The end of Delhi’s street culture?

I was saddened but entirely unsurprised to see in a recent BBC report that Delhi’s excellent street hawkers were being evicted before the Commonwealth Games. With grinding monotony it seems that vegetable sellers, cobblers, presswallahs, hawkers and other undesirables that the city depend on are being moved off – often despite applying for licenses that never come.

According to the National Association of Street Vendors, Delhi has something like 350000 hawkers that sell their wares on the streets. Most live a hand-to-mouth existence and, if they are the main breadwinners in families of perhaps five people, the economic fallout from a large section of Delhi’s working class will be enormous.

The streetwallah’s plight follows Delhi’s drive to evict as many beggars and ‘undesirables’ from the city as it can. Andrew Buncombe’s piece for the Independent here is worth reading.

Earlier this year I read a fascinating book, Trickster City; an anthology of writings from the ‘belly of the metropolis’ by young, working class writers dealing with slum life and eviction. A voice rarely heard – an almost Dickensian cityscape rarely seen by Westerners and desperate to be hidden by the State authorities.

The irony is that many countries celebrate their street culture – especially food – and make them a tourist attraction: one has only to think of Singapore and Vietnam. Delhi’s depressing desire to imitate a corporate driven monoculture is certain to lead to a lessening of the city’s heritage.

My images start with Kishori Lal and his family. Lal, a tailor from Rajasthan, set up his little stall outside the wall of a ‘big man’ twenty two years ago. He takes up the story: “There was no footpath here then. The tree that you see on the footpath is standing on a narrow strip of land between two sewage lines that run underneath. I asked the maali (gardener) to plant it there and got
the sapling for him. If I have any trouble, the Saheb helps me out. After so many years here, like this tree I have also taken roots in Delhi. But who belongs to this place? Even the sahibs are from outside.”

India - New Delhi - Kishori Lal, a tailor and his family under an Ashoka tree

India - Delhi - A paan wallah making paan in Old Delhi. Paan consists of chewing Betel leaf (Piper betle) combined with the areca nut. It is chewed as a palate cleanser and a breath freshener. It is also commonly offered to guests and visitors as a sign of hospitality and as an "ice breaker" to start conversation. It also has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in south and southeast Asia. Paan makers may use mukhwas or tobacco as an ingredient in their paan fillings. Although most types of paan contain areca nuts as a filling, some do not. Other types include what is called sweet paan, where sugar, candied fruit and fennel seeds are used.

India - Delhi - A street vendor frying potato cakes on a stall

India - Delhi - A street vendor frying potato cakes on a stall

India - Delhi - A Chai Wallah or tea maker makes tea in Old Delhi, India. Traditionally Indian tea is a mixture of tea leaves, water, sugar and sometimes spices boiled together and strained into cups

India - Delhi - A man eats a plate of street food

India - Delhi - A man eats street food bought from a hawker

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