Viewers of Scroll.in’s videos would have noticed an interesting occasional series titled “Daily Economics” that looks at the trades of pavement establishments in metropolitan India. The focus, as the title of the series suggests, is on what it costs the vendors to run their business and how much they earn.
The initial episodes were all on pavement establishments in Mumbai. The latest one, I am happy to say, is located in another city: it is about a seller of momos in Delhi.
Each of the short videos packs a lot of information. There is the description of the trade, the setting, an interview with an owner-operator and, somewhat unique to this series, a detailed listing of expenditure and income. I have not read or seen anything like the Daily Economics series before in print or on video. More than being informative, the series tells us about the hard work and the uncertainties that come with all pavement establishments.
The videos present the details of businesses that many of us in the cities see on the pavements – a chai-wallah, a bookseller, a paan-wallah, a maker and seller of poha, another of idli-dosas, and now on momos.
I had not noticed the videos initially. When I did stumble across them, I was curious as anybody would be about the lives of these people who we encounter perhaps everyday. I watched them in a row other than, of course, the one on momos, which was uploaded just last week.
I learnt something about the work of these people who are enterprising entrepreneurs and struggle against municipal regulations, corrupt officials and nature to offer us good quality products and services at a low cost.
Behind the scenes
I was initially troubled by aspects of the videos because they did not seem to confirm my pre-conceived notions. Were the numbers right? Could a pavement dosa-seller earn more than Rs 1 lakh a month? Was this unusually high and was it so because his pavement stall was in a busy location?
Could two brothers who claim to be running one of Mumbai’s better known paan shops jointly earn as little as Rs 45,000 a month?
Were viewers getting a representative picture of the income and expenditure in each case? Were these cross-checked by the filmmakers?
I am happy to say that most of my concerns were misplaced – they were, well, pre-conceived notions.
Here are the replies of Naresh Fernandes, editor of Scroll.in, to some of the questions posed to him.
Pavement vendors were not chosen because they were successful. Several vendors in various locations were interviewed and a representative one then chosen. Availability on the day of filming and a willingness to speak on camera would be one criterion for selection, but as far as possible the enterprise finally chosen would be a random choice.
One of the novel features of the series is a detailed listing of the costs of wages and all the major raw materials, as also a detailed item-wise listing of the price of the product and sales every month. How valid are these numbers? The editor tells me that the numbers too are cross-checked with a few other establishments to ensure that they are not out of line. This is again reassuring.
The numbers question crops up because I sat up when the short on Mariappan, the dosa-seller, told me that he earned around Rs 1.2 lakh a month. That is a lot for a pavement vendor and perhaps appreciably more than what many of his white-collar clientele themselves earn. Could this be what pavement vendors earn? Are we giving viewers the right information?
Mariappan’s numbers perhaps stand out because he has been able to operate in a choice location (I am told it is the Lower Parel office area in Mumbai) where he may well have been able to secure a prime spot. Others wanting to replicate his success in the same area (and therefore eat into his Rs 1-lakh-plus income) may not have been able to secure an equally good location close by.
The videos are all careful to identify the uncertainties that come with any pavement business. Mariappan, for instance, speaks about the municipal corporation officials coming by twice a month threatening to confiscate his equipment. So too the seller of home-cooked poha.
I still wonder if pavement food stalls operating away from the busy spots in either the office areas of Mumbai or near the suburban railway stations would yield the decent income that Mariappan earns even if they work the long hours he does.
(In a few videos in Daily Economics, with the stress on numbers, we seem to be told that there is good money to be made in these establishments. Some of the tag lines/headings say, “There is a tidy sum here”, “Minting Dosas Everyday”, “Hint: It is Profitable”).
Some of the videos do, in just a few minutes, also give us a glimpse of the larger changes that are taking place. The second-hand bookseller at Flora Fountain speaks of a declining business where customers move away after comparing his prices with online prices and where he has to convince readers of the joy of handling and reading a book in paper rather than reading it on a Kindle. The maker of momos in Delhi speaks of sales coming down from a decade ago when the dish was a novelty and before competitors jumped in.
I am glad that with the momos short from Delhi, Daily Economics has moved out of Mumbai. Perhaps with time and more resources, the filmmakers can venture occasionally into the smaller towns, or to areas away from the city centre, where the picture may be one of a greater struggle.
We need to hear as well of poignant stories like this one last week, in text, of the gruelling life of a sales representative in pharmaceuticals.
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