Street food vendors add colour and life to Kathmandu’s streets, yet the authorities see them as nothing more than a nuisance
Anil Jaiswal, 35, makes egg rolls for a living, which he sells for Rs 100 a piece in Thamel, on a cart no larger than an ice cream trolley. On this cart is an old, greasy stove, a chopping board, a few egg cartons, some dough in a container, and a large plastic bag with vegetables—tomatoes, cabbage, green chillies, onions, carrots. This small cart is Jaiswal’s only means of income, with which he feeds his family of four.
Jaiswal, who has never been to school, migrated to Kathmandu from Rautahat some 13 years ago. He came to the Capital, like thousands others, to make a living. His father too had worked on Kathmandu’s streets all his life—selling and fixing kitchenware, which helped him scrape together a meagre income that was just enough to feed his family. Jaiswal had hoped that the city would be kinder to him than it was to his father. But he learned quickly that surviving in Kathmandu is not easy, especially for street vendors like Jaiswal, who have to tackle a host of challenges every day: inflated grocery prices, competition from neighbouring brick-and-mortar restaurants, and periodic, unwelcome visits by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) officials.
“Only a few weeks ago, a group of KMC officials came in and seized seven carts at around 8:30 pm,” says Jaiswal. Such seized carts are transported and dumped at the Kathmandu Metro Police’s field office in Teku, where they are later auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Luckily, Jaiswal had already left for home that day. “The police come whenever they want,” he says. “Sometimes these big restaurants call them to disrupt our business. Whenever they come, they take away everything we have. Nowadays, only a courageous few stay after eight. We work in fear every day. But we come nonetheless; we have no alternative.”
Food vendors like Jaiswal are a fixture on Kathmandu’s streets. Over time, they have become vital to the culture of the city. The pani puri/chatpate dais and the momo and sekuwa carts are what make Kathmandu’s streets come alive. But to the government, particularly the KMC, they are seen as nothing more than an inconvenience.
For this reason, KMC authorities have tried to ‘purge’ the streets of these vendors, claiming that they are taking over the streets and creating chaos. What the authorities forget in their attempt to impose ‘order’ on the streets of Kathmandu is that these people are much like everyone else, trying to find a means to survive. But the Nepal government’s negligence in creating provisions that are amenable to its poorest makes us question whether its attitude towards its underprivileged is rooted in goodwill, or in dismissal and negligence.
Operating in the grey
KMC’s rules keep the vendors away from the streets during the day, but it has agreed in principle, with the Nepal Street Vendor’s Union (NEST), an organisation that advocates for the rights of street vendors, to let them set up shop after 7pm, after rush hour. This agreement has come into shape after the organisation held multiple dialogues with various government officials; however, nothing is on paper, say NEST officials. This gives the KMC leeway to swoop in whenever it pleases.
“These street vendors cannot just put up their carts on public property; it is against the law. We are just doing our duty by picking up their carts,” says KMC Chief Police Bishnu Prasad Joshi dismissively.
NEST, which was formed in 2003, has been working incessantly since its inception to organise and safeguard the occupational interests of street vendors, an issue the Nepali government has long avoided addressing. “We have been working to uplift the socio-economic status of street vendors for the past 15 years,” says Kumar Sapkota, president of NEST. “We have been pushing for the implementation of policies, for vendors to get licences, but to no avail.”
A decade ago, back in 2008, the association had submitted a memorandum to the Home Ministry through the District Administration Office, pressing their demands for the issuing of permits that would allow vendors to sell their wares after 5 pm; for the formation of a policy for vendors; and for the setting up of a social-security scheme. However, nothing has come of it as of yet.
“Just holding dialogues with government officials is not enough to protect vendors’ interests. To implement long-term contingency plans, there needs to be a unionised representation of street vendors from all over Nepal that will put the pressure on the government,” says Sapkota.
There is an estimated 100,000 street vendors (this number includes street vendors of all types) in 45 districts around the country, and around 30,000-40,000 in the valley, according to NEST. Only 20,000 are registered with NEST. “Most vendors are unaware that an organisation such as ours even exists. They don’t understand the legality of things; all they want is a means to fill their hungry stomachs,” he says.
Problems and resolutions
Back in 2014, during the tenure of Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam, after a series of agitated protests, the government did try to provide a temporary solution to the plight of street vendors: it designated temporary vending zones around Kathmandu, like Khulamanch, Tinkune ground, Kalanki and Balaju, where vendors could sell their services/products. However, the solution quickly fell apart, with the government blaming vendors for misusing the services available to them.
However, all these problems can easily be solved, only if the government chooses to. The benefits of legitimising these micro-enterprises are numerous. Take popular South Asian cities like Saigon, Delhi, Bali, among others. All these cities have a thriving—and legal—street food culture, which adds significantly to the economy of the place. In these cities, vendors are given permits and they are required to pay permit fees and taxes.
A model of this sort could easily be replicated in Nepal. This would not only add to the economy of the country, but also give the public quick, easy access to inexpensive food that is regulated by the government, under the Food Act. In India, for example, street food vendors need to be FSSAI registered and pay a certain monthly fee depending on their turnover or capacity. This guarantees safety for consumers.
Such measures would ultimately ensure an economically empowered population. Take, for example, Govinda Bhattarai, who runs a food truck in PepsiCola, earns roughly Rs 15,000-20,000 a day, and employs six young men. Bhattarai worked as a guard in Dubai for seven years before calling it quits to return to Nepal and do something on his own. With huge risk, and investment, he opened his food truck. To be on the safe side, he parks his vehicle on private property and pays a monthly rent of Rs 10,000 to the owners. He also pays a certain amount of money to the local community as part of an initiative to keep the vicinity clean. But because he does not have any paperwork that determines that his business is legitimate, he also has a constant fear of the police. If the police suddenly come to seize his livelihood, he has no one to turn to.
So, what is to be done?
“Kathmandu’s unstructured urbanisation and poor land-use zone designation is partly to be blamed for the haphazard way this issue of street vendors has been handled till date. But there are alternatives that the government can use,” says Sapkota.
For instance, the government could re-start the process of allocating special spaces to street vendors. It can assign certain spaces—small clearings not on the thoroughfares but on the quieter corners of streets—designated to street vendors to conduct their businesses.
For long-term, more sustainable measures, the government has to formulate policies that include the registration of street vendors as legal micro-business entities. “The vendors are ready to pay taxes to the government as well, if they are acknowledged as viable micro-businesses,” says Sapkota.
But unless the government acknowledges these issues and comes up with provisions that address the needs of the poor, vendors will continue to work in this grey area. And this atmosphere of constant fear will not only strip away the charm of Kathmandu’s streets, but also create a culture that allows malpractices to take place, and makes the poorest more susceptible to exploitation. For vendors like Jaiswal, whose egg rolls are his only livelihood, there are few alternatives to working on the streets.