The Slow Boil: Street Food, Rights and Public Space in Mumbai

The Slow Boil: Street Food, Rights and Public Space in Mumbai

by Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria

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Overview

Street food vendors are both a symbol and a scourge of Mumbai: cheap roadside snacks are enjoyed by all, but the people who make them dance on a razor's edge of legality. While neighborhood associations want the vendors off cluttered sidewalks, many Mumbaikers appreciate the convenient bargains they offer. In The Slow Boil, Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria draws on his long-term fieldwork with these vendors to make sense of the paradoxes within the city and, thus, to create a better understanding of urban space in general.

Much urban studies literature paints street vendors either as oppressed and marginalized victims or as inventive premoderns. In contrast, Anjaria acknowledges that diverse political, economic, historic, and symbolic processes create contradictions in the vendors' everday lives, like their illegality and proximity to the state, and their insecurity and permanence. Mumbai's disorderly sidewalks reflect the simmering tensions over livelihood, democracy, and rights that are central to the city but have long been overlooked. In The Slow Boil, these issues are not subsumed into a larger framework, but are explored on their own terms.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799379
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/18/2016
Series: South Asia in Motion
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University.

Read an Excerpt

The Slow Boil

Street Food, Rights, and Public Space in Mumbai


By Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria

STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9937-9



CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION


WHILE IDLED IN TRAFFIC ONE AFTERNOON, an elderly driver of an autorickshaw, the affordable, three-wheeled, motorized taxi ubiquitous in Mumbai's northern suburbs, leaned back to strike up a conversation. He had a speckled beard and a broad smile, and he seemed to enjoy his job and the conversations with strangers it offered. After asking where I was from and what I was doing in Mumbai, the conversation took an unexpected turn. "What's the famous monument of New York?" he asked rhetorically. "It's the Statue of Liberty, right?" Without waiting for my response, he continued: "What's the monument of Mumbai?" I stumbled while searching for an appropriate answer. I proposed the Gateway of India, the arch overlooking the Arabian Sea, completed in 1924, an icon of city promotional materials and popular tourist spot. He shook his head. If this was a test of my research credentials, I had failed. "No, no, it's the vada pao!" he said. And with that, he turned again to face me and took a hearty bite out of an imaginary sandwich.

Vada pao consists of a fried ball of battered mashed potato, the vada, crushed within a sweet and spicy chutney-soaked bun, the pao. It is Mumbai's most popular snack. There are others that are famously associated with the city, such as bhel puri and pao bhaji, but no other food is as ubiquitous and passionately consumed. Vada pao hawkers can be seen in front of train stations; near schools, colleges, and hospitals; atbusy street corners; and near the entrances of parks. They prepare the snack on makeshift metal tables perched on the curb. The vadas are deep fried in well-used black pots. The chutneys are stored in small metal tins. The sandwiches come wrapped in recycled newspaper, accompanied by a green chili pepper. They are cheap and filling and consumed by a broad spectrum of the city. To some, eating vada pao is a guilty pleasure — a quick bite on the way home from work. To others, it is a means of surviving in an expensive city. However its role is conceived, the humble vada pao was an unlikely object to elevate to monumental status. Monuments, write Wohl and Strauss (1958), are "symbolic representation[s]" of a city. They produce images that circulate, shape, and, their creators hope, elevate a city's global status.

Monumentalizing street food was surprising in other ways. To many political leaders, journalists, and residents, hawkers represent a "symbol of metropolitan space gone out of control" (Rajagopal 2001). They are often described as a "'menace' [and] a 'problem' that needs to be 'addressed'" (Patel 2013). On seaside boardwalks, signs such as "Do not patronize hawkers and beggars," make avoiding street food into a civic duty. Alarmism over the hawker "menace" is seemingly everywhere. One day while waiting for the elevator in my Mumbai apartment, I noticed a flier freshly posted to the foyer wall. I looked closer. It was an article, titled "Hawker Proliferation — Economics and Impact," that listed the inconveniences to drivers and pedestrians that hawkers cause. "Hawker encroachment [is so pervasive]," the article explained, because of corruption and the fact that "people do not care enough to protest." Taking up the provocation, a neighbor had scrawled a message above the title: "WHY WE SHOULD NOT DO BUSINESS WITH HAWKERS." Writings like these are commonplace. Two years earlier, Citispace, a civic group, distributed a pamphlet with a similar message. If you want "clean and orderly surroundings," you should "play the role of 'watch dog'" and "complain about persistent illegal hawkers" (Citispace 2004).

Local newspapers display a similar perspective on hawkers. Every week newspapers report on hawker trouble spots and the efforts by the state to deal with them. Articles with titles such as "Keep Vendors away from No-Hawking Zone" (Verma 2005), "Download an App, Take an Illegal Hawker to Task" (Subramanian 2013), and "Hawkers Look to Take over Rs 4 Andheri Auto Deck" (Rao 2015) depict Mumbai's streets and public spaces as conflict zones consisting of pitched battles among residents, state functionaries, and a ragtag army of encroachers. Newspapers regularly describe "pedestrians [who] have been battling for two decades to reclaim their streets from encroachers" (Subramanian 2006) in neighborhoods "worst hit by [the] hawker invasion" (Bhatia 2007). "The hawker issue is important for citizens, who are used to fighting — most often, a losing battle — for space" ("Times View" 2015), says another. Articles describe the feeling of disempowerment among residents living in areas where hawkers have "laid siege" (Baliga 2013) to the roads. Says one resident, "We have been fighting this battle for many years now but over a period of time the number of hawkers have [sic] actually increased" (quoted in Bhatia 2007).

The vada pao is an unlikely "monument" for other reasons. To civic activists frequently quoted in the media, hawkers are often a symbol of poor governance, an indifferent bureaucracy, and broken democracy. Unlicensed vada pao vendors and hawkers like them are thus not only physical annoyances but understood to be part of a larger problem of encroachment enabled by corrupt officials. Hawkers are understood to be a manifestation of a nexus with state functionaries fueled by a mix of retail corruption, unofficial compromises, and dubious appeals to social welfare. While unlicensed, they appeal to the state on the basis of entitlements owed to particular disadvantaged groups. They mix rights claims based on individual citizenship with belonging in a larger collective. They are said to blur the boundary between private subjecthood and public practice. In this discourse, the mere presence of hawkers signals the failure of the state to abide by the principles of liberal citizenship and the rule of law. To them, hawkers not only obstruct pedestrians; they also obstruct the flourishing of political modernity itself.

In 1998, the Citizens' Forum for the Protection of Public Spaces (later renamed Citispace) brought their campaign against encroachment to the Bombay High Court. To Citizens' Forum activists, not only was the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) failing to fulfill its obligations to regulate public space, but its ad hoc practices gave unlicensed hawkers "rights" to the street. By 2003, the case went to the Supreme Court of India, which issued a groundbreaking ruling in Citispace's favor. In addition to instructing the BMC to implement a hawker regulation system, it issued new guidelines restricting hawking. Among them was a ban on curbside cooking. And yet following the 2003 ruling, vada pao vendors and other hawkers were as visible as before. Few hawkers, or state functionaries, were aware of the ban. Implementing the law was complicated by another factor: most hawking was already criminalized. If Mumbai's street food vendors already lacked licenses, how could they be banned? In a telling sign of this legal confusion, Mumbai's hundreds of thousands of hawkers continued to work on the street following the ban as before.

Monumentalizing the vada pao was also ironic in light of the new "global city" discourses circulating in Mumbai at the time. To those who aspired to transform Mumbai into an international business hub modeled after Shanghai, the city's street economy represented an impediment — a problem of world becoming. By the early 2000s, the effects of India's economic liberalization, a process that had begun a decade earlier, started to be visible. New shopping malls, office complexes, luxury apartment buildings, and elite spaces of leisure and consumption such as cafés, nightclubs, and grocery stores, all rare in the late 1990s, became commonplace. To many, this new landscape of consumption offered hope of transformation. The fact that many of the first new symbols of globalized Mumbai, such as shopping malls and clubs designed with an international aesthetic, appeared in former textile mills facilitated a narrative of a city in transition. A report produced by Bombay First and McKinsey & Company, "Vision Mumbai: Transforming Mumbai into a World-Class City" (McKinsey & Company 2003), spurred dreams of a transformation of the city's image; the once gritty city of mills and slums might soon give way to a proud global metropolis with a slick, international aesthetic. As a headline at the time put it, "From Mills to Malls, the Sky Is the Limit" (Bharucha 2003).

A devastating flood in July 2005 tempered some of this euphoria. Cheeky billboards appearing on the streets in 2006 asked: "Shanghai ya Doobai?" (Shanghai or Doobai?) playing off of the Hindi word dubna, which means to drown. Nevertheless, with multiple billion-dollar infrastructure projects built up in subsequent years, such as the Worli-Bandra Sea Link, the Mumbai Metro, and a stylish new international airport terminal, the dream to remake the city through dramatic aesthetic and architectural intervention reemerged. Amid these urban transformations, important questions arose: Can Mumbai's landscape of squatters, slum settlements, and vibrant but visually chaotic street commerce be reconciled with transnational aesthetic ideals? What is the place of the poor in this story of transition? Or, put in another way, is there a place for the vada pao in globalizing Mumbai?


CONTRADICTIONS OF THE STREET

The hundreds of thousands of hawkers that line Mumbai's streets are emblematic of the city's compelling — and to some, frustrating — contradictions. Although most are unlicensed, they profoundly shape the appearance and feel of the city. They are subject to periodic raids but are also essential providers of services who distribute nearly all of the city's fresh fruits and produce while providing affordable meals to its millions of working-poor residents. This book explores the meanings of these incongruities. I show how this criminalized street economy is not just a space of exclusion, but also a space for active engagement in the political sphere; spatial contestations are characterized by violence as well as dynamic negotiation, debate, and compromise over political form. Whereas much writing on squatters, hawkers, and slum demolitions sees them as instances of elite appropriations of space, I show how tensions surrounding evictions are also a way in which crucial questions of rights, citizenship, and global belonging are worked out — for instance: How might universalizing ideas of citizenship be reconciled with a heterogeneous political sphere? In a democracy shaped by political liberalism, can rights claims be context specific? And can participation in global modernity emerge in coordination with, rather than only as a negation of, local context?

The Mumbai hawker controversy parallels transnational trends; however, it diverges in significant ways from these trends on account of hawkers' vital place in public debates over the city and its future.Through ethnography and historical analysis, the chapters in this book highlight how the mundane question of street vending speaks to broader issues about space and rights in the city. The evidence shows that everyday conflicts over encroachment and corruption constitute a critical discussion over how to inhabit and make claims on the city. In Chapter 2, I begin with the question: Are we witnessing a new moment of spatial contestation and exclusion of the poor? I show that for over two centuries, the authorities in Mumbai have struggled to control a landscape of encroachments and illegalities. Moreover, the municipal government has dealt with the "hawker nuisance" at least since the 1880s. And yet scholars often treat demolitions, dispossessions of the poor, and elite-oriented development as effects of a new logic of urban governance associated with neoliberalism. I provide an account of the history of informality in Mumbai to challenge this assumption of novelty. Drawing from various historical documents — including official publications, travelogues, and early twentieth-century newspapers — I show that for over a century, people's encounters with state functionaries have been characterized by compromise, cooption, and negotiation rather than anonymity and discipline. What is new about the contemporary urban moment is not spatial contestation itself but its broader significance as a site for negotiating the form and content of rights.

What does it mean to work on the side of the road without a license? Is it a result of urban exclusion or an act of rebellion? Writings on informal economies typically fall into one camp or the other. In Chapter 3, I offer a different approach; I provide an account of hawkers' life histories and their relationships to the street, work, and the city's recent dramatic transformations. I show how hawkers occupy a contradictory existence, inhabiting a precarious legal status while deeply enmeshed in the daily life of a neighborhood. I argue that this space between precarity and possibility offers a model for urban ethnography: attention to political economic processes and affective experiences is not mutually exclusive — with one more "real" than the other — but exist in a generative tension that is constitutive of urban life.

Hawkers' spatial claims are secured through cultivating relationships, sometimes intimate ones, with state functionaries, often through unofficial payments called hafta, but also through countersurveillance, social interactions, and public protest. Chapter 4 examines these encounters with the state. I show how, despite being unlicensed, hawkers' everyday experiences are marked by proximity to the state rather than distance. Hawkers' protracted encounters with BMC officials, clerks, workers, and the police challenge the language of abandonment and abjection that informs much scholarship on urban marginality. As I demonstrate, the street is not only a product of the disciplinary techniques of rational governance but an outcome of a negotiated process: in the eyes of the everyday state, unlicensed hawkers are not outside the law but more or less illegal (Björkman 2013). This spectrum of illegality opens up possibilities for negotiation. As a result, what is otherwise called corruption is also, in a practical sense, a space for the negotiation of rights claims — claims that ironically might otherwise not be recognized.

When civic activists brought new attention to the "hawker problem" in the 1990s, they raised new questions concerning urban citizenship, corruption, and the proper form of democratic politics. This activism demonstrated that the question of whose voice is heard in urban governance was inseparable from the question of how to speak to the state. Chapter 5 shows how middle-class residents' engagement with the informal life of the street produces what I call a sensibility of the "estranged citizen" that reflects a feeling of alienation from traditional circuits of power. To civic activists, hawkers symbolize state corruption and inefficiency, but also powerlessness in face of the illiberal rights claims of the poor. However, I argue that as a sensibility, the subjectivity of the estranged citizen is irreducible to a single political position or political economic process. This ambivalent subjectivity has the potential for open-ended politics that goes beyond efforts to appropriate urban space from the poor.

Whereas to civic activists, Mumbai's fluid streetscapes represent a problem, these features are increasingly celebrated as a virtue by architects, designers, students, and writers around the world. Chapter 6, the concluding chapter, examines the new place of the ad hoc streetscape within transnational architectural discussions on the megacity. Thirty years ago, Mumbai's landscape of squatters, slums, and informality was seen as an embarrassment; now these characteristics are often celebrated in exhibits, blogs, and films as signs of innovation, ingenuity, and small-scale entrepreneurialism. Resignifying "underdeveloped" urban landscapes as instances of "makeshift" or "tactical" urbanism raises a new question:How does informality figure in the branding of cities? How is this new way to read urban landscapes recalibrating the relationship between the universal and the particular? And more important, this perspective on informal urbanism puts ethnography itself in critical crosshairs, with the geographer Ash Amin (2013), for instance, arguing that the trend toward narrating cities through affective experience, strategies, and maneuvering precludes attention to structural inequality.

This book documents a long-simmering tension over the street consisting of a mix of violence, subversion, shifting illegalities, ambiguous regulations, and flexible state practices. A hawker once summed up these everyday processes as producing a long simmering "boil" on the street. Seeing the city as a slow boil introduces a perspective absent in urban studies writing that so often rests on either dystopic or celebratory narratives. This perspective highlights the small maneuvers and negotiations that produce the city. It also highlights the generative element of spatial conflicts — for instance, how hawker demolitions are inextricable from long-standing debates over the content and meaning of rights, citizenship, and political modernity. Swirling alongside moments of exclusion are other symbolic processes and imaginative work that are remaking the physical and political spaces of the city.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Slow Boil by Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

1Introduction
chapter abstract

The introduction examines what is at stake for a study of spatial contestations in Mumbai. It outlines three theoretical conversations with which this book engages. Firstly, it discusses how the themes of inequality and urban citizenship are explored in the literature on conflicts over space. Secondly, it discusses how transnationally circulating concepts of streets and public space shape cities in the present. And lastly, it shows how conflicts over urban transformations must contend with the incongruities of the "everyday state" and the varied forms of political recognition it offers. In doing so, this chapter offers a broad outline of the legal, political and social context of the Mumbai hawker controversy.

2The Unruly City
chapter abstract

The municipal government has dealt with the "hawker nuisance" at least since the 1880s. And yet, scholars often treat demolitions, dispossessions of the poor, and elite-oriented development as effects of a new logic of urban governance associated with neoliberalism. This chapter show that, for over two centuries, the authorities in Mumbai have struggled to control a landscape of encroachments and illegalities. The chapter provides an account of the history of informality in Mumbai to challenge this assumption of novelty. Drawing from various historical documents—including official publications, travelogues and early twentieth-century newspapers—this chapter shows that for over a century, people's encounters with state functionaries have been characterized by compromise, co-option, and negotiation rather than anonymity and disciplining. What is new about the contemporary urban moment is not spatial contestation itself but its broader significance as a site for negotiating the form and content of rights.

3Occupied Streets
chapter abstract

This chapter provides an account of how street vendors inhabit the city, its streets and its public spaces. In doing so, the chapter answers the questions: What does it mean to work on the side of the road without a license? And, is it is an act of urban exclusion or of rebellion? Writings on informal economies typically fall into one camp or the other. By contrast, this chapter shows how hawkers occupy a contradictory existence—inhabiting a vulnerable legal existence while deeply enmeshed in the daily life of a neighborhood. It argues that this space between precarity and possibility offers a model for urban ethnography: attention to political economic processes and affective experiences is not mutually exclusive—with one more "real" than the other—but exist in a generative tension that is constitutive of urban life.

4Managing Illegality
chapter abstract

Street vendors' spatial claims are secured through cultivating relationships—sometimes intimate ones—with state functionaries, often through unofficial payments called hafta, but also through counter-surveillance, social interactions and public protest. This chapter examines these encounters with the state. It shows how, despite being unlicensed, hawkers' everyday experiences are marked by proximity to the state rather than distance. Street vendors' protracted encounters with BMC officials, clerks, workers, and the police challenge the language of abandonment and abjection that informs much scholarship on urban marginality. As I demonstrate, the street is not only a product of the disciplinary techniques of rational governance but an outcome of a negotiated process: in the eyes of the everyday state, unlicensed hawkers are not simply outside the law, but exist in a spectrum of illegality. This spectrum opens up possibilities for negotiation.

5Estranged Citizens
chapter abstract

When civic activists brought attention to the "hawker problem" in the 1990s, they raised new questions concerning urban citizenship, corruption, and the proper form of democratic politics. This activism demonstrated that the question of whose voice is heard in urban governance was inseparable from the question of how to speak to the state. This chapter shows how middle-class residents' engagement with the informal life of the street produces a sensibility of the "estranged citizen." This sensibility reflects a feeling of alienation from traditional circuits of power. To civic activists, street vendors symbolize state corruption and inefficiency, but also powerlessness in face of the illiberal rights claims of the poor. However this chapter argue that as a sensibility, the subjectivity of the estranged citizen is irreducible to a single political. This ambivalent subjectivity has the potential for open-ended politics that goes beyond efforts to appropriate urban space.

6Improvisational Urbanism
chapter abstract

Whereas to civic activists Mumbai's fluid, ad hoc, streetscapes represent a problem, to architects, designers, students, and writers around the world, these features are increasingly celebrated as a virtue. This concluding chapter examines the new place of the ad hoc streetscape within transnational architectural discussions on the megacity. Thirty years ago, Mumbai's landscape of squatters, slums, and informality was seen as an embarrassment; now these characteristics are often celebrated in exhibits, blogs, and films as signs of innovation, ingenuity, and small-scale entrepreneurialism. Resignifying "underdeveloped" urban landscapes as instances of "makeshift" or "tactical" urbanism raises new empirical questions such as, how does informality figure in the "branding" of cities? And, how is this new way to read urban landscapes recalibrating the relationships between the universal and the particular taken for granted in postcolonial theory?

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