The government is looking to get rid of Delhi Belly.
In an effort to try and reduce problems from unsafe food, it has decided to create “safe food” zones across seven major cities, part of a three-year plan to improve the quality of street food in the country.
The experiment, which will kick off next month, has already been approved by the Planning Commission with a preliminary funding of about Rs5 crore per city. The goal is that by 2010, there will be at least three such safe food zones in each of the targeted cities—New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Agra, Mumbai and Jaipur. Around 500 vendors in each area will be covered under the programme.
“Nearly everyone in India has had food on the go because it is tasty, inexpensive and nutritious. We are trying to improve the quality of these meals by setting informal standards. Hawkers face extensive policing in India but still don’t meet the minimum health standards,” said P.I. Suvarthan, secretary, ministry of food processing industries.
It is unclear how the project will address the lack of clean water or garbage disposal but the ministry is using non-government agencies Sulabh and VOICE as well as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to help with the project.
The inspiration partly comes from Lahore’s popular Food Street near Gawalmandi that was established in 2000, and the ubiquitous hot dog and pretzel stands in Manhattan.
The principle idea behind the project is to try and improve standards without government interference while the private sector, especially branded products companies, will fund the effort in return for placing their ads on the newly designed push-carts.
CII says it has a new design in place that shouldn’t cost more than what current carts cost to manufacture. It has begun approaching companies such as Nestle, ITC, Tata and Hindustan Lever to sponsor the new carts, in return for prominent display of their product advertising.
The modular cart is designed for vendors to add on specific components—for dry food , for cooking or just for fruit juices without having to replace the entire cart, thus helping keep the costs low, says Savita Nagpal, who heads CCI’s manufacturing sector unit.
The move towards informal standardization of street food follows a Parliamentary Committee’s decision that the new laws for food safety should not increase policing of street-food vendors. The ministry has now concluded that with thousands of hawker families living just above poverty levels, trying to regulate their sales through more government regulation is unlikely to work.
“The government will only part-fund the effort and will not appoint additional quality inspectors. Instead, NGOs will monitor the health and standard of vendors, using committees that will include food consumers,” Suvarthan insists.
The government has also decided to create a new certification mechanism that will give on-the-spot accreditation to vendors, based on standards informally approved by the Quality Council of India, an autonomous body.
Instead of one of the 6,000 government food inspectors in the country and the16 major laws affecting the sector directly or indirectly, a group of four people, including representatives from NGOs and consumers will have the final word on food safety when it comes to these zones.