Walking to a street food vendor, just the way one would walk into a quality restaurant, worrying little about the quality of food is still a farfetched dream in India. Unless in countries like Paris, Italy and New York where street dining is highly regularised and holds a quality of not less than any high-end restaurant, India still stands behind in the queue of hygiene and quality. However, India still tops the list of countries famous for its street food.
In India, street food means a little more than chaat and golgappas, it’s a cultural mix of emotions, childhood and definitely not restricted to any specific income strata. But, while for the majority street food is about snacking, for those who belong to lower-income strata, street food is about sustenance.
Most street-food vendors cater to labourers, daily-wage earners and people in the not-so-organised sectors, who are too poor to afford to eat at dhabas. Keeping it low in cost, the cleanliness factor is generally ignored. The government on the other hand have been coming up with several policies and regulations since time the early 2000s, but the tangibility of those efforts is hardly felt.
Tracking the major concern
In a report ‘A penetrating glance at Street Foods in India’, a joint study was conducted on street foods in three cities, namely, Delhi, Calcutta and Gauhati. The study was a joint venture of the Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Sciences (AFNS) and Social Sciences (SS) divisions, of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, South Asia Regional Office, and New Delhi, India. The report here states that the objections raised for street food vendors are mainly traffic obstruction, availability of unhygienic food threatening health, and land encroachment and, also, unsightliness.
There is a fixed amount of annual licensing fee charged based on the type of hawker and food sold. According to the Municipal authorities in Delhi the number of unlicensed vendors far exceeded those with licenses. As quoted by an MCD officer, "the entire gamut of vendor problems should be dealt with by one organisation and not piecemeal by different offices". To date, no decision has been taken on this issue. This probably accounts for the fact that many
unlicensed vendors are presently operating. Whatever the reason, the ultimate result of the situation is an uncontrolled increase in the number of unlicensed vendors.
Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ban on the sale of cooked food on Delhi's streets and pavements, however, it was just a matter of time although the decision was on the basis of making the street food business more organised. Listening to the other side, many of the 10 million people selling food and goods in India say they have to pay weekly bribes to stay in business.
In 2012, the government announced that the street food vendors in India will soon be required to meet a set of sanitation regulations.
Where have we reached?
“Eating on the street is a unique experience in India, and many restaurants follow the theme to provide the street dining experience. A growing number of people are experimenting with food and appreciating the range of flavours available. There is a long way to go when it comes to the street dining experience, it has a huge potential that can be tapped if the sector is regulated,” Satyajeet Dhochak of Wings Hospitality said.
It is imperative that authorities take appropriate measures to safeguard public health. It is also desirable that those who sell food on the streets adhere to basic standards of hygiene, after all, there is nothing romantic about succumbing to disease after indulging in an irresistible street meal.
However, these days people are more cautious about health and hygiene, thus choosing a place where food is prepared in a hygienic way. This raises the hope that unhygienic street food carts will automatically be eliminated due to no demand.
“It's just beginning as lots of street vendors are now registered with food license and online aggregators. It's a highly untapped segment and has lots of potentials to strengthen the economy of states and countries, with that it will also help in serving quality food to the customers,” founder of 36Lebzelter, Deepak Purohit commented.
How far we have come?
Today, there are an estimated 50 to 60 lakh street vendors in India, with the largest concentrations in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Ahmedabad. Most of them are migrants who typically work for 10 to12 hours every day on average.
The concerns of street vendors have so far been seen from a limited lens. The primary objective of policymakers has been to provide a secure location for vending and improve their working conditions. While these approaches are valid, it is time for developing a deeper understanding of the micro-enterprise itself, its competitive characteristics and fundamental disadvantages. Customer segment and pricing, inventory management, buyer behaviour and preferences, service reliability, product quality and consistency, food safety and packaging - are just some of the issues that need to be addressed to help street vendors emerge as viable growth-oriented enterprises.
Now after the Covid, there is a dynamic change in people's preference in standing and eating street food. “People need time to understand the concept of street dining and what all good it brings. There is a lot of scope for improvisation and change to be made. According to the industry, this street food has never looked like an organized business but now as the coming generation is more curious and inquisitive about what’s new. The street dining concept is setting a benchmark with adapting and opening a QSR format i.e. waiting for long and long hours to get their first meal or snack won't be a problem,” Surjit Singh, Co-Founder of Food Bus of India said.
Singh has interestingly gauged this opportunity, with a launch of a new concept that provides the street dining experience in an organised manner. Toying with the idea of taking restaurants to the open road is surely going to be a game-changer for Indian hospitality as it comes with various benefits for the current and aspiring small-medium restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. This new street dining concept is witnessing immense acceptance from youngsters, college students, and families. “We are sure the coming five years will change the face of QSR and the street food business,” Singh strongly believed.
Going forward, for innovators and entrepreneurs, this is a new business model which needs to be established, myths to be broken and promises to be achieved. After all, the opportunity with 60 lakh street vendors in India can by no means be a small-scale business.