New Delhi / Chennai: Narain Singh, 45, is the fluorescent man—at least on his street.
Every afternoon, he leases 70 fluorescent lamps that he owns, rings a patrol around hirers, and collects them back after nightfall.
Unknown to him, he has aided the demise of the iconic Petromax, or the paraffin-fir-ed, stand-alone lamps invented a century ago in Germany, and widely used even today by thousands of vendors on India’s streets who have neither the access nor the rights to an electricity connection.
In fact, Singh, too, was a user of the Petromax, coined to combine petroleum and Max, the first name of the inventor Max Graetz.
But two years ago he spotted a niftier, cheaper replacement—the battery-operated compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), and then decided his business might shine brighter under their lurid white light.
And so, he rapidly shifted his vegetable-selling business to his younger, unemployed brother and became the lender of CFLs along his street in one of south Delhi’s busiest middle-class markets, Sarojini Nagar.
Light on the pocket: Narain Singh (right) gives the cheaper CFLs on rent to vendors in Sarojini Nagar market.
“There is a lack of availability of kerosene,” says Singh, explaining one reason for the demise of the Petromax. But he adds quickly that the market for his offerings, too, “is now saturated as almost all the street vendors have moved to CFL,” and there are three other rivals who lease such lamps.
Singh’s battery-powered CFLs, assembled locally, are rented out to vendors for Rs20 a day. And his clients, ranging from sellers of handkerchiefs to ceramic mugs, from fruit sellers to juice makers, need little convincing to switch because the math is too compelling.
Traditional kerosene-powered lamps are run mostly on illegally procured kerosene that the government sells at hugely subsidized rates to legitimate holders of documents that show they are among India’s poorest.
However, a large portion of this fuel is sold in the secondary or illegal market at much higher rates and is used—among other things—to fuel the Petromax. With petroleum prices going up in the last few years, the price of the illegally procured kerosene has shot up, costing as much as Rs35 per litre, similar to the price of diesel.
Petromax lights consume one litre of kerosene for four hours of operation, making it a costly proposition for street vendors whose earnings are not high.
In addition, the mantle, or bulb which provides the light in kerosene-powered lamps, are prone to frequent failures, Singh says.
Singh buys his locally assembled CFLs for Rs950 and rents them out for Rs20 a day. It’s a win-win situation. Vendors save Rs15 every day on lighting cost. And for Singh, it’s turned into a lucrative business.
It costs Rs700 for the battery, Rs125 each for wiring and an 11-watt CFL bulb in Delhi. In Chennai, where the CFL and battery are neatly sealed inside a plastic cover, it costs Rs2,500 for a lamp, says Pandian, who goes only by his first name and is a lamp-leasing businessman like Singh.
The shift to CFL is so complete that it is next to impossible to find a street vendor who still uses Petromax lamps in Sarojini Nagar. There are around 200 street vendors, apart from 300-350 shops in the market, and almost all have shifted to CFL.
“Why not? I am making more money,” says Anil Kumar, who sells bananas in the market, when asked why he shifted to CFL. His logic is that he earns Rs15 more (in money not spent on Petromax) in four hours between 6pm and 10pm when he is forced to use the lamp.
Hundreds of miles away in Chennai, at Besant Nagar beach, almost all the 160 vendors using push-carts, have shifted to CFLs. Pandian, owner of Dhanalakshmi Solar System, which makes CFLs, rents out about 35 of the devices to the vendors at Elliots Beach, Chennai, a day. But on weekends, his rental business triples to 100 lamps.
A vendor, R. Sengilakshmi, who makes her living by selling bajjis, a batter fried snack made of gram flour and vegetables, uses two CFLs and one Petromax lamp.
“We would like to use only the Petromax lights as they are so powerful, but kerosene oil costs Rs32 per litre; how can we afford one litre every day?”
But there are some diehard Petromax fans still.
One such vendor who has a game board stall of shooting balloons at the beach uses Petromax and refuses to switch. “Only this light (Petromax) is powerful; lights up my entire balloon board. Look at the other vendors having CFL lights—is it the same?’’ says N. Mahadevan.
However, the business of renting CFLs is not as lucrative as it seems. Singh says he has lost more than 200 units in the last two years because some vendors who rent them just vanish with them.
For Pandian in Chennai, the tsunami that hit the city wreaked havoc on his business. Not that he lost his lamps, but the government of Tamil Nadu decided to distribute CFLs for free to all fisherman in the area.
Still, he is happy to see white lamps dot the beach instead of the old yellow Petromax ones.