India’s street food vendors are among the communities and economic units worst hit by COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. Overnight their businesses came to a standstill, many were forced to trudge their way back home to villages, and those who stayed back in cities saw the supply-demand equation of their fragile businesses crumble.
The gradual opening up of the economy did not translate into customers flocking back; even aficionados of street food are wary of the COVID-19 cloud hanging over. However, as the annus horribilis closes, there’s news that should help urban India’s vast street food community — and government — see a glimpse of a promising future.
Good news trickled in that Singapore’s iconic hawker culture — its community of street food vendors who cook and sell appetising and affordable meals in more than 110 designated centres — was honoured with UNESCO’s esteemed tag of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Offering a mind-boggling spread of Chinese, Malay and Indian fare, the pre-dominantly non-vegetarian hawker centres are a gourmand’s delight and must-stop on a tourist’s itinerary. Thirty-three of these stalls made it to the prized Michelin Bib Gourmand List last year.
COVID-19 did not spare Singapore’s hawker culture. Restrictions meant they could not have diners, only takeaways were allowed; and, business dropped to an all-time low. Many stalls remained shut till an online no-profit enterprise emerged to support the hawkers. Now, the UNESCO tag adds to the romance of a unique Singaporean experience.
The romance and legends around street food in Indian cities are historic too. From Delhi’s chaat and momos, Mumbai’s bhelpuri and vadapav, Lucknow’s kebabs and nihari-kulcha, Jaipur’s pyaaz kachoris, Kolkata’s puchkas and kathi rolls to Madurai’s mutton kari dosa and jigarthanda, parotta and beef fry or puttu-kadala curry anywhere in Kerala, Ahmedabad’s jalebi-fafda among other cities, India is a street food lover’s delight. Knocked out by COVID-19, the industry went under. A combination of government and private initiative has seen the first stirrings of revival in large metros.
The Narendra Modi government unveiled the PM-SVANidhi — Prime Minister’s Street Vendors Atma Nirbhar Nidhi — to offer street vendors a loan of Rs 10,000 and COVID-19 training. Major food delivery apps such as Swiggy and Zomato rolled out options to take vendors on board, helped conduct training sessions for digitising the mom-and-pop businesses, and assisted with COVID-19 sanitisation protocols. The National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) held online training courses and supplied hygiene kits. However, these initiatives are not nearly enough; they offer a silver lining for vendors to bounce back, but do not go beyond.
The COVID-19 rupture offers a unique opportunity to both the government and the street food entrepreneurs to reorganise — streamline the scattered commerce in a structured and hygienic manner, cover legal bases and ensure that street food areas are built into urban design — while keeping the romance of street food alive. Singapore shows how to, though its numbers are fewer than India’s.
This calls for official recognition of street food vending as entrepreneurship and its role in urban India’s social economy. The poorest live off it, those without kitchens subsist on it, migrants and commuters are comforted with it, and the indulgent revel in it. Of the street vendors — 10-14 million in 2014, according to the central government; nearly 40 million now, according to National Hawkers Federation (NHF) — nearly half are into selling food. This can be fruits, vegetables and juices, or pre-cooked food at stationary or mobile stalls, or freshly-cooked food where street-side cooking is possible.
The aggregated value of the business would run into lakhs of crores of rupees, but its scattered and small-value transactions makes the scale invisible. The informal nature of the trade, lack of rights and land titles, susceptibility to bulldozers and bribes, inaccessibility to formal credit, all add to make this a precarious business, and one without safety nets. The NHF, comprising 1,200 unions in 28 states, estimates that all hawkers in India suffered Rs 49,000 crore losses during the first lockdown. SVANidhi will, however, help only a fraction of those affected because only licensed or registered vendors are eligible for the loan.
Barely three of every 10 street food entrepreneurs have licenses; the rest exist to fill an urban need though they may be illegal. The law on street vending which came into force in 2014, after a decade of struggle and court cases, is yet to see serious implementation across India’s cities. Even when implemented, it's likely to leave out lakhs of entrepreneurs.
But beyond the legal and commercial nitty-gritty, the revival in India’s street food has to do with how and where city design, or urban planning, integrates this vital part of urban life, and how the government imagines the role of street food in a city’s character.
Street food is India’s cultural heritage, too.