Publication:Times Of India Delhi; Date:Apr 9, 2007; Section:Editorial; Page Number:16

Streets Ahead

Roadside food fills millions of happy stomachs

Dinesh Mohan

Nearly 10 years have gone by since a book titled Street Foods was published by Irene Tinker of the University of California at Berkeley. Decision-makers do not seem to have taken note of this work. The study was a culmination of 15 years of research in cities of India, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal, on the meals, snacks and sweets sold on the streets for immediate consumption.

    Tinker estimated that up to 20 per

cent of household food expenditure goes towards such food. Challenging conventional wisdom about the informal sector, Tinker informs us that the benefits of street food outweigh any negative impact the trade may have on the city and its residents. “Once the importance of street food vendors is accepted, then finding accommodation for their enterprises that does not infringe on the rights of the pedestrians should be possible”, she observes.

    Street food was found to be cheaper than home-prepared food, especially when time spent on shopping and cooking was factored in. Snack foods in the US are linked in most people’s minds with the idea of junk food. But street food in the cities studied was more nutritious, especially since it was part of the regular meals people demanded everyday. Tests showed that very often the cheaper meal was the best bargain as it supplied almost half the caloric and nutritional requirement for the day.

    An interesting finding was that few customers were overly concerned about food safety as “food handling practices of the vendors generally reflect prevailing local standards, and food sold on the street is not significantly more contaminated than that sold in restaurants”.

    This is not surprising because a large number of the customers are regulars who complain vociferously the next day if something goes wrong. The hawker has to maintain a quality level that avoids frequent public reprimand, which can send customers to the neighbouring vendor. Customers generally assume that cooked food will be safe since it is freshly prepared, the ingredients are there for all to see and it is not recycled material from the previous day.

    The data from Pune is particularly interesting. The bacteriological quality of street food was not found to be related to the environmental conditions around vending sites and that samples from restaurants contained more faecal coliforms than those from street vendors. Food safety issues arise more from colours and other chemicals used both by street

vendors and restaurants. Those who don’t eat street food seem to be more paranoid about street vendors than those who do.

    Customers of street food seem to be distributed almost equally between whitecollar workers, market traders and labourers, and students, with some variations from city to city. This wide popularity of street food arises from many factors: eating street food avoids wastage in the form of left-over, home-cooked meals; it takes care of the rising cost of cooking fuel or the difficulty and labour in obtaining it; and it saves time for working women.

    Much of the food purchased is taken home to eat. Street food availability also reduces the drudgery of women as they don’t have to prepare food early in the morning or late at night for family members who have long working or school days. Time saved in preparing food was found to be used productively in the care of children and other important household responsibilities.

    It is quite incredible that in spite of mounting evidence that street vendors make a city more liveable, provide nutritious food to a very large section of the population and provide employment to millions, decisionmakers in all our cities are constantly trying to find excuses to harass them. A popular ruse is the “concern” for pedestrians.

    It is fascinating that the demand for removing hawkers from the streets almost never originates from regular pedestrians or bicyclists. It is the car-owning policymakers, who don’t walk or patronise the hawkers, who find them an eyesore. More pedestrian and public space is occupied by parked cars than hawkers in all our cities. You just have to visit a road in front of any court in the country to realise this.

    Writing about home-based enterprises and hawkers in Delhi, Surbaya and Pretoria, Graham Tipple of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, concludes that “they should be accorded more attention by policymakers — not to control them, but to find ways of cooperating with entrepreneurs to assist them to be effective and efficient”. Other reasons why cities need vendors on streets and not in designated food courts is because hawkers are the eyes of the street and prevent violent crime. Our city roads are safer because of them. J S Anjaria who has studied hawkers in Mumbai states: “There is ample evidence too that street vendors’ vigilance over public spaces enhances the safety of all city residents”.

    Studies also show that designated food courts attract richer clients and the hawkers lose their business to more organised and affluent businessmen. It is time we recognised the enormous contribution of street vendors to the vitality and safety of our cities. Instead of pushing them towards crime we should be finding ways of accommodating them with dignity on our roads.

    The writer is on the faculty of IIT Delhi.