How does the average Indian, living in crowded metropolitan cities, react to the teeming hawkers who hog public spaces such as pavements, roads, railway over bridges. etc?
Well, the eternally busy Mumbaikars usually regard them as a useful nuisance that allows them to rush about their business without missing a beat. They grumble exasperatedly about the hawking menace but continue to use their services.
Increasingly, however, citizens' groups have begun to react to the corruption in municipal corporations, which has led to rampant encroachment of public spaces. They want hawkers to be licensed and restricted to specified hawking zones and to create a balance between their rights as tax-paying citizens and those of hawkers to earn a living.
Given that hawking has sometimes turned into a menace, the citizens' groups have had to turn increasingly strident against the combination of corruption and 'vote-bank politics', which combine to prevent reform and re-organisation.
Non-governmental organisations fighting the cause of these under-privileged groups are equally shrill. A recent letter in The Times of India alleged that those who rile against vote-bank politics and the proliferation of slums are an elite class of "parasites, feeding off the cheap labour" provided by the very people who live in the slums and on pavements.
Others, like the gutsy and outspoken Madhu Kishwar (editor the woman's magazine Manushi) are more practical and have been agitating for pro-poor economic reforms which recognise the contribution of service providers such as street vendors and cycle rickshaw operators, by demanding an end to their harassment by mindless officialdom and antiquated laws, rules and regulations.
Under the banner of the Manushi Nagrik Adhikar Manch, Madhu has got the prime minister to issue a new policy guideline covering these two sectors which says: "The existing licensing system with quantitative limits must be scrapped forthwith and that "the policy reform must seek to eliminate the scope for rent seeking and harassment by licensing and enforcement officials, recognise street hawking and [plying] cycle rickshaws as legitimate occupations which help reduce poverty, and facilitate their integration into the formal economy."
All this debate and discussion has, however, left out one group which actually views hawkers and street vendors as a growing business opportunity. This is corporate India, or more specifically, multinational companies operating in the food and beverage industry.
These companies compete ruthlessly in the market place and are constantly trying to discover new markets for their products. Food vendors who cater to the large migrant population in metropolitan cities or service office areas are increasingly the target for their sales pitch.
A couple of years ago, Hindustan Lever Ltd's annual meeting with financial analysts included a video presentation on its new markets. It showed that an important target for its pitch to sell packaged tea was the tiny chai-wallah.
HLL strategy is to hook the chai-wallah to the Brooke Bond brands by providing them with a day's supply of tea powder on 24-hour credit. Payment would be collected next morning on the supply of the next day's tea packet.
Parle's Bisleri was among the first to hit upon the idea of selling chilled bottles of its branded water at traffic signals in Mumbai. Hawkers dressed in company colours and sporting the brand logo also act as live hoardings. The Bisleri brigade has now been joined by all other sugared and bottled water brands.
Mumbai's popular sandwich-wallahs have also turned into a huge market for Britannia Industries and Hindustan Lever. Although Indians are not big bread eaters in their homes, the ubiquitous roadside sandwich-wallahs do brisk business splicing and toasting an unending stream of sandwiches all through the day.
While Hindustan Lever pitches it newly acquired Modern Foods brand, Britannia's multi-product menu makes it the obvious leader. It offers sandwich-wallahs a daily supply of bread, butter and cheese and takes back leftovers.
The large beach umbrella which provides cover the to sandwich maker and his clients is a big advertising spot for the company. The hawkers also get other goodies such as T-shirts and caps, so long as everything displays the company logo - right down to toasters, stalls and paper napkins.
A hot new sales point for Hindustan Lever's ice-cream is the brightly painted little push-carts that dot most crowded public places at metros and towns.
Hindustan Lever claimed to a leading newspaper that it does not patronize any illegal hawker and ensures that they only invest in persons who have a legal license. That could be true in its case, but most companies are not too pernickety about such details. If some sandwich stalls and umbrellas are confiscated during raids it is all part of normal business risk.
Since the umbrellas are the biggest proclamation of MNC support, I can confidently assert that I have seen plenty of cola and bottled water logos pitched at places where they simply cannot have been licensed hawkers.
But the issue is not about licensing. It is simply that policy makers should grab the opportunity and merge the business interests of these MNC companies with the needs of hawkers in framing policy and creating infrastructure facilities in hawking zones.
As Madhu Kishwar says, "Today, our entire economy is being crushed by the dead weight of our officialdom which has perfected the art of devising laws, rules and regulations which facilitate extortion and compel people to appear as grovelling supplicants before various agents of the all-pervasive sarkar."
Hopefully, the business interests of corporate houses can be put to work to counter the helplessness of this class by creating a support group for them. It will also ensure that corporates do not pursue their business interests by promoting illegal hawking.
For instance, every beach, fair, promenade, temple and fair is a market for MNCs selling soft drinks and snacks through vendors. Given the right advertising facilities, they would be happy to contribute their expertise (and even some money) in designing and creating the infrastructure for hygienic food vending facilities with adequate sanitation.
This is clearly one area where the concept of forging public-private partnerships which enable government and business to work together for the public good.