First, a couple of qualifications. You could well argue that a column about food should appear in Brunch. And you might think that I’ve got my slots mixed up this week. But bear with me. This column is less about food and more about issues.
The second qualification: I yield to nobody in my respect for the Indian judiciary. The Supreme Court has performed admirably as a protector of our Constitution and all Indians owe the judges a huge debt.
Now, the point: have you come across any judgment that is as annoying and poorly thought out as the decision to ban Delhi’s street vendors from cooking food? The judgment is so astonishing and flies so obviously in the face of logic, that it takes my breath away.
If you read my colleague Shivani Singh’s brilliant column in Thursday’s HT, then you will know what my outrage is based on. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) submitted to the courts that as it is too difficult to enforce rules of behaviour on vendors, it’s probably easier to ban roadside cooking altogether.
The honourable court agreed, and now Delhi faces a blanket ban on all street food that is actually cooked in our neighbourhoods. Despite protests, at least one petition and a commendable campaign launched by NDTV, neither the Corporation nor the courts seem willing to demonstrate the flexibility required to rescind this outrageous ruling.
I don’t think I need bother with defending the MCD. Nobody who lives in Delhi thinks very much of it or expects much better — which is sad but true.
But what about the judges, the men we have admired all our lives? How could they possibly have gone along with the MCD’s foolishness and not intervened to impose good sense on the Corporation?
Here’s my theory: judges are too busy to eat on the streets. They have now reached such elevated levels in their careers that they no longer dash out of the office (or the courtroom in their case) for a quick plate of channa tikki. And when they take their families out, it is to the club or at the home of some other judge; not for them the roadside supper of freshly roasted kababs, still smelling of charcoal as you pop them into your mouth.
Anybody who eats on the streets recognises several things.
One: Street food is integral to the popular culture of any city. Can you imagine New York without the hotdog sellers on each corner? Bangkok without the little carts full of roasted squid and fish balls? Tokyo without the noodle sellers? Or even, our very own Bombay without its baida roti stalls, its dosa makers or its pav bhaji wallahs? Why on earth should Delhi be any different? Only because our Municipal Corporation is too incompetent to impose order on street vendors?
Two: People like myself — and many of you who are reading this — go to street vendors because they often have the best food, far superior certainly to many restaurants. We go because of the taste not because we can’t afford to go anywhere else.
But we are the fortunate ones. What about people who don’t have the money or the time to go to restaurants? What about people who make their living on the streets and therefore regard it as entirely normal to eat where they work? They can’t afford to eat at fancier places and for many of them, even dhabas are too expensive.
Are they to now go hungry because the Delhi Municipal Corporation does not know any better?
Three: One of the reasons apparently offered for this ban is fire safety. Officials seem to think that we are all at risk from raging fires spread by aloo tikki wallahs or from conflagrations set off in the cooking of shammi kababs.
Only a fool would deny that any hot stove or charcoal fire could cause an accident. But, try as I might, I cannot think of very many incidents where a stray spark from a channa bhatura wallah’s stove has burnt an entire market down. Yes, there are accidents caused by kitchen fires all the time. But in my experience, these tend to occur in restaurant kitchens not on the streets. We’ve all heard of exploding gas cylinders and badly maintained cooking ranges. But of an exploding chaat wallah?
And if this is the justification for the ban, then there is a further problem. According to the new regulation, vendors can continue to sell hot tea and coffee — only food is banned. So how do you suppose they’re going to make this tea and coffee?
Guess you’ll have to ask the Municipal Corporation for an answer.
Four: I’m always wary of using the livelihood argument because it can be used to justify a multitude of sins. (Don’t ban drugs: the dealers will go hungry etc.) But this is one occasion where I do think it applies.
Street sellers in every Indian city are at the bottom of the social pyramid. Many of them are migrants, forced out of their villages by the need to make a living. They earn very little money. They are regularly shaken down for protection money by local goondas. The cops usually demand their own share of hafta. Every time there is a crackdown ordered by some civic-minded official or judge, their stalls are overturned, their baskets are emptied and they are left to start all over again.
I find it deeply offensive that a mixture of misguided middle-class righteousness and plain old-fashioned governmental incompetence should cause these poor people to lose the only means of making a living that are available to them.
Five: Related to the livelihood argument is one about the direction of Indian society. I wrote, a month ago, in Brunch, about the bhutta sellers of my childhood and how they represented a link with a vanishing Bombay. All of us have memories of roadside stalls near our homes — the best channa bhatura I ever had was made by a man who ran a stall near Churchgate station.
These are more than childhood memories — they are among the few points of contact left between the glittering shiny India of the newly-enriched, mall-crazy, gadget-hungry middle class and the real India of the millions who have gained nothing from liberalisation.
Not only will this decision put those for whom India never shines out of work, it will also ensure that they are replaced by gleaming new roadside stalls where pre-packaged foods in hi-tech wrappers made by faceless corporations will be sold at high prices.
The death of the neighbourhood chaat wallah will also mark the death of the India we grew up in. It will re-emphasise the isolationist nature of our cities as middle class enclaves in which the poor are no longer welcome.
Six: And finally for the so-called hygiene argument. I am angry enough now to be blunt.
Of all the arguments advanced to justify the ban, this is easily the stupidest.
Only a fool believes that it is hygienic to ban the means by which street food is heated in front of you to temperatures at which no bacteria can survive. Anybody who eats on the streets knows the basic rule: be careful of food that has not been freshly cooked; try and ensure that the vendor heats it before your eyes.
The stupidity of this ban lies in the failure of those who propound it to grasp this basic fact. Years ago, when I was editor of Bombay magazine, we conducted a survey of street food and hygiene. Our lab told us that the chutney used for bhel puri was often too full of bacteria for human consumption (though this is an arbitrary distinction because most Indians have acquired the ability to survive high levels of bacteria), but the report made it clear that anything that was heated to high temperatures was much safer because most of the bacteria had been destroyed in the cooking process.
And yet, the Delhi ban turns this basic truth on its head. A roadside vendor can still sell you a samosa or a kachori. You have no way of knowing where the kachori was made or what went into the samosa. For all you know, the samosa could have been made near a dung heap four days ago — long enough for it to be contaminated by bacteria. Because the vendor will no longer be allowed to reheat it or crush it on his hot tawa, the bacteria will flourish and multiply.
And the Municipal Corporation will encourage this bacterial multiplication — all in the name of hygiene.
If you are reading this column in one of the HT’s non-Delhi editions, then thank your stars. I will always think of the roadside roll-sellers when I think of Calcutta. What would Lucknow be without the world’s best kababs? And Bombay’s ethnic street food mish-mash captures the cosmopolitan character of one of the world’s great cities. All of you are lucky to live in cities where the Municipalities have more brains than ours.
But while you enjoy your rolls, your kababs and your pav bhaji, spare a thought for us in Delhi. Remember, if we let them get away with this in India’s capital, your city will probably be next.