Business is a daily gamble for 24-year-old Narendra Kumar who sells moong dal ladoos — popularly known as Ram laddoos — at Jantar Mantar in the capital.
The odds are almost never in his favour. If the snacks are not sold out, they are wasted and he suffers a loss. If they sell too soon, he doesn't have the provision to make more of them on the streets. He is forced to play safe, so his profit doesn’t cross Rs 200 a day.
It has been like this for Narendra ever since he left his home in Bihar to marry a girl of his choice six years ago. Together they opened a tea stall in Noida, just outside Delhi. She left him for another man a year later and he has been switching stalls and products ever since.
Whatever he happens to selling, his day starts at 4 am. “The preparation of the laddoos takes not less than three hours,” he says. His stall is set by 9 in the morning at whichever location in central Delhi is expected to draw crowds in the day.
The daily schedule includes visiting the tea shop outside his home in the Kathputli Colony slum.
“I go through three Hindi newspapers at the tea stall to see which events are scheduled in which area of the city,” he says. Based on his experience, he picks the location which is likely to have the biggest crowd.
The products he sells are mostly seasonal. Apart from a tea and laddoos, he has sold parathas, fruit, helmets, chicken soup and clothes. With the winter approaching, he is planning to get back to selling winterwear in a month. “Setting up a clothes shop every morning and packing up in the evening consumes five hours. But the effort is worth the money earned in those two-three months,” he says.
Overall, life in the capital as a street vendor has been a relentless struggle for Narendra. The only difference between selling parathas in Noida and laddoos in Delhi has been the lack of harassment from the money lenders. Since a paratha stall required more investment, he approached local money lenders. They gave money at a monthly interest of Rs 8 per Rs 100.
“Even a day’s delay in returning the money meant heavier penalties and a sound thrashing by their goons who ate for free at our stalls before beating us up. When I couldn't take the regular loss and their atrocities any more, I moved to Delhi to set up stalls which require smaller investments,” he says.
Unlike in Noida, where he paid protection money to the police who were on the moneylenders' side, in Delhi the harassment allegedly comes directly from the police and the authorities.
“There are times when police overturn my stall even before I have made Rs 20. Now I keep most of the snacks under a cover, leaving only a small portion for display. That minimises the loss,” he says.
However, what he dreads the most are the municipal officials who come once in a while and allegedly confiscate the whole stall itself, thus forcing him to buy a new stall and utensils.
Unlike many other vendors, Narendra is a regular reader of newspapers and hence knows about the Street Vendors Bill that was recently passed by the Parliament.
“I have no problem paying taxes as long as I don’t have to pay fines to the police,” he says.
While he says he has no complaint against customers, he expects some sensitivity from them.
“They come in a group, take a good look at the snacks on offer, ask the price, talk approvingly amongst themselves and then walk away without buying anything. They should at least try negotiating before dashing my hopes.”