Lindsay Pereira: Feeding the city on greased palms

By  Lindsay Pereira | Posted  11-Mar-2017

Out of the hundreds of food stalls in the city, how many are legal and how many exist solely by the virtue of what someone is being paid?

Even if every stall outside every railway station were to be legal, consider the kind of wisdom that makes it okay for someone to sell fried food in vats of boiling oil at a place frequented by thousands of people at any point of the day. Representation picEven if every stall outside every railway station were to be legal, consider the kind of wisdom that makes it okay for someone to sell fried food in vats of boiling oil at a place frequented by thousands of people at any point of the day. Representation pic

A little over a year-and-a-half ago, the locality I live in woke up to a fairly large snack stall at the corner. It appeared overnight as if by magic, with an electricity connection, signboards, menu and rudimentary seating arrangements. Almost instantly, driving out of the street onto the arterial road became a problem. Rickshaws began to stop at all hours for junk food. They would be joined by passers-by as the days wore on, all stopping for snacks at a place where, not long ago, there was nothing to obstruct residents from getting out without a fuss.

A little over six months ago, the snack stall on the street was joined by a smaller stall right opposite, selling grilled meat. It started with just a wooden table, but quickly evolved into a more elaborate setup with printed menus and a dedicated following of regulars who, naturally, parked their bikes unevenly to make a difficult situation worse. A stall like this would never appear in South Bombay, of course, because most of the residents there only eat meat on holidays abroad, and must zealously propagate the myth of vegetarianism at home.

A little over two weeks ago, the snack stall and meat grill were joined by a smaller stall selling boiled and fried eggs. I don’t know how the gentleman selling them thought this to be a good idea, considering how narrow the street has always been, but this hasn’t stopped him from setting up shop like clockwork every day from 6 pm until midnight. No one has asked him to move either, because, if you haven’t noticed, no one in the city is ever asked to move.

We “adjust”, from the day we are born, until our loved ones bribe a clerk for a death certificate to mark our passing.

The men and women running these dubious stalls on my street know what thousands of others have known for decades - if you pay the right person a small amount of money, you will be left alone to do business. If you choose to do so legally, you will simply have to pay more. It’s why someone I know, who has been trying to run a legal catering business from a suburb, is considering shutting down and doing something else instead. Apparently, he can be hauled up for not obtaining a special licence granted to restaurants which choose to have backlit signboards. To put things into perspective: A separate licence if you want backlights announcing the name of your restaurant on the one hand, and a licence-free existence in the middle of any street you choose on the other, provided you pay up. It’s easy to see why so many people simply choose to pay up.

Take a walk outside any railway station of your choice, anywhere in the city. Try and figure out which of the hundreds of men and women cooking all kinds of things are supposed to be there, and which ones are there by virtue of what they’re paying someone. Even if every stall outside every railway station were to be legal, consider the kind of wisdom that makes it okay for someone to sell fried food in vats of boiling oil at a place frequented by thousands of people at any given point of the day. If there hasn’t been a horrible accident yet, it is simply a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Footpaths don’t exist at these places. They are controlled by illegal stall owners, compelling the rest of us to weave through traffic, parents and children in tow, just because someone, somewhere, has been paid.

The intelligent men and women who supposedly manage - I use the word loosely, of course - our city, intend to open it up to commerce at night. They want restaurants to function all the time, because that is what ‘all global cities’ do, apparently. Their many ‘study tours’ to these global cities clearly haven’t taught them anything about how food must be prepared and sold in a city as densely populated as ours. Yes, it makes sense for people to have access to food at all hours, but when was the last time they managed to shut down restaurants that ran all night illegally anyway? Residents of Juhu have been trying to shut down a popular stall that runs all night for decades.

Only the heartless would begrudge honest people trying to earn a living. If only they were given an honest option too.

When he isn’t ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com