They appear in small groups during the day, flocking outside schools and offices. As the sun says goodbye, they spread out to take strategic positions. By the time it’s dark, the true cool factor of the city comes alive.
Meet the ice-cream vendors, your quintessential urban cultural icons, and a socio-economic phenomenon of our times.
The business is more organised than you’d imagine, and booms in the summertime; though Chandigarh loves risking a sore throat even in the winter. Pankaj Kumar, a 20-year-old from Chhapra in Bihar, in it for three years, shares the basics, “The stock comes from factories in Gujarat mostly, and we get supply directly from the five or six major distributors or subsidiary vans. The commission is 17-25%.”
The fact that the business is not permitted “can be taken care of ”, he smiles, lounging on his mobile fridge parked in an alley. More on the ‘taking care’ later.
Pankaj lives in a set of four decrepit rooms with six others in Sector 20, all of whom belong to Chhapra or Siwan districts, Bihar. They pay around Rs 1,500 a month for a room. And like most other such businesses, this too is dominated by migrants from UP or Bihar.
“But Chhapra-Siwan natives have majority of the 800-odd ‘icecream cycles’ in the city,” says Brajesh Kumar, 38, from Siwan. Chhapra native Rajesh Kumar, 24, who was a factory worker but switched on a cousin’s suggestion two years ago, adds, “See, the distributors want Rs 25,000 as security for one tricycle-and-fridge. Who has that much to start with? But if a vendor can stand guarantee for a prospect, that is waived. Only Rs 5,000 is needed for the first stock. The Chhapra-Siwan ‘guarantee chain’ started years ago.”
With more companies foraying into the business and local firms adopting the model, commission has seen a spike and the ‘enrolment conditions’ too have been eased, says Shammi Kapoor, owner of an ice-cream shop in Sector 20 who says he is “trying to compete with the big firms”.
EARNINGS, AND ‘ABOVE’
As the ‘season’ stretches seven months, from April to October, and business not completely closed even in the cold, the daily sale of a vendor as per the maximum retail price (MRP) is around Rs 2,000, according to estimates across town. The commission, thus, comes to about Rs 400 a day. But that’s not that.
On each ice-cream, the vendors overcharge, usually doubling their profit. Many of them have their families living with them, unlike their brethren in other professions who ‘send money home’. The sector turnover is Rs 60-65 crore annually.
“We have ‘upar ke kharche’ (overhead costs) too!” frowns old-timer Ashok Kumar, who has been in the ice-cream business since 1979 and seen it go from wooden rehris selling from a matka to fancy light-fitted cyclefridges. These include “at least Rs 50 worth of free ice-cream to cops every day”. “But we appreciate that they do not harass us; it’s a goodwill gesture.”
As for the municipal corporation’s action against the technically illegal business, the fine is a mere Rs 700 to get an impounded cart released. And that’s not too often either.
“We have 17 enforcement subinspectors, and take away around 30 ice-cream tricycles a day. Not only are we short of staff, but our shift is 11am to 7pm, which is not their prime time,” an official of the MC admits, on the condition of anonymity.
There is also a lenient view taken as “it is a livelihood issue,” says another officer, adding that only accident-prone areas at peak hours are cleared of the vendors. “In any case, they are a part of the city’s culture.”