Roadside food fills millions of happy stomachs
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
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
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
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
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
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