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Letters from India

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November 2006
Letters from India

Street India, Inc.

Enterprise amidst poverty

I've missed India -- much like an infant pining for her mother's embrace. Compared to the sanitized silence of streets in America, streets in India are hustling, bustling, and overflowing. There is comfort in the incessant hum of a million lives spilling out on the streets. India's busy sidewalks are a testimony to human endeavor. They are replete with daily sights, sounds and smells of survival in the midst of squalor.

India Inc.'s freshly minted success is yet to impact roadside industry. For the moment street vendors are undaunted by mushrooming malls. They believe they will outwit westernization. Take Mumbai's famous dabba wallahs, for example. An estimated 5,000 tiffin carriers deliver as many as 175,000 lunch boxes every day. Each tiffin is picked up from a unique source and delivered to a unique destination via a transport system of bicycles and a web of suburban train stations. And all this is executed within hours. These dabba wallahs who are now famous amongst global corporations as well as at top business schools, were recently awarded a Six Sigma rating by Forbes magazine, meaning that there is only one error in delivery per every million tiffins delivered! These guys in Gandhi topis have it down to a science. Asking them to deliver pizza would be insulting their intelligence.

When I used to walk my dog in the Morningside neighborhood of Atlanta I would look forward to encountering my neighbors. It was reassuring to know that there were in fact people stirring within silent homes. After a few months of living in that tranquil neighborhood, I longed for the obtrusive sounds of life. The ubiquitous call of the chai wallah, the chavi wallah, the churi wallah. There is a wallah (vendor) out there for every imaginable task.

I spoke to two such hawkers. Hari Prasad, the bhel wallah, came to Mumbai as a laborer. Cheated out of his savings by a chawl "realtor," Hari Prasad made a foray into the bhel business. He sets up his stall every morning along the bustling Colaba Causeway in south Mumbai. A small wooden plank serves as a display and work area. With a few deft flicks of the wrist, he mixes some bhel for me in a large newspaper cone.

Tethered to his makeshift stall, Hari Prasad hankers after nothing more than twenty-five to thirty rupees a day. With his children all grown up and wrapped in independent lives, his village holds no draw. Hari Prasad truly is the man on the street. He sleeps at the entrance of a building a few feet away. "I've been here for many years. The residents know me and do not object." Pointing to the T-shirt wallah next to him he says, "My friend lets me store my belongings under his booth. I don't have much anyway."

Balram, the sabzi wallah is a simple 22-year-old who walks about eight miles a day. Navigating through the potholed roads of Dehra Dun, he pushes a cart of fresh produce with practiced ease. Balram announces each vegetable in a loud unmelodious voice. His regular customers beckon him into their driveways, some offering him a glass of water or sherbet.

"People are usually nice to me. But there are some, especially the rich ones, I'd rather not deal with." He tells me about a police wallah's family that ran up a credit of five thousand rupees and defaulted. In spite such chicanery, Balram's faith in people is unwavering. Unlike his father and brothers, he prefers this job in the city to working as a hired hand on farmlands.

I asked Balram to name the one thing he fancies? Looking down at his indented Bata chappals, he says he could do with a pair of expensive, thick-soled walking shoes.

As much as I want to see Indians upgrade their systems and standard of living, I hold tight to the core lifestyle here; it breeds ingenuity and hustle. From a tourist's perspective, the country's rickety roadside bazaars must hold immense exotic appeal. To me it is about preserving an inimitable facet of our cultural and commercial identity. Unique one-person enterprises are the lifeblood of this country. Can you imagine the chai wallahs in a Starbucks avatar? Blasphemous!

By REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN


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