New Delhi without street food?
Auto rickshaw and truck drivers swear by deep-fried samosas, kebabs, spiced vegetables and hot breads sold by thousands of makeshift stalls that dot India's sprawling capital.
But the country's Supreme Court says most of them have to go.
According to city authorities, that may happen as early as this week as part of new hawking and squatting laws that aim to close stalls deemed to be breeding grounds for everything from diarrhoea to typhoid.
"I have heard of this," said Eashwar Das, 18, as he quickly rolled out a mixture of dough and boiled potato for a popular variety of fried bread -- served sometimes with yoghurt or pickles -- on a table that also supported a kerosene stove.
Das is among an estimated 300,000 hawkers whose outdoor kitchens could be targetted by the authorities in the city of 14 million, and he says the stakes could not be higher.
"I hope the municipal authorities will not forcibly close us down. My family back home depends on me sending money," he said as he and his younger brother quickly served the breads accompanied by spiced lentils to customers by the side of a busy, dusty south New Delhi street.
But the city is on a major push to clean up ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
A New Delhi municipal official said the court ruling was aimed at ensuring food is not served in "unhygienic conditions," noting that street food almost invariably leads to problems commonly referred to as "Delhi belly".
"We are also hoping to cut transmission of diseases such as typhoid fever and hepatitis A, and help push customers into formal restaurants that pay taxes and offer more sanitary conditions," said the official, who declined to be named.
At street stalls, he said, "the food is often cooked and kept in the open for hours with flies all over it, dust blown onto it from passing cars, buses. That is what most people are ingesting though they don't know it."
Still, in a country where almost one third of a population of a billion earn less than a dollar a day, the street stalls of Delhi are a beacon of nourishment for as little as 10 rupees (20 US cents) a plate.
Even tourist guidebooks cite street food stalls as offering a "unique and authentic Indian culinary experience" that upmarket restaurants and hotels lack.
The variety can be amazing. There is spiced tea, flat deep-fried breads -- paranthas -- stuffed with potato, eggs, vegetable or meat; side dishes of curried pickles, tender mutton kebabs; and a delicately-fried dough ball filled with spiced water called a golgappa.
But many of the stalls compete with restaurants and are illegally located at bus stops and busy intersections that lead to traffic snarls as motorists pull over for a quick bite.
"Sometimes someone starts selling tea at the side of a road. Two people stop there for tea, then a truck driver will stop and soon you have a road block and a little later a traffic blockade," the city official said.
He said the new policy would require vendors to package food for sale in plastic bags and rid all the stalls of leaky and often dangerous kerosene-powered woks and raw food exposed to the elements.
However Raju Gupta, a 34-year-old third-generation Delhi street vendor who runs a small Chinese food stall in a south New Delhi district, said the drive was unfair.
"I paid money to the municipal authorities six years ago to get my shop regularised," Gupta said.
"I hope a new policy does not mean I have to move. The food I serve here is clean. How can I pack into plastic bags? It will spoil within hours. And who will buy cold snacks?" Gupta asked.
Pooran Singh, who runs an eatery next to Gupta's, scoffed at the idea that repackaged food would be more hygienic.
"You won't know when it was packed, when it was made. The taste will be different. Here you can see it being done in front of your eyes," Singh said.
"You know how good it is, the ingredients that go into it. You can see it's made hot. This satisfies our customers so why is the Supreme Court upset?
"Besides, how will we support our families if we wind this up? Will the court give us jobs?"
In a country where stopping for an egg boiled at a roadside shop for lunch or hot tea while travelling is a centuries-old tradition, Gupta's views seemed to be in sync with those of his customers.
"We are health-conscious but also taste-conscious," said Kuljeet Singh, a 32-year-old Sikh visiting Delhi from his native Punjab state.
"Without this food, Delhi will be modern, and it will be McDonald's and pizzas instead of real Indian food."
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Published on 4/20/07