From 4 pm to 11 pm, it is hard to miss Triveni at Laxmi Nagar Metro Station in East Delhi. Customers crowd around his stall that has stood at the same spot for seven years, as the area’s “most popular paanipuri wallah” caters to them without a pause, dipping his golgappas into one pot, then another, and lands them into paper plates without spilling more than a few drops. There are no breaks, either for tea or a quick meal, as nearly a hundred plates pass hands by the end of his seven hours.
This Friday though is different. It has been a week since he was at the stall, leaving it to his distant cousin to man.
Instead, Triveni has been spending six hours a day in the air-conditioned rooms of the Indian Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) in Delhi. Still, he confesses, he is worn out. “Tomorrow is the first time I will sit down for an exam,” the 35-year-old says. “I may not be physically tired, but I am under stress. It’s a hygiene exam.”
By 9 am, Triveni and 24 others are seated in a ‘classroom’, for the first lecture of the day. “Sir and ma’am must be coming any time now,” whispers one of them. They have been learning the basics of hygiene and food presentation at the institute, which trains five-star chefs and restaurant managers.
The 25 were selected by the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) from Laxmi Nagar as part of the Tourism Ministry’s Swachh Bharat Swachh Pakwaan initiative, that aims to provide 15,000 street vendors from across India cleanliness and personal grooming lessons this year for free. As and when training is scheduled, NASVI selects an area randomly and the first 25 willing vendors from there are enrolled for training. At the end of the IHM session, they will get a certificate.
The vendors get a stipend of Rs 300 a day to compensate for their loss of earnings. Triveni says he can earn around Rs 500 a day from his stall.
“When foreign tourists travel to India, one of the biggest problems they have is low hygiene standards. Since street food is a big part of the India experience, we had to do something about it,” Union Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma says.
The first half of each training day is devoted to theory classes, while the last three hours are reserved for practicals, wherein they learn a simple recipe each day, in case they plan to diversify. “But the main aim of the practical classes is to see how much of the hygiene lessons is applied by them during cooking. That is what the exam is all about. They are asked simple questions about cleanliness — its importance, dos and don’ts — and how it will add to their revenue,” says Dr Raj Kumar Gupta, Dean (Academics) at IHM, who often makes surprise visits to the class.
As the lecture begins, most of the vendors are still talking about the exam next day. “I will wear a cap, apron and gloves while serving food. Also, I will keep a dustbin for discarded paper plates,” Triveni reads out from his notes. The teacher nods.
His friend Manoj, who runs a paan stall next to him, adds, “If I have cold and cough, I will wear a mask before serving food to others.” The teacher nods again.
A third one says aloud, “Those who serve food are like doctors. The only difference being that while doctors treat people after an illness strikes, we have to make sure that illness doesn’t happen.”
Soon, it’s lunch time. This is the one hour where they just enjoy the food. “Everyday, we are respectfully served fancy food at the restaurant here. Hum logon ke liye to yeh bahut badi baat hai (It’s a big deal for us),” smiles Triveni.
Between rounds of naan and shahi paneer, Ramesh, the kulcha-chanawallah, says, “Only today ma’am taught us that if we behave properly, we will get more customers. Foreigners will also come and pay in dollars.”
The teacher is Aarti Ghai, a senior lecturer at IHM Pusa. “We had to make them aware of the importance of personal hygiene and grooming,” she says. “While most of them came in looking unkempt on Monday, their first day, by Wednesday, they were clean-shaven, wore clean clothes and had started washing hands before the practicals.”
Sangeeta Singh, who heads the Street Food Programme at NASVI, says, “These vendors will lose out if today’s hygiene-conscious generation starts eating even golgappas at malls. Also, the Street Vendors Act, passed in 2014, is strict on hygiene,” she says.
Apart from the classes, NASVI provides vendors a Rs 150 pack that has a cap, apron and 100 pairs of disposable gloves. The gloves are to be thrown away after each use. “Besides, we will also help them apply for a street vendor’s licence so that they don’t have to pay hafta to the cops,” says Singh, adding that even though it’s not mandated, they make random visits to the thelas of trained vendors from time to time to see how much of their lessons are being applied.
Post lunch, the group of 25 walks into the ‘Practical Room’ next to the restaurant area and take their place behind the well-stocked cooking stations allotted to each. A lecturer starts teaching a recipe in Hindi, which they note down. Most of them are using the unused pages of their children’s notebooks.
Before picking up the vegetables and utensils for the day’s session, each washes his hands. “Being clean is as important as ensuring the dish is tasty. Youngsters who come in the Metro keep telling me, ‘Bhaiya, please wash your hands, give me in a paper plate’. I used to think today’s youngsters are fussy. But here I learnt that being clean also means being healthy,” says Triveni, who lives in a slum in the Yamuna Pushta area with his wife, three children and parents. “I read my lessons to my kids every night,” he adds.
“I had seen something like this on MasterChef,” says Ram Narayan, the chatwallah, pointing to his work station, as he rustles up a pulao from left-over vegetables. “I want to bring my children here and show them where we are studying. I now want to send my daughter here to become a chef.” His daughter is six and wants to become Sonakshi Sinha as of now, Narayan laughs.
Soon, however, the next day’s exam starts weighing on their minds. “I must prepare for the test after I get home,” Narayan mumbles. He is planning to skip sleeping. “Tomorrow afternoon, I go back to selling chaat, and I have to prepare the paapdi and bhallas at 4 am, before I come here,” says Narayan, who lives in Sakarpur in East Delhi.
Manoj, the paanwallah, is among the more confident ones heading into the exam. “I am going to display the certificate I get on my thela so that customers know I have trained at IHM,” he says.