The Supreme Court of India has recently issued a ban on street cooking in New Delhi on the grounds that the unhygienic conditions lead to health hazards and add to city mess. It is an unfortunate ruling and must be reconsidered.
Delhi without street food is like New York without falafel carts: uncharacteristic and bland.
I, and I’m far from alone in this, deeply opposethis ruling. Roadside food was an integral part of my broke college days in the city – one could step off campus and get an affordable on-the-go meal, which was more delicious than the food you got in many restaurants.
Even today, thousands of people rely on street carts for their daily meals. Take a walk around any busy market during lunchtime and you’ll see eager crowds gathered around carts devouring local dishes for a reasonable sum, costing anywhere between 10-15 Rupees, roughly twenty to thirty cents. It’s food for the average man who cannot afford to eat anywhere else in a city like Delhi.
Chandni Chowk – a busy market in the heart of what’s called Old-Delhi – is a food lover’s delight. Every few steps there is a cart selling steaming hot favorites that attracts the common man, tourists and even celebrities, and many come from far off just to get a mouthful of the delectable deep-fried specialties. But all that is now going to be a thing of the past, if the order is enforced.
Not only that, the ban threatens to take away the livelihood of 300,000-odd hawkers who earn a living by cooking and selling hot food, many of who’ve moved to Delhi from far-off villages to send money to family back home. Some have been doing this for generations and are now at a complete and utter loss, not knowing what to do to earn a living.
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) explains that Delhi, with its burgeoning population of 15 million, needs to prepare for the Commonwealth Games, to be held here in 2010. This is a step in that direction. The government is keen to improve Delhi’s image as well as its hygiene standards and it insists that the order would lead to a cleaner city and also reduce the number of Delhi-Bellycases – a popular expression for an upset stomach, used mostly for tourists who visit the city.
I differ, and here’s why. First, if hygiene is such a concern then the verdict does little to better that, since the ban is on roadside cooking, not selling. So, in effect, the food can be cooked at home – the conditions under which this would be done are obviously unknown – and then sold. So what could earlier be bought freshly cooked from a cart will now have been cooked hours in advance. How that is a healthier option?
Second, what is to say that selling packed food would not create a mess? Plastic and paper disposable plates and utensils will still be used, which, if not disposed off properly, will add to the filth in the city. Instead of applying a blanket ban on cooking and hoping that would solve the problem, there needs to be a change in the approach. One solution – and obvious one – would be to lay down strict cleanliness laws, the flouting of which would lead to heavy fines. To simply and blindly ban is not the answer.
I cannot imagine a Delhi without its street vendors, without the carts selling simmering, mouth-watering egg sandwiches and deep fried snacks, I could not have got through undergraduate school without them. These hawkers are an important element of the city’s culture and if they leave, they will take a part of my youth, my college days with them.
Editor’s Note: New Delhi isn’t the only city cleaning up its act for an international event and an influx of foreign visitors. Spot-on’s Jonathan Ansfield’s written about the Chinese preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games here.