Huge increase in restaurants for the rich, a serious decline in eating places for common people

Vada Pav Food

Writing about  exotic food, fancy restaurants  is   now  the in thing. Even Abhijit Banerjee, the  Nobel economics prize winning economist, wrote about  his own cooking and eating out  in the Times of India  last Sunday, December 3.

 But there is almost total silence on  the virtual absence of  affordable  eating places in cities like Mumbai, at least there is a serious decline.  I remember  Behram Contractor or Busybee,  the popular humorist, used to occasionally eat  a thali  in the railway refreshment room on the first floor of Churchgate  station  when he lived in  the Churchgate area after moving from the Parsi colony in Byculla.

   There is a huge increase   in eating places for the rich , in the   Jio Reliance mall in Bandra Kurla complex  alone,  I lost count  of the  fancy  restaurants in that single  building. 

   On the other hand  lakhs of office goers,  college and school students, workers  are now forced to eat  from outlets on  the street. This  is because of a completely distorted   land policy of the government.  Eating street food is fashionable for the well off  but they do it once in a while. For daily survival millions  are forced to  eat in undignified conditions in Mumbai on the road. Delhi allots much more space for  dhabas where one can sit comfortably  and get much tastier  and lower priced  paathas than the  overrated paatha gully  near Chandani Chowk.

     Much of the upper class is   totally ignorant of the government and builders’  rigging of the land market  is eager to  blame hawkers, food vendors.  Hawker menace is the favourite term and it is expressed in  this headline in the Times of India, Mumbai,  of December 3  –   Old Lokhandwala residents grapple with new  Khau Gully Menace.. I  can understand  the inconvenience caused to the residents.. The problem  is our  whole planning process, the politicians, upper class  are responsible. So we find  an easy target, the hawker, the food vendor.

 With the huge increase in the number of the rich in Mumbai in the last few decades there is also a big rise in the number of service personnel  doing all kinds of  jobs. Where will they eat ?.  Formerly  few low rise buildings had watchmen, now every building has more than one.  So a class of tea sellers carrying   flasks   going from one building to another has arisen.

  The sprawling Lokhandwala complex  itself could have easily solved   some of this problem  with a bit of planning.  Much of this  land belong to one family ,  Walawalkars.  But the whole gated community  mindset is ugly, anti poor,  the residents abhore  even the sight of the poor.

   There is  failure of planning right from the beginning with the rise of the first corporate district  Nariman Point right in front of the state government headquarters Mantralaya in the 1960s. There is still not a single affordable   restaurant there.. So outside the posh   corporate  offices  one finds most people have no alternative but to eat out in the open.

 In contrast Mantralaya used to  provide a nice   affordable  Square Meal thali  for its employees in the canteen,  it   probably  still does. The government can still provide  land for  affordable eating out for ordinary people in this area. It has lot of it which it wants to  sell  to raise funds for its dreadfully expensive  Metro rail network.  There are still a lot of   ministerial bungalows there , these days they are all  named  after Shivaji era forts, like  Vishal Gad and Simha Gad.

 The Bandra Kurla complex   which came up later i did provide for a food court near the  MMRDA  Mumbai Metropolitcan Region Development Authority  and Kala Nagar. But  there is not even a tea shop over  several acres  beyond including the     Ambani cultural centre, American consulate and Ambani school.  This is in flagrant violation of all planning norms.

 Street food was virtually unknown in Mumbai  till  four decades ago.   Perhaps,the first  zunka bhakar and pav bhaji stall came up  in the  Fort area  between  Capitol cinema and the  municipal head office building. It was known as Canon caterers  run by a former army captain Appa  Dandekar  who used to live in the historic  Esplanade Mansion  near Jehangir art gallery, yes many middle class families lived there.

  If the urban land ceiling act had not  been repealed  by  sauve leaders like Manmohan Singh during the onslaught of neoliberalism   and if the government had used its powers to  put to  public use some of the  huge land which became available with the closure of industries, we would not be facing such land crisis.

 Many of the posh restaurants over the decades have flouted numerous  regulations, most starkly seen in the disastrous fire in the Kamala mill compound in Mumbai.

 Yet, it is the ordinary hawker who is  enthusiastically vilified.

Thousands of hawkers are being displaced by multinational corporations , our cuisines  are being destroyed, our culinary imagination enslaved, points out  Nandita Haksar, author of  an unusual book on food called Flavours of Nationalism. She is the worthy daughter of P.N. Haksar, a former principal adviser to   Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. If some of our bureacurats follow him to even a small degree we would have a good administration.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist, culture critic and author of a book on public transport

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