Street food vendors fight for their place in India’s urban future

Sidewalk food sellers are mobilizing festivals and hygiene training programs in an attempt to win over policymakers and customers. (reddees / Shutterstock.com)

MUMBAI, INDIA — Every day by 6:00 p. m., the snack vendor outside my apartment building in Mumbai arrives to unpack his box of culinary magic.

His entire snack shop can be carried in a steel drum atop his head. The vendor sets up the drum and its stand on a patch of sidewalk and organizes all he needs for his mobile restaurant: onions, lemons, tomatoes and potato. He piles these atop crispy fried discs and mini-bowls and expertly dresses the bite-size sev puri and pani puri with a range of chutneys. For a few hours, he transforms the sidewalk into a communal hub of neighbors, passing rickshaw drivers, building watchmen and local students who stop to enjoy the inexpensive, sweet and spicy offerings.

Street vendors are ubiquitous in Indian metropolises big and small — about 10 million people across the country make a living selling food and other goods on the streets and sidewalks. Mumbai alone is home to an estimated 250,000 street vendors; many of them once worked in more formal factory jobs at the textile mills that closed here years ago. For the unemployed as well as rural migrants to cities, street vending is a viable way to support a family. What’s more, as anthropologist Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria points out, the vendors themselves support another layer of informal work for delivery people, vegetable sellers, knife sharpeners and kerosene sellers.

But vendors here have long suffered harassment, confiscation of goods and eviction by police, as well as regular extortion from local “goondas.” That situation has not changed much even with the passage of a national law in 2014 intended to bring order to street commerce by licensing vendors and setting up protected hawking zones. At the same time, Indian consumers are growing wary of street food. As “McDonaldization” sweeps cities here, a growing middle class is demanding more sanitized food options.

Now, the street vendors themselves are organizing an effort to change the conversation, particularly when it comes to food sellers like the one near my apartment. The National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) is pushing a pair of innovative programs that aim to show both city leaders and the public that the vendors have a culturally and economically valuable role to play in India’s urban future.

“We should not be copying the West,” says Arbind Singh, head of NASVI. “Most Western cities seem to me like copy-paste jobs. Vendors and other informal workers make cities vibrant. Indian cities will be like dead cities without these workers.”

Food festival

The first of NASVI’s efforts is an annual street food festival in India’s capital city, New Delhi, where the organization is headquartered. The idea is to celebrate the rich diversity of sidewalk fare, but in a controlled environment where customers can feel satisfied that the food is safe to eat. More than 80,000 customers turned out for the most recent festival in December at the massive Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

The culinary exhibitions “provide a unique platform where master street food vendors of different regions and places assemble with their signature dishes and interact with thousands and thousands of people from cross sections of society,” Singh says. “Such diverse participation increases the level of understanding on culinary traditions. And messages fan out that the street food vendors do really matter in times of growing unemployment and food insecurity.”

The festival is a financial boon for the vendors, too. According to NASVI, some vendors made as much income during the three-day December festival as they typically do in a couple of months working on the street. Before the festival, vendors were shown strategies to professionalize their micro-businesses. They worked on the presentation of their products and promoted the fact they were using safe drinking water to wash and prepare the food.

A 3-day street food festival in Delhi attracted 80,000 customers. (NASVI)

Over the seven years it has run, the Delhi program has proven to be such a success that similar festivals are popping up all over the country. The trend is even catching on abroad: Street food festivals are now slated for Islamabad and Manila later this year. Delhi’s food vendors have been invited to festivals as far away as Singapore, to represent India and its culinary diversity. These trips abroad are perks the low-income earners would never have dreamed of, especially for work that faces such regular harassment at home.

The support, says Sangeeta Singh, who runs the street food program for NASVI, has given vendors a new sense of pride in their work and a feeling of belonging in the city. As importantly, vendors see how the professionalization of their entrepreneurial skills can bridge contentious relationships with authorities and the public.

Safe eating

Policymakers have noticed the festival’s success. The national Ministry of Tourism and the Tourism and Hospitality Sector Skills Council have begun seeing street food as a selling point to tourists. They also see it as a way to celebrate the country’s cultural heritage through food, in much the way Bangkok has become globally famous for its street food culture.

Which led to the second innovative program for food vendors: hygiene training.

NASVI has partnered with Ministry of Tourism officials to develop a six-day hygiene training program for street food vendors at various hotel management institutes around the country. The hope is to improve the vendors’ practices around safe handling of food and at the same time raise the confidence of both tourists and locals that eating street food won’t make them sick.

Last year, 8,000 vendors received ministry-granted stipends to attend the hands-on training. For most, this represented the first professional training of any kind they had ever received — in this busines, learning typically occurs on-the-job. The program offered vendors a rare chance to step outside their long working hours and expand their skills as food entrepreneurs.

[Read: How Design Museum Dharavi hopes to change the conversation about Mumbai’s informal settlements]

At these trainings, vendors learned about how to handle food with gloves, handwashing, storage techniques and proper washing of fruit and vegetables. At the end of the course, the vendors received official certification that they had completed the training. They were also encouraged to spread what they learned among their colleagues on the streets. NASVI hopes to have 15,000 vendors trained by the end of March.

In addition, NASVI recently announced an important new hygiene training partnership with the Food and Safety Standards Authority of India, in collaboration with the government’s massive Skill India initiative. The program aims to train all the street food vendors in Delhi — about 20,000 people — in the next month. The two-day certification program covers 15 key food safety areas.

Sally Roever is director of the urban policies program at WIEGO — Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. She says the festivals and hygiene training programs are “good practical ways to find a balance between government’s need to protect public space and public health, on the one hand, and the urban poor’s need to use public space as a resource to support livelihoods, on the other hand.”

Street vending, Roever says, is here to stay, so finding ways to include the working poor in the future of cities is essential. “Even in places where modern governments have criminalized street vending, people who need a way to earn a livelihood still do it, and people still buy from them. What really needs imagining is a better way for street vendors and governments to work together so that regulations are appropriate and meet the needs of everyone.”

That’s the future that Arbind Singh hopes for, too — one where India’s streets keep a distinct flavor and where a more inclusive and coordinated effort to find places for vendors can happen. As he puts it, “Promoting street food and cementing the identiy of street food vendors is closely linked with preserving and promoting the social-cultural diversity of places and regions.”

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change. Full bio

LEARNING FROM INDIA

  • 10 million Indians make a living selling food and other goods on the streets, making street vending a prime occupation for the urban poor.
  • An annual street food festival in Delhi staged by an association of vendors aims to raise the vendors’ public profile while earning them money.
  • Training programs have begun teaching street food vendors about safe handling of food, hand washing, storage techniques and proper washing of fruit and vegetables.

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