Despite several restrictions being eased and the process of ‘unlocking’ well under way, street food vendors across Visakhapatnam continue to struggle. This is not surprising, given that Covid numbers in Vizag are on the rise, and many people are still staying home as much as they can, venturing out only for essential activities. Add to that the fact that street food such as chaat, pani puri, pav bajhi and aloo tikki are all contact-based food.
Shyam Sah is 42 years old sells biryani by day at Jagadamba and chhat by night before YMCA on beach road, but he now hands out his plates through partitions in the plastic sheets that ensconce his cart. He has also kept a separate table nearby, from where customers can collect food, to ensure maximum social distancing. But he only gets about 50 -60 customers in a day now anyway, as opposed to 100 before coronavirus struck and the lockdown was announced. Yet, Sah and many other vendors are taking pains to ensure the food they serve is safe and sanitary. Despite the fact that they stand out in the heat all day, they are conscientious about wearing their masks and gloves and have even taken on additional costs to ensure food hygiene. “I have introduced new disposable packaging for the food. I now serve in silver foil containers that cost about Rs 5 a piece. Before I used to serve on disposable plates that cost Rs 2,” Sah tells Hello Vizag.
Sah is one of 1,500 street food vendors across India who have completed digital training on Covid-19 food safety guidelines, facilitated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in partnership with the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI). Many like Sah have received a food safety training and certification (FOSTAC) that they display on their carts or stalls. According to Sangeeta Singh, head of the street food programme at NASVI, the certification is the first step. “The training, which includes two- to three-hour Zoom sessions spread over two days, focuses on food hygiene and Covid precautions. It has already given vendors confidence and they are getting a good response,” Singh explains. However, there were limitations such as many vendors not having access to smartphones, and the FSSAI only being able to train 100 vendors per day.
Singh says the training kept street food vendors occupied during lockdown since they were excluded from Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s advisory on 3 April that made allowances only for vendors selling fruits, vegetables and groceries. NASVI had appealed to all Chief Minister’s in late March to allow street food vendors to help the government provide cooked meals to the public, which would in turn help them earn an income, but it did not receive a response, says Singh. According to Singh’s estimates, there are more than 1 crore street vendors across the country, of whom 30 per cent sell food. Though 1,500 are now FOSTAC-certified, the vast majority seems to have abandoned businesses or are on the brink of doing so.
After selling Chana chat and Pani Puri before the Tennati Park for 6 years Amit Behra now decided to join for FOSTAC to make his business flourish during this pandemic in the upcoming festive session told to Hello Viziag. But the situation is dire for the most famous chaat vendors is biting his nails. Ramesh, a graduate received his FOSTAC certification, which he has displayed on his chaat stall in Daba gardens makes about Rs 700 a day, a huge drop from his earlier earnings of Rs 2000. “I don’t see the business bouncing back for at least one year,” he says, ruefully. Speaking to Hello Vizag, Ramesh said “It’s the fear. People don’t want to come out no matter if we wear masks, gloves, use sanitiser or have a certificate up in front of our stall. But there are people who would love to see their favourite street food stalls back in action and thriving.