Amid COVID, Indian Street Food Vanishes

The COVID-19 lockdown has left street food vendors wondering how they’ll reclaim their hard-won places in the heart of cities.

Vidya Balachander

June 24, 2020

Amid COVID, Indian Street Food Vanishes
Street food in Mumbai, India. (Vidya Balachander)

Radhe Shyam Shivchand Prajapati and his three-legged makeshift cart have occupied a portion of the pavement in Mumbai’s Nariman Point for so long that he could practically be considered a neighborhood fixture. From a young age, Prajapati observed his father create and serve plates of sev puri, bhel puri, and chana-sing (a Mumbai colloquialism for roasted gram and peanuts) to the teeming office-goers, who disgorged from the surrounding office buildings, looking for a quick evening snack to sustain them on their long commutes home. By the time he was 13, Prajapati had also learned the ropes of the bhel puri business — one that demands dexterity and quicksilver reflexes, including the endurance to spend long hours on one’s feet.

More than two decades later, Prajapati’s stall has a name — Hari Om Bhel Puri — lending it a veneer of rootedness. He also has a home in the northern suburb of Nalasopara, about 45 miles from where he works, where he lives with his wife and two young children. While these markers of middle-class stability may have offered him a sense of permanence earlier, that illusion was abruptly shattered three months ago.

With COVID-19 spreading rapidly through crowded Indian megacities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, and the street itself carrying the specter of contagion, street food vendors have had to forsake their hard-won place within a city’s ecosystem, with no clarity on when — or if — they will be able to return to reclaim it.

In late March, the Indian government announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Prajapati said that he had heard rumors about an impending lockdown from his customers. But when municipal authorities asked him to shut his shop on March 18, four days ahead of the widely publicized Janata curfew (people’s curfew) — a daylong shutdown of business activity and transportation services to promote social distancing — he had no way of knowing that what he hoped would be a temporary disruption to his livelihood would turn into a months-long ordeal of no income and spiraling debt. “Hum poori tarah se khaali ho chuke hain,” he told me in Hindi over the phone. “Our savings have been completely wiped out.”

When the initial lockdown was further extended, until the end of May, Prajapati found himself increasingly adrift in the city where his family has been based for over 40 years. “There are 25 mouths to feed in our extended family,” he said. “We spend nearly ₹50,000 [$660] every month just to eat.” With no monetary help from the government and uncertainty about when things would return to normal, Prajapati and his family began preparing to make the long journey to his ancestral village, in the Azamgarh district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “At least here in the village, we are able to get enough to eat,” he said. “If we had stayed in Bombay, I don’t know whether we would be alive or dead.”