Why this sudden ban, what do we do: anguished Gujarat food vendors

While Monday's directive was to remove non-vegetarian food carts, the crackdown on Tuesday was tagged an "anti-encroachment drive", with authorities seizing carts, chairs and other paraphernalia.

On Tuesday, Ram Udgar Gosai, 33, took several rounds on his scooter to the roadside spot where he usually did business, unsure whether to open his egg stall or not.

It is close to sundown, and the Estate and Town Development Department of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has already removed around 50 food stalls in five areas of the city — Jodhpur, Maninagar, Vastrapur, Ashram Road and Behrampura.

“There are usually around 10-12 egg stalls here at this hour. No one has come today. Everyone is scared. We got to know that the authorities have seized 11 carts from Vastrapur this afternoon,” says the migrant from Madhubani in Bihar who made Ahmedabad his home 20 years ago. At his stall in the Thaltej area of the city, he employs three boys who cook a variety of egg dishes.

While Monday’s directive was to remove non-vegetarian food carts, the crackdown on Tuesday was tagged an “anti-encroachment drive”, with authorities seizing carts, chairs and other paraphernalia.

In another part of the city, a 20-year-old migrant from Varanasi sits by the roadside, waiting to hear from his “seth” on whether to open the egg stall. “I came here two months ago and started working at this stall. My uncle, who has been in Ahmedabad for 15 years, got me to the city. But if I lose this job, I have no clue what to do next,” says the college dropout.

On Tuesday, amid anxieties over the crackdown on food stalls, especially those selling non-vegetarian food, state BJP president C R Paatil on Tuesday said people are entitled to eat what they want and “nobody can stop them”.

“No one has taken such a decision… There is no legal ban on them… There are two types of people in the country: those who eat vegetarian food and those who eat non-vegetarian food. It is their right to eat what they want and nobody can stop them. If they (food stall or lorry owners) don’t maintain hygiene, they can face appropriate action. But BJP will never think of stopping them or removing them. They are poor people whose lives depend on this. We will try to help them no matter who it is, selling whatever.”

On a brightly lit street in Tandalja, a minority-dominated area in Vadodara, skewers of kebabs go in and out of the tandoors placed by the road, next to platters of keema samosas, fried fish and chicken lollipops, and counters of shawarma.

Last week, vendors selling non-vegetarian food in the city were warned to “cover the food” within 15 days or face eviction, a directive that got watered down following the row over the removal of food carts.

As food delivery boys wait at the stalls, one of the customers said, “I don’t think it is possible to ban these vendors. This is the only nightlife we have in this city. These carts have been here for years. Like me, many Hindu customers crave for authentic non-vegetarian food. These vendors are just doing their business and they should be left alone.”

The owner of one of the stalls, who did not want to be identified, said that for vendors like him, already hit hard by the pandemic and lockdowns, these directives have added to their troubles. “My youngest son could not join a fashion designing course at a university this year because I couldn’t afford the fee. We had already spent a lot for my brother’s Covid19 treatment… Just as things were beginning to look up comes this controversy. Why do they make rules without thinking of people?” he says.

Another stall owner says, “Nowadays, people prefer to order in. As you can see, the crowd near most of the stalls is of food delivery agents. How can we simply move away from a place where we have been for years.”

While things have been quiet in Vadodara after the initial crackdown, vendors are anxious over a visit to the area last Friday by VMC officials.

One of the vendors, who usually sells tandoori kebabs, has kept his skewers covered for the day — “don’t want to take a chance”. Originally from Uttar Pradesh but whose three generations have lived in Gujarat, he says, “My father set up this cart and later I took over. My son is now 16. I hope he studies well and does something better. He can open a proper restaurant later if he becomes a big man.”

Back in Ahmedabad’s Thaltej, after another desperate trip to his stall, Gosai has finally decided it’s safer to keep it shut. “But I don’t understand… Why this sudden ban? What should we do now? Do the authorities realise how many people earn a livelihood from this one stall — from the person who supplies eggs to the boys who work here? Will the government provide jobs to all of them?”

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