The real cost of cheap food

Driving to Electronics City (where I work), I pass through a wide road (with very wide shoulders) after St. John’s Hospital. In the early morning, along a long stretch, the shoulders are taken by vegetable vendors, along with some vendors of condiments and prayer items. The vegetables are bright and fresh and colorful. The condiments are bright with man-made colors. There is much energy in their commerce. They are old people, young people, children; all are engaged in the business. They are poor, yet they appear happy, their faces often smiling. Little boys carry small cups of coffee across the road to their families, darting through the thick and unruly flow of vehicles. Large women, clearly in command of the business, briskly sort the lime, tie greens into tiny bunches, arrange everything neatly. Old men push rickety carts with help from grandsons, against the rough flow of automobiles in the one-way street.

I enjoyed this spectacle daily until the morning I saw a man urinating just behind the sellers. I realized then that all these vendors would be urinating right there behind their lines. And without a wash, they would be back handling the foodstuff. Now, I notice their feet at the greens, half stamping on them, the betel juice filled mouths which I know will spit smartly just next to where they sit, maybe spraying a little on the foodstuff. I have seen a nice, closed van from a five-star establishment loading vegetables here.

I have come to accept it, though I now know that I should definitely not eat salads; I had been asking only foreigners to avoid them. Cook the food thoroughly. Allow no thought of sources when dining.

What is the real solution? Is there a place nearby where they can be moved that has toilets and a wash? Can space be created where they already operate? Can they keep their vegetables on inexpensive tables than on bare ground? How can they be taught hygiene? Who will do it? We buy vegetables cheaply by pressing for prices that do not allow decent facilities for these people. There are new establishments like Namdhari's and My Greens who have begun to set up chain stores selling clean-handled food; the growing middle class is slowly taking to them. When the stores take over the trade, what will happen to these small vendors?