It was almost mid-morning on Tuesday, when Manjunath, a sugarcane juice vendor, had three unexpected visitors. Lanyards hanging from their necks, their ID cards were concealed in their pockets. However their sharp dressing – long-sleeved shirts and dark pants – was a giveaway to the 40-year-old vendor. He realised they were not ones to take a sip of ‘pressed juice’ from his makeshift outlet near Koramangala grounds.
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Manjunath says, “One was speaking on his phone, two others seemed to be checking the sugarcane juice vending machine, steel vessels, sieve, stored juice extracts. One of them made some notes in a book. I asked if there was some problem. They simply told me that my shop had to be immediately shut.”
For Manjunath, who has been operating around the same location for the last 20 years with a loyal customer base, it took sometime to realise how all of it could end in a few minutes. Anticipating brisk business in summer, he had even paid advances for surplus stock of sugarcane. “I didn’t argue or ask who they were. But I casually asked, “Why sir?” One of the officials politely said it was a government order.”
No written order was given to Manjunath, but the government officers’ oral communication had the intended effect. Intimidated, Manjunath became one of many street vendors who wrapped up their ‘food and drink’ businesses in Bengaluru in the last few days.
The decision by the BBMP to shut down street food vendors comes in the backdrop of detection of 17 new cases of cholera in the city in the first week of March.
What’s the basis for the evictions?
According to a senior BBMP official who did not want to be named, the eviction drives are as per the Karnataka Municipalities Act, 1964. He says Section 247 of the Act (Unwholesome articles of food and drink) and Sections 248 to 260 (Prevention of infectious diseases) gives them reasonable authority to contain unhygienic practices and dangerous diseases. BBMP authorities can inspect, give notice, remove and even seize businesses found in contravention of these provisions, the official says. Penalties can be levied on the owner of the business too.
He also points to the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act, 1976 – Section 288C (License for sale in public places), Section 288D (Notice to remove encroachment), Section 385 (Inspection), 390 (Dealing with Seized items). But BBMP’s notification on the eviction drive itself does not mention these specific laws/sections.
BBMP will be clearing footpath vendors & food sellers in all the wards of the city in view of #Cholera & Gastroenteritis cases being reported and to improve the cleanliness of #Bengaluru.#BBMP #health #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/ejAlO9HpZN
— B.H.Anil Kumar,IAS (@BBMPCOMM) March 9, 2020
Speaking to Citizen Matters, BBMP Chief Health Officer (Public Health) Dr B K Vijendra says that the evicted vendors are those who don’t have a license from the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) or don’t maintain basic standards of hygiene. “The move is aimed to contain the spread of cholera,” he says.
BBMP officials say that they look out for the following during the drives:
- Source of water used for cooking – if it is sealed and bottled, whether it is extracted from an open source, and the extent to which it comes in contact with the vendor’s hands/anything else
- Disposal facility, extent of spillage of food on the road
- Proximity of the vending point to polluting sources like motor traffic, industry or open drains
- Extent of reuse of cooking oils
- Condition of storage of food and drinks
- Whether the food or drink on display is appropriately covered or exposed to contamination
- If food additives such as flavour, colouring or preservative agents are approved by FSSAI
- Cleanliness of utensils used for cooking, storing or serving
- Ingredients that are adulterated or past their expiry date
Deputy Commissioner FSSAI (Karnataka), Dr Latha Perimala, says, “No one can endanger public health and safety by arbitrarily starting vending outlets. Vendors have to register with BBMP and then apply for a license from FSSAI.”
FSSAI trains the applicants, and requires them to meet all hygiene and food preparation standards; only then are they granted licenses, says Dr Latha. But she adds that many street vendors are unaware that they need a license from FSSAI at all.
According Ramesh Agarwal, COO of Food Safety Works, a food quality and safety consultancy, the key here is awareness and education. “Due to lack of awareness or worry over loss of business, many don’t attend the training, and subsequently are unaware of basic hygiene. Vendors even cut corners in quality, which may be dangerous to consumers’ health.” Ramesh says BBMP must incentivise vendors to attend workshops or sessions, and that eviction is not the answer.
He says that customers too must be cautious. “Customers should prioritise hygiene and quality over taste, and proactively demand these. In case of doubt they must get the food quality checked by FSSAI.” Enforcement agencies have been doing their job, but they have limited manpower to monitor the increasing number of food outlets cropping up, Ramesh says.
In addition to the usual training given as part of the licensing process, Dr Latha says that FSSAI has been identifying street food hubs under its Project Clean Street Food. This is a specific initiative for training and capacity building of street food vendors, and to ensure regulatory oversight over them under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. “Once the list is finalised, we will recognise street hubs that serve food adhering to all hygiene and safety protocols.”
Vendors face challenges too
Manjunath says that some of the standards BBMP expects may be difficult to comply with. For example, he uses only boiled Cauvery water for cooking and for serving customers, but vendors who don’t have access to Cauvery water may not be able to afford packaged drinking water, he says. “Street vending is a margin-oriented business. People come to us because we are relatively cheaper than hotels. If we start using or serving only pre-packaged items, the food will become expensive and this will drive customers away.”
Ravikumar, a vendor who sells boiled eggs and vegetables on his pushcart along Mysuru road, wonders why street vendors are seen as suspects. “Don’t I have a conscience? Why would we sell contaminated food? Even we have families. Do you think we will be able to live with the fact that we hurt somebody by selling inferior products?” he asks.
It was during one of his rounds on March 11 that Ravikumar was intercepted by a BBMP official and told to stop his business. “It is unfair, who will compensate for our losses? My customers have assured me that they will speak on my behalf. But until then, I don’t know how I will earn,” he says.
Until the eviction, Ravikumar was unaware that he needs a license from FSSAI at all. He’s willing to apply for it, but says, “Having a single window system for issuing licenses will help us. Else we may end up running from pillar to post to get approvals from different authorities.”
BBMP action is arbitrary, says vendors’ collective
Vinay Sreenivasa, a lawyer and a member of Bangalore Zilla Beedhi Vyapari Sanghatanegala Okkuta says that the BBMP action is illegal. “All vendors are protected by the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act), 2014. Chapter 2 of the Act does not allow unilateral eviction.”
Vinay says the Okkutta’s contention is whether BBMP has proof that the cholera cases resulted from street food. “We are happy to work together to help vendors maintain hygiene. But the eviction has been arbitrary and without basis. Vendors were not given any notice. They’ve not been told till when they have to shut down. Thousands of vendors and their families have been evicted.”
According to S Babu of the Okkutta, there’s been no clarity or uniformity in the eviction process. “In some areas, officials told vendors to not open their stalls for three days, and in some others to not open for a week. Vendors have mostly complied as it’s an order issued in the interest of health, but some are still continuing business. BBMP has not taken stakeholders into confidence.” He says the Okkutta will look into legal remedies if vendors are not allowed to restart their businesses soon.
BBMP’s Dr Vijendra says they’re not keeping count of the number of evictions. “The aggrieved vendors very much have the option to apply for the license, show compliance to rules and carry out their trade legally without fear of repercussions,” he says.
It is to be seen if BBMP’s drive will prompt vendors to get licenses and ensure food safety, or if this will end up as a random, one-off measure.