The unorganised sector operates at many different levels but a large part of it consists of daily wage earners, of people who make a little money during the day and then feed their families with that money every evening. If they don’t make that money, then their families go hungry
Almost every one of us will be affected by the current Corona virus crisis. Even those of us who avoid getting infected will see some reverses in our lives. The economy, already in recession, will go into free-fall over the next few months. Businesses will close. Jobs will be lost. Even those of us lucky enough to hold on to work may find our salaries reduced.
In some sectors, the devastation will be widespread. Hotels are running at under 15 per cent occupancy. Cinemas have been closed. Night clubs will be shut down. Restaurants are either running empty or are being forced to down their shutters by the authorities. The airline industry is battling for its survival.
My heart goes out to all to those employed in these businesses and sectors – and frankly, to nearly everybody else too, because this crisis will have some impact on every industry – but there is one sector that I feel particularly bad about: the so-called unorganised sector.
Most of India’s workforce is in the unorganised sector. The plumber and carpenter who come to your house to fix things are part of the unorganised sector. So is the guy who sells balloons at traffic lights. And so are most farmers.
The unorganised sector operates at many different levels but a large part of it consists of daily wage earners, of people who make a little money during the day and then feed their families with that money every evening. If they don’t make that money, then their families go hungry.
As bad as I feel about the hotels that are making losses, the airlines that face closure and everybody who loses a job, it is the daily wage earners I feel the worst about. If a rickshaw driver makes no money, then he can probably hold on for a week or so. But after that, his children starve.
My particular area of interest among daily wage earners has always been the street food sector. Partly this is because I think that the best food in India is on the streets. But mostly it is because I feel that we don’t do enough to value our street food hawkers. In such places as Singapore, they get Michelin stars and are offered facilities by the government. In Bangkok, the Tourism Authority publicises them as one of the city’s main attractions. In the West, the food truck phenomenon has its roots in the street food tradition. Many famous American dishes started out as street foods: chilli con carne, hot dogs, hamburgers, etc.
But in India, governments treat street food vendors as the lowest form of human life. They are shaken down by municipal officials, terrorised by local mafias and robbed blind by corrupt policemen. Most of them barely eke out a living.
For something like a decade now I have helped the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) in any way I can to try and make life easier for vendors. NASVI and Sangeeta Singh have worked hard to protect and promote street food vendors. Each year, it organises a street food festival in Delhi which draws vendors from all over India.
Last year, along with Culinary Culture, we became part of the festival (though the FSSAI was the primary sponsor) and continued our year-long search for the best street food vendors in India. I had travelled extensively trying the top street food places in India but for the final awards, we got a panel of great chefs (Manish Mehrotra, Ritu Dalmia and Vikramjeet Roy) to visit the stalls and judge the vendors.
The chefs were thrilled and the vendors were excited. On the last day of the festival, we gave out awards to the best street food guys.
Now, I am no stranger to food award functions. Not all of them are rigged affairs where you are charged for your awards. But many are. And generally, the audience is composed of the same faces who buy the same awards each year. So, it was humbling and enriching to give awards to the street food superstars, most of whom had received no recognition in their lives, let alone an award. Many wept openly on stage. Some touched Sangeeta’s feet in gratitude. And I was so moved that my eyes misted over.
We will do the awards again this year. And we are working out if we can give cash awards – the money will make a huge difference to their lives.
Given this background, you will understand why, during this crisis, my heart goes out to India’s street food vendors. Along with other daily wage earners, they face ruin and their families will starve if the crisis persists and people stop eating street food out of some paranoia that the corona virus and chaat are united.
My endeavour has been to try and help chaat wallahs during this crisis whenever I can. If I see a vendor without customers, I order two plates of what he is selling. I am greedy so I always eat the first plate. After that I look for a needy or hungry person who I can give the second plate to. If no one is around, I tell the vendor not to bother to make the second plate but to keep the money anyway.
I thought I would encourage others on Twitter to do the same. I tweeted:
“I feel bad for everyone in the food business during this crisis.
But worst hit are poor street food vendors whose families go hungry when business collapses.
Do what I do. When you see a vendor, buy two plates of what he is making.
You don’t have to eat it. But help him make a living.”
The response was heartening. The tweet had over 1000 likes in one hour. In 24 hours it had 7500 likes. Many people responded to say that they supported the initiative. Many people with large Twitter followings (Richa Chaddha, Suniel Shetty. Chitrangada Singh, etc) retweeted my tweet.
I was proud of the compassion we had demonstrated as a society.
Then, after three hours, a strange thing happened. A string of tweets from anonymous no bio/no DP /under-five follower accounts hit my timeline. Some said that street vendors were actually very well off and deserved nothing. One guy said that he worked in an IT company. He earned less than these rich street food vendors. So who gave a damn about them? Others posted photos of dirty spaces and said that these were taken at street food places.
A second wave attacked me for promoting waste. Why had I said to throw away the food? I had said no such thing. But the attacks kept coming.
I looked up the bios. Most were obvious bots which suggested that some troll factory had organised a campaign against street food vendors. Some others were from guys who described themselves using such phrases as ‘true Hindu’ or ‘hate sickulars’.
I tweeted back to one or two of them that their leader was (rightly) proud of being a chaiwallah. Did they not see the nobility in supplying food and drink to citizens, no matter how humble the level of the transaction?
I had so many thousands of likes that I don’t suppose the bots and trolls (under 100; probably less) should matter. But I remain intrigued. Why should Right Wing troll farms attack poor street vendors in such abusive and untruthful terms? Surely supporters of the PM should be sympathetic to the poor vendors?
I have no answer. I gave up trying to figure out the motives of trolls and those who run bot-factories a long time ago.
But it does reflect a current Indian reality. The majority of us are compassionate and decent. But there is a vocal minority that specialises in lies and mindless hatred.. And it is not a random thing. This is organised hatred.
Twitter is an isolated, toxic, manipulated environment of its own. The real world is not necessarily like that. And it is in the real world that most of us have stood up for those less fortunate. In the difficult weeks ahead it is that goodwill and compassion that will keep India united.