Samosa to kulfi, tea to pakoras, street food in Delhi gets pricier
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, prices of crude oil and edible oils have been on the rise. India’s annual retail inflation shot up to a 17-month high in March.
New Delhi: Every evening, the service lane near Laxmi Nagar Metro station transforms into a food street, with dozens of vendors lining up their colourful carts close to each other, selling everything from samosas and pizzas to chhole bhature, burgers and kulfi.
On a hot Friday evening, as the aroma of food wafts in the air, most vendors there seem downcast. They say they have been losing money over the past few months, blaming the rising inflation that has raised their input cost, forcing them to increase the prices of the items on the menu — something their customers find unpalatable.
Sonu Kumar, the owner of a samosa chaat stall, says he increased the price of the chaat from ₹25 to ₹30 a plate last month, and soon lost quite a few customers. He says that he has no other option, because the cost of ingredients — including refined oil, granulated wheat, vegetables — has increased in the last few months.
“My daily income has dipped over the past few months. I had been thinking of raising the price of samosas and waited very long, but ultimately had to bite the bullet, ” says Kumar. Most of his customers, he says, are students living in Laxmi Nagar, one of the biggest coaching hubs in the city. “ I have already lost quite a few customers after raising the prices. The economics of my business is just not working anymore.”
Sonu Kumar is not the only one complaining. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, prices of crude oil and edible oils have been on the rise. India’s annual retail inflation shot up to a 17-month high in March. The Consumer Price Index (CPI)-based inflation was led by edible oils (18.79%), vegetables (11.64%), meat and fish (9.63%), footwear and clothing (9.4%), and fuel and light (7.52%) segments.
This is now affecting the economic dynamics of street vending.
According to the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), the rising inflation has affected the businesses of over 300,000 street vendors — a significant part of the informal economy — in the Capital, leading to a drop of around 40% in their income in the past couple of months, which has forced most of them to jack up the prices of the items they sell.
Not far from Sonu Kumar’s stall, Daya Shankar sells fruit salad and sources his fruit from Azadpur Sabzi Mandi. The fruits arrive at his stall around 7am, and he is ready for business by 7.30am. The cost of transporting the fruits and vegetables is shared by Daya Shankar and other fruit and vegetable vendors in the area, who also source from the same mandi.
“I have raised the price of one plate of fruit salad from ₹10 to ₹20, but that has resulted in the loss of customers. I had no choice as the cost of fruits in the mandi has risen by 40% and the cost of transport by 20% in the past couple of months,” says Daya Shankar.
Pradeep Kumar, who runs Punjabi Chacha Dhaba, a food stall in Safdarjung Enclave, says that he increased the price of some items on the menu — egg curry from ₹30 to ₹40 and fish curry from ₹40 to ₹50 — but had to roll the hike back within five days after he lost half of his customers. “The price of edible oil has increased by almost 40%... But my customers refused to accept the new prices. Now my daily income has come down from ₹1,200 a day to ₹800. I have now reduced portion sizes to cut losses, which means less fish in the fish curry,” says Kumar, 65, who belongs to Amroha in Uttar Pradesh.
Maurya, who runs a tea stall near Kasturba Gandhi Marg, has raised the price of his tea from ₹10 to ₹12 per glass but says he is luckier than others as most of his customers work in offices in high-rises in the area and don’t mind the hike. “ I explained to them that the cost of milk and cooking gas has gone up and they understood. What you sell, where and at what price on the streets of Delhi matters a lot. Vendors are better off in central Delhi than elsewhere in the city, ” says Maurya, whose father started selling tea at the same spot in 1995. In fact, there are several street vendors in the city who have been vending at the same spots for about 40 years.
A large percentage of the street vendors in Delhi belong to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and prefer to work near Metro stations and bus stands, which ensures a steady stream of customers. “ Most migrant workers take to street vending because of the low start-up cost. Unfortunately, they are considered a nuisance, but the fact is vendors contribute to the city and local communities by providing access to a wide variety of low-cost food and goods and help keep streets safe and vibrant,” says Arbind Singh, founder and national coordinator, NASVI, which works for the promotion and protection of the interests of street vendors across the country. “Of late, however, they feel like they are under siege in Delhi, what with the rising inflation, and the growing crackdowns by the authorities.”
Neetu Choudhary, an economist and independent researcher who works in the field of the informal economy, says street vending is a key pillar of the urban local economy, providing livelihoods and catering to the consumption needs of the urban poor by supplying basic goods at affordable prices. “It serves multiple interests on egalitarian terms. Relying on principles of solidarity and reciprocity, street vending is an example of a social economy. Despite their significant contribution, street vendors are a vulnerable community — one that is highly susceptible to external shocks like price rise,” says Choudhary, whose book Informal Workers and Organized Action: Narratives from the Global South was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Choudhary adds that the current inflation in India is very challenging for street vendors. “The cost of vending has shot up, and they have had to increase their selling price. So, demand for vending items has declined. Street vendors are, therefore, at a loss — especially vendors trading in perishable items such as vegetables and food, wherein a fall in daily demand means wastage of unsold items. Despite these shocks, street vendors survive and, therefore, are resilient micro-entrepreneurs.”
Back in Laxmi Nagar, it is 9.30pm and the local grocer has just handed the next day’s groceries to Sonu Kumar — a few polythene bags containing edible oil, granulated wheat, and spices. Kumar pays him ₹1,000 in cash. “Just two months ago, I was paying him only ₹700 for the same groceries.Today, my total sale was ₹1,400, and I have spent ₹1,000 on groceries for tomorrow. Now you can do the math and figure out how mehangai (inflation) has affected my business.”