Vendors sell baskets of fruit at the entrance of Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar Market.

Stall Economy

Delhi’s street food vendors struggle to live where they cook

OUTSIDE THE GTB Nagar metro station in North Delhi is a dense bustle typical of mornings in the city. Hundreds of people brush past one another at the crossroads; women stand on tiptoe to scan the snaking lines for the day’s trains; rickshaw drivers shout their prices to people exiting; students wave at one another across the street before bunching up to head to Delhi University campus; and street vendors set up shop, opening their umbrellas over trays of sliced papayas or pots of milk, soon to be boiled for chai.

At this intersection, Raj Kumar Yadav sells litti chokha, a dish from Bihar in eastern India, where small litti—balls made of sattu, a multigrain flour—are cooked on coals and served with chokha—roasted spiced eggplant. Yadav runs this business from a redi, or five-foot-by-three-foot wooden cart, which he covers with tarpaulin when it rains. On one side he cooks the litti on hot coals lined under a metal grill; on another he has a round steel pot for the chokha, which he serves with green chilies and coriander for whomever asks. “I do half the cooking at home,” he says, “since I have a small space to operate from on the street.”

Maybe thirty vendors are stuffed into the fifty-meter nook where Yadav runs his cart. They face a wide road, from which they are separated by a pedestrian footpath cluttered with bicycles and parked scooters. Vendors sit on plastic stools to sell plastic jewelry; a juice maker advertises a new chiku shake with tutti-frutti in a singsong chant; a young man sells pakoras (fritters) made of moong dal, or yellow lentils, to a couple of teenagers who eat quickly and ask for more. This choreography is routine and strategic. It determines the clusters and patterns that define how millions in urban India make, sell, and eat food every day. Yadav’s stall gets crowded during lunch hours, when students, working professionals, and vehicle drivers come to eat a filling, affordable lunch. His litti chokha is delicious, a customer tells me. “Ghar ka khana lagta hai—It tastes of home food.”

Yadav’s small bicycle cart is a momentary home for his hundreds of customers every day, but his own home is far away, in Madhubani, Bihar, a village where many livelihoods have been lost to poor governance, landscapes reduced to the gravel of postindustrial ruin. Delhi is home to millions of working-class migrants from such parts of India looking for work. These migrants arrive with hopes of finding employment in the mammoth informal economy that exists in Indian cities, taking jobs as security guards, domestic workers, building laborers, porters, and vendors, attempting to absorb themselves into the workforce on which the foundations of Indian cities lie.

Street food vendors like Yadav are more than just genres of their respective cuisine; they are a critical facet of the economy. Theirs is a story of cities built on the backs of migrants; of the agrarian economy in India that lies in shambles of neglect; of the state’s blind eye toward infrastructural health for its citizens, who are left to build their lives against brutal social and economic obstacles. Even though street cuisines and their deliciousness are often summoned to decorate India’s culinary image, they also tell stories of home and homelessness. Of people leaving home, being pushed out of home, and making home every day.

 

 

WHEN YADAV ARRIVED in Delhi in 2010, he worked in a paper factory in Pandav Nagar, East Delhi, far from where he lives today. It was hard work for meager wages: 2,000 Indian rupees a month, just over twenty-four U.S. dollars. He lived in a small corner of a jhuggi jhopri (housing cluster), an informal housing settlement made from tarpaulin, waste wood, bamboo, plastic, and tin near the factory. Jhuggi jhopri clusters, or JJCs, are among the only viable housing for the urban poor and low-paid working-class migrants of the city.

Sometime in 2014, Yadav’s home, along with hundreds of others, was destroyed by a bulldozer, and he was rendered homeless. Demolitions of informal housing settlements are a frequent occurrence here. Many street food vendors told me about how they lost their homes when they were razed on state orders or destroyed by the police. Like Yadav, sixty-five-year-old Tinku Charan Das, a tea seller near the metro station in Mayur Vihar Phase 1 in East Delhi, was also stranded when his home was demolished in 2004. Before that, Das had lived with his wife and young daughter in their jhuggi for ten years. “Hundreds of us in just one night had nowhere to go,” he says. “For days, we slept on the street.”

After India’s economic liberalization in 1991, Delhi was to be remodeled into a city that could meet the international standards of the economies it had now opened to. To create this image of synthetic capital-driven sterility, the city’s informal slums were targeted for removal. Approximately sixty thousand households were evicted from 218 slums between 1990 and 2007; because of this, millions of families lost their homes. Though the migrants who arrived in those decades were the workforce behind India’s ambitious new economy, they were not given affordable housing or health care, but were relentlessly utilized like machines by multinationals, real estate proprietors, and moneyed factory owners, always kept at the brink of starvation and neglect. The demolitions were “vicious,” writes the sociologist Amita Baviskar in her account of the time. “[Every] day another jhuggi basti (shanty settlement) in Delhi is demolished…. In other places, the police set fire to homes, beat up residents and prevented them from taking away their belongings before the fire and the bulldozers got to work,” she writes.

If homemaking is difficult for street food vendors, the streets are no less difficult.

 

BEFORE HE LIVED IN the jhuggi, Das grew up in rural Bengal, in a village in Malda district. As a child, he thought his village was lush and bountiful, but soon, climatic shifts and endless rain would ravage their crops. Das arrived in Delhi in 1984, at the height of the anti-Sikh pogroms, in which thousands were killed. There was an atmosphere of violence, Das remembers. People were suspicious of outsiders. “I couldn’t speak the language. I was a teenager. I had no way to earn, and nowhere to live,” he says.

After some weeks, Das began work as an unpaid assistant on a construction site in return for food. He assisted workers who were laying the foundation of the Trans Yamuna gated colonies close to where his stall is now. He slept near mountains of cement. Sometimes he sneaked into these half-made houses, found a corner, and rested, half-awake and ready to run. These buildings stand tall around his tea stall, where he watches residents exiting its gates to buy groceries or go for a walk in the park. “I built those with my own hands,” Das tells me. “And yet I am not allowed to enter them.”

Today, Das lives with his family in a rented room in Pandav Nagar, a concrete neighborhood. “This sounds good,” he says, “but they increase the rent every day. Every year, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am still in debt to my landlord.” For workers like Das in the informal economy, no paperwork guarantees rent and security, which poses the constant threat of eviction. There is also the added threat of faith- and caste-based intimidation. Where Das lives, most homeowners are dominant-caste Hindu vegetarians, to whom cooking or buying meat can be a point of contention. A landlord can, in a temper, evict entire families, rendering an atmosphere of fear, he tells me. Overhearing us, another vendor says that in his dwellings, the landlords charge an escalated fee for water and gas, “even though for them, it is free from the government.”

Litti chokhais a dish of wheat dough balls stuffed with roasted black chickpea flour (litti) and a mash of vegetables (chokha).
 

SHALINI SINHA, the India Country Representative at WIEGO, has worked with migrant and informal workers for nearly two decades. She notes that the burden of rent and basic but quality shelter (for informal workers and internal migrants) is a great issue at hand in India’s cities. “Migrant workers come to the cities for work, not to live in underserviced, overpopulated slums,” Sinha tells me on the phone. And yet when cities are being planned, migrant workers remain underconsulted, their perspectives unconsidered.

Sinha tells me that “street vendors will work where livelihood is available; there is a logic to where they set up stalls and decide to work.” But this “logic” is rarely engaged with the development of low-cost housing, “which is scarce, and when it exists, it is often far outside the bounds of the city, making it unviable for a working population.” Street food vendors cannot regularly transport half-prepared goods on their carts from many kilometers away, Sinha notes. So they live in unregistered dwellings, in JJCs or slums, whatever gives them the most economic viability and proximity to their work. Sinha also tells me how city planning in India and the Global South often tends to “emulate the North.” Urban planning tends to lean toward building international cities based on sparsity and synthetic ideas of cleanliness, which are unsustainable concepts that ignore the aesthetic and functional needs of the Indian subcontinent.

Krishnendu Ray, director of the doctoral program in food studies at New York University, tells me that “the idea that the sparse cities (of the Global North) with their empty roads and monumental architecture are the best ways to organize the future haunts planners in the South, and also subjects (like us).” Ray notes how these ideas make “human beings irrelevant,” and that in India, cars and highways remain central in city planning, but not street activity, which is a primary facet of everyday life. He also tells me how migrant street food vendors, like all migrant workers, are “quintessential modern subjects,” whose needs should be made central to urban futures from the moment of ideation. “Street vendors and informal workers are the most attuned to the nodes, flows, and frictions of a city. Attributing ‘marginality’ to them takes away their centrality and significance. We must think with them, not for them,” Ray says.

Foot traffic abounds by Dariba Kalan, a Delhi street famous for jewelry shops.
 

“IT IS A MAGIC trick,” Mithun Kumar tells me as we stand near the entrance of Sarojini Nagar, one of Delhi’s most crowded thrift markets. Around us, young women bicker over colors of kurtas, mother-daughter duos coerce vendors to lower prices, and thousands of people make their way through the market, buying clothes and jewelry, stopping to try on footwear and drink cold drinks. In Sarojini Nagar are thousands of street vendors who sell clothes, trinkets, and food. Every day, millions of people visit, creating a huge central point of economic activity in this South Delhi neighborhood; and where people come to shop, the street vendors play a key role, feeding both clientele and workers every day.

Kumar runs a small cart selling chaat (savory snacks) in the corner of the street with his brother Golu. His mother, Kanchan Devi, sells samosas near the shop and supervises both operations. When he talks of the “magic trick,” he is referring to the arrival of the truck from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, or MCD. “Look around: it’s so busy. But as soon as they come, everyone will make a run for it. It’s really like magic,” he says. I know the instance Kumar describes too well. The chant of “MCD Wale aa gaye!—MCD has arrived!” is a call to action that I have witnessed as a consumer on the street throughout my life. I remember how, at the arrival of the officials’ vehicle, hawkers would coordinate looks and dismantle their stalls in less than twenty seconds, making a run for it. Binding their goods in cloth, they would shoo away customers, telling them to come back in twenty minutes or offering erratic discounts and quick advertisements in songs or rhyme.

As if on command, an MCD truck arrives as Kumar and I talk and drink lemon sodas near his stall. It is an open jeep, and two tall, broad-shouldered young men stand in its bed, shouting at vendors as the driver speeds through the streets. As the shouting gets closer, the sellers surrounding Kumar’s stall begin the routine scramble that defines their lives. A pair of teenagers selling momos (dumplings) near us pick up their small plastic table and steamers and sprint to the end of the street. An old man leaves his bhel puri (snack mix) cart under a younger man’s watch and hobbles into a shop where he pretends to drink tea. An elderly woman in a sari empties her samosas into a big bag and leaves her small bamboo basket on the road. The officials begin to scan the street, to see from whom they can extort money. “This is the system,” the younger of the men tells me. When I ask them what they are doing, they say, “Dakhal na dein—Don’t interfere.”

The relationship of the MCD and Delhi police with the vendors is definitive. These men are mediators, authorities, wielding control over the fates of the vendors on the street. To negotiate a space, street vendors pay a hafta, or weekly fee, to the MCD, which then grants them legislative permission, but only with routine intimidation. Additionally, vendors pay money to the police for “protection,” Kumar tells me, “to avoid being chased off the street.”

Kumar is unfazed by the current raid. I ask how he remains calm while the rest of the market is in such a flurry, and he tells me he is a member of NASVI, the National Association of Street Vendors of India, a union that extends through the country and assists street vendors to demand their rights. His mother, Kanchan Devi, an integral member of the union, taught him not to be afraid. Quoting her, Kumar says, “Haq jatana hai toh haq jaanna hoga—You need to know your rights if you have to fight for them.”

Even though the harassment of street vendors suggests some illegality on their part, they are, by law, within their rights to operate as they do. Protests and initiatives by NASVI and other unions have led to legislations that provide security to street vendors. In 2014, the “Central Act,” formally titled the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act based on Article 21 of the Constitution of India, provided street vendors with the right to work with dignity. Under the act, Town Vending Committees (which could be made up of street vendors themselves) are empowered to identify and allocate vending zones in a city. Additionally, vendors were to be granted legitimacy through certification, and in future renditions of city planning, their presence was to be seen as instrumental and primary. However, despite these claims and progressive laws, little has been done to survey and implement these measures. Despite efforts by NASVI to better these working conditions, nine years since the legislation, street food vendors still live in conditions of great uncertainty and are often evicted from their place of work at regulatory whim.

In Sarojini Nagar, I ask more than twelve vendors around the market if they have been granted certificates, and all of them answer no. Near them, large malls are being built, and they fear they will be cleared out soon. They also tell me that they face threats from wealthy shop owners. “They often tip off the committees about us,” says a vendor named Pritam Singh, who sells moong dal pakoras near Kumar. “We don’t have ‘legitimacy’ like these shops, but their rent is beyond imagination.” Singh tells me that everyone shops at street vendors because they provide affordable prices for food and other goods. “Who can really afford food from malls every day?” he adds. Kumar tells me how the tip-offs to MCD and others dent the earnings of these daily wage earners. “An already low income is sliced between sending money home to the village, escalating rent, sustenance, and then a large part goes to paying the police and authorities. For street vendors, there is no way to think about savings, health, and other things,” he says. “Even a short family trip or an evening off is beyond our wildest dreams.”

Street vendors prepare intricate snacks for passersby.
 

 

IF HOMEMAKING IS difficult for street food vendors, the streets, their primary place of work, are no less difficult. A Muslim woman vendor from Jharkhand tells me that she fears working on the streets in India’s political climate of rampant Islamophobia. “Some days when my husband comes to the stall, some younger men pelt him with faith-based slurs,” she says. “It makes me scared, and sad, like I don’t belong.” To many, the streets are a place of agency away from the oppressive conditions of manual labor and the exploitative workforce, but they are far from ideal, filled with surveillance based on faith, caste, and gender, with thorny obstacles at each bend. Recently, Baviskar writes, “the specter of Muslim terrorist infiltrators from Bangladesh has become a potent weapon to harass Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants in the city.”

In Taimur Nagar, some ten kilometers from Sarojini Nagar, I watch as Annu Thapa rolls a ball of dough to make momos. Her husband works near her, cutting carrots into thin slivers for fried rice and arranging bottles of chili sauce on the tables in their open kitchen. Thapa, a Nepalese-Gorkha migrant from Darjeeling, runs Annu Aunty Veg Momos out of a small, rented room off the main road, with a sign outside. Before the pandemic, Thapa sold momos from the street, half-cooked at home and steamed to order. “But it was polluted since this road is always jammed with traffic, which affected the momos,” she says. “And so I moved to this room. I want to offer my customers good, clean food.” But her rent for the room has increased erratically, and even now she is routinely extorted by neighboring shop owners, landlords, and the MCD to stay in business.

Thapa’s conundrum is a common one. Even if street food vendors wish to leave the street for aspirations of better food safety, renting a room can be impossible to afford or can land them in debt (as it has Thapa). “The burden of food safety and hygiene is unfairly on vendors,” Sinha notes. She tells me how they are asked to go through hygiene checks and food security regulations—“but if your roof leaks, and you do not have easy access to clean water, how can you promise to produce flawlessly clean food?” she asks.

Both Ray and Sinha point to the fact that most street food is part of a household economy, in which entire families participate, an economy that creates millions of jobs every day. “The food being sold on the street is made at home. It is a family operation engaging both women and children,” Ray says. And so, for vendors like Thapa, the line between home and workplace is blurred; both leak into each other, and both need to be secured. “Housing is not [just] protection from the elements,” Ray continues. “For it to be ‘home’ for informal workers, it needs more infrastructural investment and thought than usually assigned.”

The food being sold on the street is made at home. It is a family operation.

 

WHEN I WAS AWAY from Delhi, I missed food from back home very little. But every day, I thought of the foods that crowded the corners of my neighborhood. I craved standing around my favorite spots in the city, glaring at those who cut in line to take the fresher samosas. I remembered waiting for my friends at our favorite momo spots outside metro stations—always places that nest the city’s young. For consumers of street cuisine like me, pleasure in our hometowns often derives from these stalls that dot them. Their vendors and workers are local icons, keepers of histories, and attentive friends to their customers. In Delhi, they are also spaces of rest in a city that runs at a terrifying Technicolor pace, blips of pause that allow the citizens of this spiraling, ferocious cosmopolis to occasionally take a breath. As Ray puts it, street food vendors “are places of hospitality in inhospitable cities.” Food carts serving hot, colorful, sugary treats are dynamic alcoves of care.

However, even though these foods and the people who cook them uphold the country’s culinary cultures, the people are treated with utmost neglect. Even though the resilience and ingenuity of street food vendors are often summoned to decorate India’s image, the vendors are seldom acknowledged but are offered a brutal market as a site to try to attain successful business. Their value is determined only by defeating a barrage of financial and social obstacles.

In 2020, when cities shut down and the informal economy was suspended in the middle of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s plight became international news as millions of migrant workers—workers like Das, Yadav, Kumar, Singh, and Thapa—were made jobless, forced to leave cities and walk across the country. In the “migrant exodus” that commenced, millions carried their possessions, children, and whatever food they could manage in harsh weather to head someplace they could call home. Why—commentators asked during the time—would they choose to walk thousands of miles during a deadly pandemic instead of staying where they are? If a place needs to be abandoned at the time of most urgent need, was it ever a viable shelter in the first place? Could it be called home at all?

In a country desperate for economic growth under competitive capitalism, the towering specters of urban India and material plasticine dreams for the elite are built on the erasure of these migrants. Even today, cities remain codified in hierarchies of nativity and power. They belong only to those who reap their benefits. Housing is unaffordable, and effective social support is still absent. Despite efforts by activists, lawyers, and residents’ unions of informal settlements all over India, and in Delhi especially, the demolitions of informal settlements continue with a frightening constancy. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government might point fingers at the demolitions of the 1990s and 2000s, which occurred under their rival Congress Party, but under their regime, entire neighborhoods, especially of working-class Muslims, remain a target of sudden destruction. Then, and now, demolitions and evictions follow the only logic summoned when addressing poverty in India: to silence and to render the working majorities entirely unseen.

To the millions of migrants who cook Delhi’s street food, “home” is still the place they leave, not where they live. As Singh told me after a quick lunch at Sarojini Nagar, home is an idea, one etched with childhood memories and his mother’s voice, which still lives in his dreams. “Right now, I am a ghost,” he says. “Because I worry so much, and have no place to rest, I feel like a ghost.” Singh dreams of renting his own room, without strangers as roommates, so he can bring his brothers to the city. Invoking the oft uttered South Asian metaphor about families, he says: “Ghar deewaron se nahi, logon se banta hai—Home is built not from walls but from people we love.” He adds, “But who has the right to that? Only the rich? Do they forget that we have preferences too?” As the market bursts with its evening customers, Singh tells me that, right now, his life is guzaara, or an act of passing time. But one day, he will be with his family, and he will be home. “Then there will be aaram—there will be rest,” he says. “And I will laugh with my brothers before I drift off to sleep.”


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Kabir Naik is a documentary filmmaker based in Delhi