MUMBAI: Mumbai's popular street snacks like 'bhel puri', 'paani puri' and 'vada pav', which used to be relished by people cutting across community and class barriers, have no takers now during the lockdown, throwing street food vendors and roadside stalls out of business.
Till some time back, street food was a thriving business in Mumbai, but since the coronavirus outbreak, many vendors have returned to their native places while others are staring at an uncertain future.
Kanhaiya, who ran a paani puri stall at Bhuleshwar in Zaveri Bazaar of south Mumbai, returned to his native village near Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh after his business dried up.
"In mid-March, when some coronavirus cases were detected in the state and the government ordered closure of malls, swimming pools, gyms, I realised that I should leave for my native place. When malls are shut, what value will I have," he told PTI over phone from his village.
He is now busy working at his family farm land, growing wheat, sugarcane and paddy.
Asked if he will come back, Kanhaiya said, "Let's see how the situation unfolds. Even though I have a farm in the village and a house of my own, agriculture is unreliable. Never know what you have sown will remain, it depends on rain. At my shop in Mumbai, I could at least make some savings."
He has been missing his stall at Bhuleshwar, which was the hub of wholesale and retail cloth, gold, diamond, steel, plastic and readymade garments.
Taxi drivers and low wage workers frequently visited the area, where 'puri bhaji', 'bhel puri', 'vada pav' and 'dosa' were available at prices ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 200.
Three khau gullies in Bhuleshwar, streets near the Churchgate station, Flora Fountain in Fort, Bombay Stock Exchange and other areas in south Mumbai used to be packed with food stalls and canteens selling snacks at cheap prices on normal days, but now these areas wear a deserted look.
Pappu Singh, another 'paani puri' vendor from Vile Parle area, also left for his native village Khedlakhurd in Dausa district of Rajasthan amid the lockdown.
"I used to earn Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 every month and lived at a rented room in Vile Parle with my sons. I came back when business started suffering," he told PTI over phone.
"I am penniless since the last two months. There is no water or work in my village. I have been surviving on roti- mirchi (flat bread and chilly)," he said.
"There is nothing in my farm. I will sow bajra (pearl millet) if there is good rain. I am waiting for the situation to normalise so that I can resume work," he added.
His son Narender singh, who works at a 'bhel puri' shop in Vile Parle, however, did not leave Mumbai as he felt the lockdown will not prolong.
"I and seven workers are staying at the 'bhel puri' shop and we are getting food. The owner hails from our village," Narender said.
His employer Sandeep Sharma, owner of the 'Sharma Bhelpuri' outlet in Vile Parle, said his business is affected by this unprecedented crisis.
"My 16 employees were mostly from my native place in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Some from UP have left and those who stayed back are living in my shop and godown. They are my family, so it is my duty to look after them in such harsh times," Sharma said.
He also feels it is time to reinvent the business model once the COVID-19 crisis ends.
"We are thinking of starting 'sev puri' and 'paani puri' takeaways and supply our 'chutneys' hygienically packed to general stores which are open," Sharma said.
"Business is anyways low during monsoon. I don't think people will prefer eating 'bhel puri' and 'paani puri' when normalcy returns. They will be scared to eat outside and would rather spend on more important things in life," he added.
Santosh Sawant, a 'vada pav' stall owner in suburban Santacruz, said business owners like him are now confused about their future.
"When my business shut two months ago, I looked after my staff members who were staying in two rooms that I own. I gave them money and food. But, on May 15, they left for their native places without informing me. They were my employees for last 15 to 20 years and I can't start my business again without them," he said.
But, Sawant is hopeful that his employees will return as he used to acknowledge their hard work.
"My focus has always been on quality food and my customers know it. I am sure when things normalise, my business will resume. But I am working on how to take it forward. I am thinking of taking home delivery orders right now," he said.
Sagar, whose mother used to supply tiffins to staff at the Vidhan Bhavan, secretariat and the Shipping Corporation of India in south Mumbai, said his business was already down after his father died last year and mother became ill.
Since the lockdown, their tiffin service has completely shut down.
Sagar said his mother used to sit on the footpath opposite the secretariat in the afternoon to get more customers who would stop by for a quick lunch of Malvani food.
"Since our business closed, I even tried taking up other jobs, but didn't have much luck after everything came to a standstill due to the lockdown," he said.
Franchise broker Pravin Jagtap said nearly five lakh people worked in the micro-business sector of fast food and takeaway joints, which has been badly hit by the lockdown.
A lot of youngsters had joined the business before the COVID-19 crisis took it all away.
"Those who have paid the one-time franchise fees and have taken loan will not be able to pay the shop rent and bank dues due to business losses.
After the situation normalises, these shops will have to be careful about health and hygiene issues to get customers back," he said.
Rents will also be unaffordable in future and prices will go up due to inflation, he claimed.
"Mumbaikars have already forgotten the habit of eating out," Jagtap said.
Writer and culinary expert Ajit Joshi said," The street food of Mumbai, that found a place in Bollywood films, international documentariesand food shows, is going to be missed."
A large number of office-goers used to depend on the street food, he added.