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Archive for March, 2010

Bandra Bandstand

Yesterday, I went with my family to the spot at Bandra Bandstand (in Mumbai) where the bhelpuri walas have stood with their carts for as long as I can remember (oral history has it that the row of carts at the very same spot goes back at least 50 years, predating most of today’s local residents and visitors who come for the promenade). After a long day in town we were hungry for a snack, and it took no more than a minute to agree that bhelpuri would be our last stop before hitting home. Bhelpuri – from the same vendor from whom we have eaten for the last 38 years – was our regular fix, and the quintessential way to celebrate being back in Bombay after enjoying spring in Jaipur and before gearing up to take on the summer in Chennai.

We drove up and down the 50 odd feet of road and couldn’t sight “our” bhelpuri cart, nor indeed any other food cart. It was surreal. We have lived in Bandstand for 38 years and have never seen such a sight. The stretch of road was squeaky clean. But it was also missing its soul. There was clearly something terribly wrong. We stopped at M’s stall nearby, and I stepped out to ask. M is a smartie who has managed to grab prime seashore land that he regularly extends sideways and frontways, for which he pays off the police and municipality to thrive as a vendor of cold drinks/chips/bread/ghutka/hot snacks and, the rumour goes, other forms of exotic entertainment as well. The man behind the counter, barely tall enough to be seen, sneered at me in reply, “They’ve all been driven out by the police”. “But where have they gone?” I repeated uncomprehendingly, sounding stupid and hollow even to my own ears. “When did all this happen? They were here when I last came by.” “Ten days ago. The police came and told them all to go home and rest.” When I burst out indignantly, “How can they go “home” and “rest”? How will they feed themselves?!” he looked away, distinctly fatigued, and continued to attend to his customer. I also caught the look in his eyes which said, “Hey, its people like you that don’t want those carts here. So who are you to be talking?”

I walked out of the shop, feeling disoriented. I knew that after decades of paying up hefty bribes because he did not have a municipal license to ply his food cart – because the municipality said its “hawker” quota was full – our man had, just last year, negotiated a license. For this, he had spent 4 lakh rupees – liquidating savings, borrowing more, selling off land in U.P.. He had looked confident and jaunty when he announced to me that he was now “legal”. And that he could start to plan how to save money for his school-going daughter’s computer studies.

Needing our bhelpuri fix, my family and I then drove on to Elco Arcade on Hill Road. But the zing had gone out of our snack. The fact is that every day, millions of hawkers in the city of Mumbai are making complex negotiations to be able to bring food to their families and dream dreams for their children’s futures. Some emerge victors in working the system. Like M. Or the Elco man who made the leap from hawker to busy restaurant. But the majority – like our bhelpuri-wala – permanently teeter on the brink of survival. A few years ago, our local citizens’ group tried to get the municipality to work with us to create a public space on the sea front where food carts of long standing could be relocated for public access, in an aesthetically-designed and hygienic environment. But the municipality wasn’t interested; it spoke only of blanket “hawking zones”, and refused to specify what this would mean for our area. So, when our municipal ward office called a meeting of local citizens and the hawkers’ association, I as a representative of our citizens group was among those opposed to Bandstand being declared a “hawking zone”. I had felt wretched at that meeting, to be weighing the ambience of my environment against the livelihood of those hawkers. But all I could visualize was a nightmare scenario of Bandstand overrun by mushrooming bazaars, hopelessly mired in squalour and over-crowding.

The day after this episode, I read in the TOI that the Governor of the state had announced that it was time that Bombay was fashioned into a “global city”. Did becoming global mean that those who are legally local lose legitimacy? Other Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have found ways to frame city zoning laws that harmonize the supreme importance for all of having clean clutter-free streets, with the economic aspirations of street vendors at the bottom of the pyramid, and the desire of people to eat street foods. How can we as citizens organize to effectively demand that the State, in consultation with us, plan for the inevitability of urban expansion and avoid urban sprawl? After all, this is a country where half the population has no escape from carving out a life on the streets. The ‘street’, in turn, contributes so much value and colour to our domestic comfort and public culture. Why must aspirational struggles between hawkers and middle class citizens take routes that result in either violent assaults on well-meaning civic activists like Nayana Kathpalia by unscrupulous hawkers, or the rout of hawkers as in Bandstand?

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