No takers for ice cream, cotton candy, cold drinks, golgappa at India Gate

- April 11, 2022
| By : Anmol Nath Bali |

Vendors who used to make a good living at the India Gate lawns, once a favourite spot for tourists and Delhi’s citizens, are unable to get back on their feet after Covid restrictions were lifted due to the ongoing Central Vista reconstruction work  

Satish Kumar, a seller of Gol Gappe/Anmol Nath Bali

Anita Sahni hunches in the shade of a barricade to shield herself from the scorching heat. She is a vendor of cold drinks and water at India Gate. Three months ago, she added tobacco to her list for more income. Her main customers are tourists, visitors and labourers working on the Central Vista project. 

Anita hails from Bihar and for the last 26 years has been living in the national capital. Before the reconstruction project started, she had a brisk business of cold drinks and water; apart from this, she made good money applying henna on customers’ hands and crafting alphabetical keychains.

“Foreign tourists were my main customers. I miss seeing their happy faces when the henna pattern was completed,” says Anita. 

On a good day, she could sell 10-12 boxes of water but now sale is limited to 2-3 boxes”, says Anita. “I used to earn around Rs 1,000-1,500 per day but now my earnings are down to Rs 200-300 a day.” 

In Image: Anita Sahni

Other vendors have also been facing huge losses around the India Gate hexagon, first due to the lockdowns and now due to the ongoing reconstruction. The double-edged blade has slit their pockets at this spot favoured by tourists during the day and the city’s residents at night. Tourists can still be seen taking selfies around the mess to show their friends and family they have visited the capital city.

Anita’s two sons work as photographers at India Gate; her husband helps her to manage the vend. They work around the clock to nourish the family of six members. “What we collectively earn is not sufficient at this time when inflation is touching the sky”, says Anita.

It costs around Rs 300 for Anita to commute from Tirlokpuri to India Gate. Every week, she has to pay Rs 200 as bribe to the police so that she can sell cold drinks and water without interruption. “I have been paying chalans to NDMC since 1991 and I have got nothing in return,” says Anita.

On further probing, the story of a protection racket unfolds. “This is a  distressful place to work. Touts come around to collect weekly and monthly bribes from the vendors and if you will not pay them, they say they will call the police and the cops will throw you and your stuff out. Once a cop threw my water and cold drink bottles on the road. I pleaded with him saying, I have spent my whole life here, Where will I go?” reveals Anita. No wonder she quietly pays up now.

Another woman vendor who sells cold water at India Gate circle is looking equally disgruntled. “I had got both my daughters married from the income which I earned at India Gate but now I can’t think of it”, says the vendor. Her main concern is increasing inflation and decreasing income.

Ramdas, who belongs to Hathras in UP, has for the last 32 years been selling bhelpuri here. He recalls the old good days when great footfall of tourists and other crowds meant good business for him. Now he only makes Rs 200-300 rupees a day. 

Before the project started, he used to earn around Rs 700-800 a day. “For the last two years, I was inactive but now I have back from my village,” says Ramdas. However, his hope of making a decent living have been belied. 

Asked how displacement and pandemic have impacted other vendors, he says, “Hundreds of vendors and hawkers who were dependent on India Gate. People selling bhelpuri, laddoo, golgappa, ice cream and cold drinks are all badly affected. Many have left the business and many have returned to their respective villages. With no income in hand, how can we pay rent?” he despairs.

“Because of debt, living in the village became suffocating for me, that’s why I am back. But cops harass us and don’t allow us to sit near India Gate canopy,” Ramdas complains.

The Central Vista project was conceived in September 2019 and will take six years to be finished, since such projects are planned in a phased manner. It includes Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House, North Block, South Block, National Archives, India Gate and civic gardens on both sides of Rajpath.

Golgappa vendors were one of the magnets for visitors, with long queues of vendors and customers. Satish Kumar, for instance, has been in the business for the last eight years. “We numbered 250-300 vendors, just for chaat, but now only 2-3 people are left,” he says. 

Asked about his daily pickings, he is dismissive: “Filhal toh time pass ho raha he” (Currently, I am just passing the time of day). 

Many of his fellow vendors have changed their line of  business. Some have become auto drivers and others have started working as daily wagers in factories.

So why is he still here? Why didn’t he try to get a job and become financially secure? He replies,“Business is far better than a job. I am here because I think the good old days will come back after the construction is over”.

It was only 8:10 pm when a cop started announcing on a loudspeaker that the area must be vacated. Hundreds of tourists, photographers and vendors disappeared from the site within minutes. Among them was Sonu.

Photographers at India Gate.

Photographers like him cashing in on the historic monument are now struggling to make ends meet. Hailing from Budayun in UP, he has been living in the capital for the last five years.  Three years ago, he switched from selling candy at the same venue to photography. He starts his day at 9:00 am and works till 8:00 pm when they get hounded out.

“Look at the mess, there is no space to stand. In the given circumstances, how can we click good photographs of our customers?” says Sonu.

According to Sonu, there were 250 photographers before the digging started and now only 150 are left. “I used to earn around Rs 800-1,000 but now I only take mere Rs 200-300 home after a whole day of hard work”, says Sonu.

As there is stiff competition among photographers, every visitor is surrounded by dozens of photographers like him pitching competitive prices to lure customers.

Ice cream was one of the top draws for tourists and visitors at India Gate. They used to make a beeline for a long chain of Ice cream vendors. Colourful carts of various ice cream brands were a craze for kids to beat the scorching heat but now the scenario is different. After the displacement, many vendors have left the area and many have taken up positions opposite Andhra Bhawan and on Janpath.

Mahesh Chand Gupta, who has been selling ice cream at India Gate since 1984, is well known to his fellow vendors. “That time was good, we were able to feed our family but, now after the pandemic and the beginning of construction, we have reached a point where we don’t know whether tomorrow we will get anything to eat or not”, says Gupta. 

Like many other vendors, he has spent a lifetime working at India Gate. Now in his fifties, he does not know of any other option to make a living.

Gupta, who says that he is a BJP worker, wishes the Prime Minister would spare a thought for them. “I want to thank PM Modi for providing insurance for small businessmen and hawkers but currently our need is space so that we could stand and do our work. I request the PM to find a solution for us” says Gupta.

“We don’t want to be an obstacle in the construction work, but we should be given a place to stand and install our vends near India Gate as long as the construction goes on,” requests Gupta.

He has written a letter to the Station House Officer (SHO) of Tilak Marg Police Station requesting him to permit vends and carts near India Gate.

Ice cream vendors say their head count was once 150-200 but now only 20-25 are left. The low margin of 15% and scarce footfall have made the ice cream business unviable for many.

Then there is the cotton candy story. Laxman, all of 14 years, has been selling cotton candy for the last five years. Before lockdown, it was his part-time job but after the pandemic, it became a full-day task. Laxman was studying at Nimal Primary School, Pandara Road and dropped out of Class 4. 

His reason for dropping out is the same as millions of others: after the lockdown, income of many parents fell drastically. Many could no longer afford to keep their wards in school. “I make around Rs 200-250 a day and I give all this money to my mother,” says Laxman. 

His parents stay home and make the cotton candy that he hawks. Asked whether he wants to go to school again, he says, “Yes, I want to but I don’t know when the time will be right.”

Perhaps when the project is completed? 

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