Tricks of the trade

Do Mumbai's streetside flower sellers really get their roses from graveyards?

There is a far less gory explanation for why street vendors are able to sell expensive bouquets for just Rs 100: they get yesterday's flowers from five-star hotels.

Among Mumbai's more abiding urban legends is the one that the bouquets sold at traffic lights are actually floral offerings stolen from the city's graveyards. How else, the logic goes, could the vendors afford to sell flowers so cheap?

The truth, it turns out, is less morbid. Far from skulking around cemeteries at night and making off with flowers left there by grieving relatives, certain street sellers in south Mumbai have a far more reputable source for their wares: five-star hotels.

That's something London School of Economics student Anitra Baliga discovered as she researched the dynamism of the city's small entrepreneurs. One part of her study was focussed on the flower sellers at the seaside boulevard of Marine Drive. Baliga realised that they obtain some part of their stocks at night, after events at the hotels and weddings at the numerous gymkhanas along the strip. The flowers, which would have otherwise been discarded, get new life once collected by the street vendors, who cut and pack them into fresh bouquets, and sell them to customers at the traffic junction.

Mumbai imports 1,560 tonnes of flowers from India and abroad every day – more than any other part of the country, said Baliga. While there have always been weddings and events along Marine Drive, the quality and varieties of flowers used in decorations now reflect far more expensive tastes. Roses and carnations are considered everyday flowers and are sold for cheap. But orchids and lilies could go for as much as Rs 100 for a bouquet of six or seven flowers.

The fortunes of street vendors rose in tandem with the wedding industry. Three or four years ago, florists began to sell more orchids and lilies over regular gajras and marigolds, something that Baliga noticed, and which prompted her to conduct her study. She spoke to various vendors on the streets and in shops, to flower market suppliers, and to wedding and event managers who passed flowers on after the event.

These trade secrets did not tumble out naturally. Baliga had to work over several days to gain the trust of the vendors. To outsiders, they maintain that their only source of flowers is the Dadar flower market, which operates just outside the Dadar station well before dawn every day.

The flower sellers at Marine Drive certainly know their business. They are all members of the same extended family from Adalaj in Gujarat, and have been plying their trade on the pavements for around 30 years.

Their day begins very early in the morning, getting flowers from places like the Dadar flower market, and often ends very late at night, when they source flowers after events get over at gymkhanas and hotels.


Photo by Hashim Badani.


“We will sell our flowers even if we get only a profit of Rs  10 on it,” said Mukesh Gada, who was pacing the street with his last two bouquets of scentless orchids late at night. “If I don’t sell these today, I will lose far more money, so even though I am tired, I have to go on.”

He had been on his feet since eight that morning, navigating through the Dadar flower market, and attempting to cut the best deal. He said he had a fairly good estimate of how much dhandha, or business, he would get each day. This is vital. Since his flowers are not always fresh, they will wilt if not sold quickly.

“The entire process is very instinctive, as is the case with a lot of stories of street entrepreneurship,” Baliga said. “He knows exactly how much to buy and sell each day. He also has a flexibility and advantage of being on the street that a regular florist does not.”

Street florists have even developed a system of classification for different signal junctions. They sell their most expensive bouquets at the “VVIP” Kemps Corner junction, which leads to the wealthy precincts of Altamount Road, Peddar Road and Breach Candy. A grade lower, in a manner of speaking, is the “VIP” Babulnath junction at the northern end of Marine Drive. They sell the remainder at the junction leading to Churchgate, where prospective customers are likely to be of the hoi polloi.

“They know which flowers are popular and who buys them,” said Baliga. “They are constantly reading into Bombay as a city, its neighbourhoods, its citizens.”

 
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.