No Free Lunch, But Don't Touch Our 25-cent Meal

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Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty

An Indian street food vendor hands a plate of snacks to a customer at his roadside stall in New Delhi.

"Ten rupees only," Bhola Ram declares solemnly, "special price for you." As I fish in my pockets for the equivalent of 25 cents that my meal will cost, he deftly smashes two kachoris — deep fried dumplings with a spicy potato filling — onto a paper plate. Next comes a dash of spicy mint chutney and a splash of red tamarind sauce, and garnish of sliced onions. I try not to think of the beads of sweat forming on his forearms and making their way down into my lunch. I pay him and take the plate, careful not to spill any of the precious liquids. At the very first bite, with the spices exploding in my mouth, I find myself breaking into a sweat that banishes all thoughts of hygiene and healthy eating. I resolve to return for the paneer ke chille (cheese-stuffed pancakes) advertised on his movable stall and move on.

Bhola Ram is one of roughly 100,000 food vendors earning a living by selling an assortment of fried, baked, pan-cooked and steamed dishes on the streets of New Delhi. By offering a cheap, fast and accessible meal to millions of taxi drivers, electricians and office workers, Bhola Ram and his colleagues keep the capital's economy humming. They also entertain a steady stream of tourists and street food lovers for whom Delhi isn't Delhi without its smorgasbord of roadside treats that can be as irresistible as they are unhygienic. That may be why vendors have survived both the onslaught of McAloo burgers and other Western fast foods, and a Supreme Court order banning the cooking of food on the streets of Delhi.

The court, deeming street food unsanitary and unsafe, ruled last May that vendors should cook food at home and sell it pre-packaged. Vendors and workers' rights groups, which had filed a bunch of petitions in the Supreme Court, led a chorus of protests. The Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, told an Indian newspaper that the judgement was not fair: "Wiping out the vendors will mean wiping out a whole culture; it's just not the solution."

Others asked, how could poor food vendors cook at home when they live in cramped single-room quarters? "Delhi is a city of migrants," says Madhu Kishwar from Manushi Sangathan, a street vendors' collective. "Someone running a food stall probably lives in a miserable hovel where there's no space for cooking. And if you remove all the street food hawkers, who would feed the millions of brown collar workers, many of who were rural migrants and lived in similar hovels with no space or time for cooking? Certainly, nowhere else could they find full meals for as little as ten to fifteen rupees."

Moreover, food-lovers argue, since vendors are unlikely to have refrigeration facilities at home, pre-cooked food sold later on the street will actually be more dangerous than food cooked on the street.

Despite having brought the case that led to the ban, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has mounted only sporadic, perfunctory raids in which a few unlucky vendors had their wares seized (most were returned just as quickly). "We are going to implement the court order," insists Deep Mathur, the MCD spokesperson. "Last month we issued an invitation for vendors to apply for plots in designated hawker markets."

Will it work? "The policy is completely untenable," says Kishwar. "We have worked with the MCD on model hawker bazaars, but these don't work. Street vendors make their livelihood under conditions that cannot be created artificially in a new area." Narain Das, a food vendor in the Nehru Place commercial complex, says most vendors are ruled out from the start because they cannot comply with the court's hygiene requirements. "And where will they find land to build shops for hundreds of thousands of us?" he asks. Commercial property prices in Delhi are similar to those in major financial centers such as London and Tokyo, and the authorities have already burnt their fingers trying to implement another unpopular Supreme Court order shutting down commercial establishments in residential areas.

For now, at least, the vendors are staying put. "All that has changed is that instead of having to pay a thousand rupees [$25] as bribe to MCD workers or cops, they now have to pay two thousand rupees" says Kishwar. "If the vendors were actually removed, it wouldn't serve anyone's purpose."

For Kishwar, the solution lies not in relocating the vendors, but in upgrading their operations. "Instead of trying to remove street food stalls," she says, "the MCD should provide them facilities so they could improve their standards of hygiene. The only reason these vendors operate in less hygienic conditions than those on the streets of Singapore or Bangkok is that the MCD does not give them proper facilities like clean water supply, electricity and proper drainage."