***Written by product manager Jane Mellema***
The word entrepreneur often makes me cringe. I don’t think I have an entrepreneurial bone in my body. Google defines an entrepreneur as a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.
Traditionally, the words business and entrepreneur probably bring certain images to your mind. Since working in India, some of those images have changed for me. The enterprising spirit permeates this land! This becomes very evident the minute you step out onto the road.
The chill of December evenings is in the air. Men from Kashmir can be seen bicycling through my neighborhood shouting out “Shawls! Warm cloth!” They are eager to step up to your doorstop and display a kaleidoscope of beautiful wool cloth from their northern state of Kashmir. Other locals capitalize on the winter season as they push carts stacked high with sweatshirts, jackets, and sweat pants. Prices here sure beat the mall!
Walking down my street a little farther to the end of the lane, I run into multiple businessmen of different types pushing their carts. The subzi-wala offers fruits and vegetables for sale. The next cart contains a small fire and a heavy iron wok-like pan, frying corn kernels to sell fresh popcorn.
Turning onto the thoroughfare, many street vendors can be seen. One specialty at any time of year is the mouth-watering street foods. Lawyers dressed in black suits, taking a break from their work at the collectorate (administrative building) nearby, gather around various kiosks sampling their favorite tantalizing snacks. The snacks are complete with a hot cup of chai from the corner tea stand. Families come out in the evenings dressed in their party finery to enjoy fellowship over their favorite munchies. Groups of friends gather over street food and banter and carry on.
In certain bazaars of the old city, there are dozens of vendors selling everyday products, from clothing to hair supplies to kitchen utensils. Here bargaining runs rampant, and people are able to fix a deal that they feel is to their profit. Booths in other areas target tourists and offer memorable trinkets.
Street vendors add an element of intrigue to India. From the shoe polishing items laid out neatly on the dirty alley ground to the barber with his mirror nailed up to a tree and shoddy wooden chair, from the man with his keys and padlocks fanned out on display to the cart full of Mosmis, a citrus fruit used to make a refreshing fruit juice……You never know who will be vying for your attention around the next corner.
It is estimated that India has approximately ten million street vendors, which is roughly equivalent to the population of the entire Chicago metro-land area in the US. For years, street vendors have lived lives of constant uncertainty with harassment from government officials, moneylenders, and shopkeepers. They are forced to give exorbitant rent, pay ridiculous interest, and give bribes to government officials just to try to secure their little space. They are often forced to move on a whim and can lose their merchandise. However, On May 1, 2014, after decades of battle and struggle, the Street Vendors Act was officially passed by the Parliament in India. The goal of this act is to regulate vendors and protect their rights. Time will tell if the lives of street vendors improve.
Some people believe that as malls and other large shopping centers are built in India, the role of the street vendor may disappear. However, S Murlidharan, in his article “Don’t Push the Street Vendors Aside,” asserts that until there is a quantum jump in India’s per capita income, the Indian shopping experience will not change significantly.*Malls and shopping centers may come, but most everyday people cannot afford these luxuries. Street vendors can offer convenience and a cheaper price to the wealthy, but for the poor, through bartering, they offer necessities of life at prices that can be feasible. Street vending is vital to the poor both in the employment opportunities it provides and in the commodities it provides.
To all of Indians, whether poor, middle class, or rich, the street culture and its entrepreneurs are an integral part of life that adds richness and color to a world that could easily become drab.
*Murlidharan, S. “Don’t Push the Street Vendors Aside.” The Hindu Businessline. Posted September 22,2013. (www.thehindubusinessline.com)
Photo credit: Aaron Nystrom