spices on daily basis. The quick on the spot preparation is possible with these home prepared spices. In fact, they provide nutritious (most of the time) at really low prices. Their profit margins are very less compared to other places of eating.

It is interesting to observe that the street food vendors sell food based on their origins. For example- The Street vendors who sell Dosa/Vada Sambhar usually used to be of South Indian origin. Similarly, a Momo seller would be a person from Darjeeling, Nepal, Tibet or from North Eastern India; A Keralite a tender coconut seller and so forth. Also, it is really interesting to note that owner of a stall employs people form their own origin, most of the time. However this trend has now begun to change. Suresh confirms this in fluent Hindi when he says, “these days there are many Bihari’s and UPwalas involved in tender coconut business. And even Marathi owners keep non Marathi employees.” Almost every vendor seemed to agree on this change (globalisation) happening around them.

Their marketing success of street food hawkers depends exclusively on location and word-of-mouth promotion. They carefully choose certain spots that will attract consumers on daily basis – on a busy footpath, outside railway stations, near school and colleges and offices. People across all ages, class, sex, communities flock to these temporary eating places every day. In fact street food is an integral part of our culture and society. They bring together people from all aspects and bind them with one common thread – a combination of quick, cheap and delicious fresh food to satiate hunger and taste buds. Yet, the hawkers feel and experience a lack of social status. In Ramesh’s disdainful words – Kya hum hawkers ka kabhi kuch acha ho sakta hai…!!! (translation: Can anything good ever happen to hawkers like us…!!!)

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