The sun is about to set on Operation Sunshine, with a section of hawkers ready to return to the roadside after six years, armed with authorisation from the civic authorities.
With mayor Subrata Mukherjee taking the lead to legalise a section of hawkers, the Trinamul Congress-run Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) has decided to grant licences to 25,000 food vendors as Step I.
It is, however, not clear at this point how the government will react to the mayor’s pro-hawker initiative, as it amounts to a direct rollback of its much-touted Operation Sunshine.
A rough estimate puts the turnover of the roadside food business at Rs 2 crore. “It is a big and expanding business, and we cannot keep turning a blind eye to it. We must start thinking seriously about our hawkers, especially those dealing in food. We will have to think today or tomorrow in terms of either offering registration or licences for food vendors, if not all hawkers,” said Mukherjee.
The mayor made it clear that a food vendor would have to fulfil certain criteria before staking claim to registration. Licences, he said, would only be given to those vendors who follow the standards set by the All-India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health (AIIHPH).
“You cannot afford to ignore the food vendors in the present social, cultural and economic context of the city. A few million people are associated with the trade, either as providers or consumers,” Mukherjee asserted.
The decision was formally announced at a function that unveiled the ‘Calcutta Model for Improvement of Street Food’, where the guest-list included Union health minister Shatrughan Sinha, who later said the model could be introduced in other cities as well.
The Union health minister practically played into the hands of the pro-hawker lobby when he admitted that millions of unemployed urban youth made an honest living by vending food that was affordable and gave very high value for money.
The AIIHPH model that would be applicable to the city's food-hawkers was prepared after a joint AIIHPH-CMC survey in 1998 on the quality of food sold on the streets of Calcutta.
The cuisine on the city streets encompasses almost every flavour from the states of India and then extends to the ever-popular Chinese, ‘Continental’ and now even Mexican, the survey noted.
Though the votaries of legalising food-vendors on the city’s pavements are gearing up to welcome the CMC move, they are not too sure that the civic body will actually be able to enforce the decision.
A similar proposal floated by the previous CPM-led CMC board had failed the ground-reality check. The hawkers’ arm of Citu (the trade union wing of the ruling CPM), led by Md Nizamuddin, had pressured the ruling party and forced then mayor Prasanta Chatterjee to give the green signal. The decision, however, remained a proposal on paper, as then municipal commissioner Asim Barman shot down the idea with the backing of the Left Front coalition.