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Thought For Food

By Atreyee Majumder

17 February, 2007

The urban economy of a country such as India runs only partially from inside banks, government offices, or corporations. A large part of this economy creates opportunities out of nowhere in a desperate attempt at survival. This very visible street economy routinely faces harassment from rent-seekers, police, muscle-powered businessmen. And it seems our governing authorities and our judges are also unhappy with the thriving economy on our streets, which survives simply on desperation.

These fringe-economies cannot but be a roadblock on the road to the creation of planned, efficient, Singapore-like cities. Quite simply because they block roads and pavements and clutter cannot be the picture of modern efficiency. The other perspective of clutter is that of activity, productivity- the sensation of multiple, simultaneous, cris-crossed existences.

The big city in India is increasingly being of as a systematized apparatus of production, or a hotchpotch of noises, colours and smells, of conflicting narratives clashing, colliding, coexisting. The narrative of street vendors is one among the innumerable conflicting urban narratives. Mostly migrants from rural areas, moving to the city in the hope of a better attempt at a livelihood, theirs is a narrative that is lively, productive, and adds another dash to the pandemonium of the cityscape. Because the 'big city' is the Promised Land, with no point of saturation; an enormous opening that yields opportunities for everyone.

The sealing and planning drives initiated by urban planning agencies like NDMC, MCD, along with the intervention of the judiciary, are surely derivatives of the imagination of the city as a planned ordered entity geared towards efficiency. Whereas the streets of Delhi turn richer with the excitement of golgappas and chhola-kulchas and moongphalis and fake Gap T-shirts and bangles and earrings for one and all. Some on carts, some squatting on the pavement, some in makeshifts sheds. They may be an impediment to the middle-class pedestrian, but they occupy the public space because the middle-class public forms their clientele as active participants in this fringe economy.

The food that they sell cannot possibly be healthy and hygienic, because they produce and sell with minimal resources. If one has to ensure safety standards, one can't possibly operate entirely on the street. The reason they can operate viably is simply that there are takers for such products. If not for the street-carts selling chhole-bature for as little as five rupees, large numbers working as casual labourers, construction workers, class four staff in offices, etc. would go without food. The product is unsafe by middle-class standards, but is indispensable to some sections, whose voices are unlikely to reach the policy or judicial circles. The Food Safety Act, 2006 banning street food robs Delhi streets not just of their quirky subcultures, and school-kids of the thrills of the forbidden, but large numbers of cheap access to food and other utilities, which they are ready to eat despite safety risks, because it is the only food that they can afford. It's like the governing agencies and courts are telling them "…if you have to eat, you must eat safely cooked food, or else don't eat". This legislation is completely oblivious to the implication on the lower economic rungs, as it equates McDonalds and the thhela-burger-wala, both of which are within the reach of some circles, whereas the latter also caters to sections whose access to food to very limited.

It is strange that the concern has simultaneously arisen in the courts as well as in the governing circles (with the license-spewing Food Safety and Standards Act having recently been passed by the Parliament), whereas the concerns of widespread malnutrition amongst the urban poor never gets as much attention in the policy-making/implementing or adjudicating circles. The recent Food Safety and Standards Act envisages an elaborate procedures for procuring licenses, clean potable water, having samples tested- by all who fit the category of 'food manufacturer', be it a multinational company, a restaurant chain, or the guy that roasts moongphali on the pavement in winters. Not to mention the resource-strength and musclepower required to wriggle one's way out of any bureaucratic process successfully, it also ignores that world of difference between the unorganized sector food-seller and a powerful corporation. That for the moongphali fellow, taking a day off and traveling to the government office to procure a form to apply for license is the cost of a day's bread, that when the government office decides they do not want to accept the form a minute beyond office hours, requiring him to come back the next day costs him another day's bread, and that if a concerned officer is on leave, his license will have to wait for a month, will cost him and his family a month's existence- is not within the parameters of Concern for 'Food Safety'. It translates into a concern for 'food' for the moongphali fellow and his folks only and hence, doesn't concern our food-safety lawmakers.

The lower economic rungs that do not avail of any benefits of modernization, from the government, the mainstream economy or the middle-class, educated, unmarginalised society. Ours is not a democracy that provides social security, childcare or such welfare benefits. Those that are left out of the run for the 'modern' and the 'efficient' have only the street as their playing field, and the governing authorities are out to strip them of their only claim- the street.

The emphatic concern for 'public health' looks almost laughable in the face of glaring disparities in the definitions of an existence, that are abuzz in the city. Where 'health' itself is a luxury for large numbers, the middle-classy perception of 'public health' seems like an oppressive imposition of the concerns of higher classes, forcibly on poorer sections, who simply cannot afford concerns of 'safety' and 'health'. In the hallowed terms 'public interest' and 'public health', it seems that 'public' means essentially the middle or upper classes.

-Atreyee, lawyer and researcher based in Delhi. He can be reached at

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