On January 12, 10 am onwards, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium will drown in the scent of food — soft, soft galawati kababs sizzling on heavy griddles, the sharp tang of lemon being squeezed on crisp batter fried fish, the intoxicating smell of jalebis being cooked in desi ghee…all the forbidden street food delights from all over India, each different from the other.
What brings them together is a cooperative called the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), a network and advocacy platform of 636 street vendor organisations representing 8,67,426 vendors across 25 states of India. A vendor is anyone who buys or sells a service from temporary or non-pucca structures.
Arbind Singh, the man behind the platform, studied Sociology at Hindu College and Delhi School of Economics and then, returned home to Bihar to see how he could put his learning to use. After some false starts, he stumbled on the idea of organising street vendors, specifically food vendors.
Street vendors live a perilous life. They bear the weight of a plethora of laws. But till recently, no law actually protected their right to a livelihood. Provisions in the Police Act were such that if a street vendor was found to be holding up the traffic, he could be imprisoned. Municipal corporations used to auction the right to collect tax from street vendors — paid thugs would descend on a small puchka-wallah and make him pay as much as Rs 80 a day for the right to vend.
Both these laws no longer exist, thanks to NASVI’s efforts. But huge battles are still to be fought. In Delhi’s posh colonies Delhi’s Resident Welfare Associations charge dhobis Rs 2000 a month just to set up a table where they perform a service, ironing clothes. “When I heard this, I sent a text message to an RWA asking if this was true. Their reply was ‘let us talk’. I was astounded. Rs 2000 ! For a service that urban Indians would be lost without.”
Between 1998 when Singh started his work and today, a lot has changed. Singh believes firmly that every street vendor is an entrepreneur and while he may have no fixed abode, he has the same problems as any entrepreneur: the law and the banks. In 2004, the government began consultations on a national policy for street vendors becoming a law in 2014. This put the onus of regulation of vending on a town vending committee that would have vendors as its member along with municipal authorities. All cities were to have vending and no-vending zones. This meant that politicians no longer had the right to wave their arm and say: ‘wahan dukan laga lo’ and turn the vendor into his personal bonded labourer.
This law has had a sobering effect on municipal authorities. Two years ago, in Jaipur, with a stroke of a pen, some areas were turned into no-vending zones and stalls of street vendors demolished overnight. Vendors went to court. The Rajasthan High Court ruled in their favour.
Banks and lack of capital is another story. “Don’t even start me off on that” Singh shudders. “Bandhan bank is supposed to be for small entrepreneurs: even they did an IPO recently. I wanted to tell them: ‘you do an IPO among street vendors. You will get as much money and you will serve the cause you were created for’.
In Singapore, streetfood hawkers are a celebrated institution. Chan Hon Meng’s soya sauce chicken noodle or rice costs Sing dollar 2 a plate even after his Michelin Star last year. Indian bedmi alu and litti-chokha vendors are getting there. At the Philippines street food vendors festival in Manila last year, a NASVI member who specialises in making alu tikki found himself besieged with selfie-seekers. “He told me he wished all those who had taken selfies had sampled the alu tikki as well” Singh said with a laugh. Like the food festival next week, Singh’s dream is to see India host an international festival of street food — with Indori poha and Mumbai vada pao competing side by side with tempura and satay.