To curb cholera, Lalitpur targets street food sellers. Not everyone is amusedPanipuri and chatpate vendors could lose livelihoods. Experts stress better monitoring.
Amid rising cases of cholera in Kathmandu Valley and doctors warning about a possible outbreak, Lalitpur Metropolitan City on Sunday swung into action to control the waterborne disease.
It put a blanket ban on the sale of ‘panipuri’ and ‘chatpate’—spicy street foods mostly popular among the youth.
In its decision, the Lalitpur Metropolitan City has announced a complete ban on selling panipuri and chatpate on the roadsides from Monday, saying that such street food could be a major source of cholera spread.
Sitaram Hachhethu, chief of the city police also known as the implementation division, said they sent over two dozen street vendors home on Sunday.
“From Monday, anyone found selling these items on the streets will have their carts confiscated,” said Hachhethu. He said the City has decided to ban the roadside sale of panipuri and chatpate until cholera cases come under control.
“We can’t say for how long the ban will continue but it has to be until cases come down to zero,” said Hachhethu.
According to him, those who sell panipuri and chatpate do not use clean water, and on Sunday alone, 27 such vendors were sent home with a warning not to return to the streets until the ban is lifted.
“We have found that they use tap water, which could increase the risk of cholera outbreak, as the disease has already been detected in the Sanepa area,” said Hachhethu.
When it comes to panipuri and chatpate, they are certainly not considered hygienic foods for a number of reasons.
A blanket ban on their sales, however, seems to be a hasty decision by the Lalitpur Metropolitan City (LMC).
More street carts have emerged in the city areas selling these foods simply because there are consumers. Many earn a living by selling panipuri and chatpate on the streets.
Rajan Basnet is one.
He came to Kathmandu a decade ago and worked as a labourer at construction sites. He then saw good prospects in selling panipuri and chatpate as he could set up the business with a minimum investment.
He has been selling panipuri for the last five years in front of Nightingale School at Kupondole.
The City’s decision has left him worried.
“I earn around Rs700 a day. My family survives on this business,” Basnet, 28, father of two sons aged two and three, and a daughter aged one, told the Post on Sunday afternoon. “My family will go hungry if I am not allowed to operate my business.”
When it comes to street vendors, Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) has been more notorious compared to Lalitpur. Kathmandu’s city police personnel have in the past faced much criticism for confiscating the goods of street vendors or even beating them up.
There is no exact data on the number of people selling panipuri and chatpate on Lalitpur streets.
Street vendors like Basnet, however, are major contributors to the economy.
An analytical report on the informal sector published by the Central Bureau of Statistics in March last year shows that there are 34,101 street businesses in Nepal, which employ 45,330 people.
In Bagmati Province, the number of persons engaged in street business is 9,066, which commands a 26.6 percent share of the total street business.
The report shows that 12,147 street businesses have an annual turnover of less than Rs100,000 each.
Similarly, 1,292 street businesses reported an annual turnover of more than Rs1 million.
The report shows that 8,728 street businesses make annual profits ranging from Rs50,000 to Rs99,999 and 1,494 are running in losses.
The Lalitpur Metropolitan City’s decision is likely to impact a large number of people who earn their livelihoods by selling panipuri and chatpate on the roadsides, alleys, and some open areas.
According to officials, there are around 600 such vendors in the 29 wards of Lalitpur.
Sundar Nepali, who has been assigned to monitor the hygiene of street food in ward no 2 of the City (Jhamsikhel area), says that in his ward there are a total of 11 such vendors, including three women who sell chatpate and panipuri on the roadsides or school areas.
Satish Bista, chief of Health Office Lalitpur, said the metropolitan city’s blanket ban on panipuri and chatpate sellers does not make sense.
“The City should monitor these sellers and carry out inspections so as to ensure that they are maintaining good hygiene,” said Bista. “Only those maintaining good hygiene standards should be allowed to do business and others should be punished.”
Bista said he was also in the meeting that decided to impose the ban and that he opposed the decision.
According to the Health Ministry, as of Sunday, nine cases of cholera have been found in Kathmandu Valley and the patients are from Sanepa, Bagbazar, Dillibazar, Balkhu, Balaju, and Kapan, among other areas.
Doctors treating the patients say the presence of E coli in drinking water was the reason behind infections. Kathmandu Valley’s drinking water has never been up to the mark, and even the state-owned water utility recommends drinking water supplied by it only after boiling.
Experts say the rise in cholera cases could also be due to the garbage on the streets that could not be collected for months owing to problems at the landfill sites in Nuwakot.
According to them, blaming only those selling panipuri and chatpate on the streets for the cholera cases is not just wrong, but inhuman, as such a ban robs them of their livelihoods.
Dr Baburam Marasani, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said that cholera cases are being reported not only because of the panipuri sellers but also because of the government’s failure to uphold people’s constitutional right to live a healthy life.
“The government itself has been distributing contaminated water. None of the government agencies are concerned about the government-supplied drinking water, which is contaminated with E coli and other pathogens,” said Marasini. “Now Lalitpur wants to prove itself as the champion in the fight against cholera and has launched a crackdown on the poor.”
Basnet, the panipuri seller, claimed that he is concerned about his customers’ health and that he uses jar water and maintains the best possible level of hygiene he can.
He said he is concerned about hygiene also because he wants to continue his business.
“If people fall sick after eating my panipuri and chatpate, will they come to me again?” he said. “Since this is the only source of my livelihood, I have to be careful. I have to pay Rs7,000 per month in rent besides my other expenses. Can I afford to ruin my business by selling unhygienic food?”
Nepali, the man assigned to inspect the hygiene of street food in the Jhamsikhel area, said that out of 11 sellers, seven use jar water and they are quite concerned about maintaining a certain level of hygiene. He also believes the metropolitan city’s decision is reactive.
Chotan Prajaptai, 31, has got his cart covered with glass panes on three sides so as to shield the food from road dust. That’s his shop which he puts up every day at Arun Thapa chowk in the Jhamsikhel area.
“I came to know about the decision from one of my customers,” he said. “If the authorities want to check whether I maintain hygiene, they can come and do so. Why impose a blanket ban? It’s a decision that does injustice to the poor like us.”
Panipuri and chatpate vendors say they suffered a lot because of the Covid-19 pandemic, as lockdowns and threats of the coronavirus kept the consumers away.
“Now by showing the threat of cholera, the authorities are cracking down on us. It’s not fair,” said Prajapati.
Panipuri and chatpate are kinds of foods whose hygiene have always been in question though.
Panipuri is a crispy, fried, hollow dough ball served with a fill of stuffed mashed potato and chickpeas along with spicy, tangy water. Chatpate can be made in various ways, with puffed rice as the main ingredient. It usually consists of finely chopped tomato, onion, green chilli and boiled potato together with some dry noodles and an assortment of spices.
Given the ingredients and the way these street foods are usually prepared out in the open, doctors say chances of them being unhygienic are quite high. But experts insist that regulation is the way to go rather than putting a blanket ban on their sales.
“It has been learnt that many popular street foods like panipuri and chatpate can spread diseases like cholera,” said Marasini. “But what about the water jars that are being sold in the market? Bottled water is also not safe. And what about some big hotels and restaurants? Who has inspected the foods they are selling?”