The Charm of Roadside Vendors
As compared to those who are paid on a monthly basis, the daily wage earner’s life is a lot more unpredictable, challenging and unproductive in terms of earning a living. The lives of the 2.5 million daily wage earners in Pakistan are far more vulnerable to the changes in the social, political and economic structure as compared to others. A huge number of these daily wage earners consist of roadside vendors selling items ranging from bun kababs to old shoes and bags.
A look across the country reveals that their condition has undergone some significant changes in the past few years. Most of them claim that although their sales have increased, yet due to inflation, the cost of their goods as well as their other expenses has increased, thereby reducing their profit margins.
These vendors are extremely distraught due to the worsening situation in cities like Karachi. The frequent strikes and riots and the fear of having their stalls set on fire, is a major hindrance in their income.
Shakeel, who makes shawarma rolls in Bahadurabad complains that the strikes ruin the entire week. Often the food he prepares becomes stale during the days of long strikes when there are few or no customers. Although he refused to disclose his daily income, he did say that he made a profit of 500 rupees. Out of this, he has to give a fixed sum of money to the community leader, further reducing his profits.
Many people say that roadside vendors should be aware of the ill effects of the unhygienic food they sell. However, people who do buy food from these stalls are not bothered about hygiene. The hygiene-conscious crowd generally avoids these roadside eateries.
In many areas these vendors continue to sell their stuff despite the strict laws. They simply encroach sidewalks and carry on their business, having gratified the policeman on duty. No wonder, there is little success in removing these roadside vendors.
The location of business is a crucial aspect for every vendor. The best point is near a school or college, a mall or commercial area. Apart from taste and affordability, the location helps in winning customers. Due to the popularity of Saleem’s ’ Gola l ganda, the Dhoraji roundabout has become known as the ‘Gola Ganda’ roundabout. When Saleem’s and other stalls were removed from that area, they protested for a week and the authorities eventually gave up and vendors returned to their favourite location.
When forced to move to a different location, while the vendors who protest, their customers also support them. According to a survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan, 69 percent of the respondents said that the vendors should not be done away with as selling food and other items on wheels is a very common phenomenon. The survey also revealed that street-side vendors were far more common in urban areas as compared to the rural areas.
Despite the strict rules imposed by DHA against pushcart vendors, French Fries seller Allah Warsi Jan explains the reasons behind his unwillingness to switch to other locations. The police has often confiscated his stall and he has had to pay 5000 rupees to get it back. Warsi Jan earns a surprisingly higher amount than vendors in Bahadurabad or Nazimabad - around 1500-2000 rupees daily.
Omar Waqar, a fruit vendor in Badar Commercial in DHA saysays the police is involved in the collection of extortion money from these poor vendors on a monthly basis. Since the commercial location is better for sales, moving to a residential area would be suicidal for them. Omar says they have to be extremely vigilant to avoid being spotted by the DHA authorities as they do not take extortion money and just remove the stalls from the area.
It is also important for a vendor to stick to one location to keep customers. Karachiites have a tendency to refer to a place by its well-known landmark or by pushcart vendor, such as Bengali Baba’s pan shop in New Town, Sajjad’s Tasty Burger on Khayabane-Shahbaz, Majju’s Bun Kabab in Rizvia Market and Saleem’s Gola Ganda at Dhoraji roundabout.