Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Many people vouchsafe for the high taste notes of street served foods but it is difficult for safety conscious individuals to accept them easily. The reasons are not far to seek. The quality and safety of water used for preparing the food and cleaning the plates and utensils always worry hygiene sensitive people though there may be a few road side eateries taking some elementary precaution to use good water. These days one can even see some vendors using bulk bottled water, at least for drinking by the customers. Added to this absence of provision for waste water disposal, unhygienic and polluted environment, uncomfortable seating arrangement etc can put off many people. From time to time some of these issues have been addressed though most street vendors continue to do what they were doing for years without realizing the risk they pose to their customers. Singapore's unique Hawker Center program, thought about decades ago and established through out the city Republic is a model concept worth emulating by other countries having thousands of street vendors hawking unsafe foods across the length and breadth of the region.

According to a recent report there are about 112 Hawker Centers in Singapore managed by the government agency which has the responsibility to maintain the facilities to ensure safety to the customers who flock such places. While most of them attract plenty of customers who even have to queue up for their "fill", some does not attract sufficient number of clients threatening their very viability. Since heavy investments have been made by the State and the rents are mostly subsidized because of the rehabilitation tag this program carries with it, Government is in a dilemma regarding their future. The clamor for opening more Hawker Centers is growing as the population is expanding and new dwelling settlements have been established, away from the existing Centers. Since the last Center was opened in 1981, it is almost 3 decades after which the possibility of setting up new centers is under consideration.

Though the Hawker Center program was completed in 1981, taking into consideration advances in knowledge and technology Singapore government did undertake an upgradation project in 2001 to modernize some of them providing more comforts and facilities to the customers. New Centers, if going to be taken up, can be expected to be more savvy as the country is one of the fastest technology assimilators in Asia. Why Singaporeans prefer such Centers to other known eating places is attributed to the atmosphere provided inside the Hawker Centers offering better opportunity for social interaction irrespective of economic status. In contrast to food plazas and food courts Hawker Centers are known to be more spacious, well ventilated and better furnished besides having fabulous choice of foods. Another big question is why the erstwhile road side vendors are willingly shifting their business into such centers? Obviously they find the facilities too attractive besides being much cheaper to operate with minimum maintenance responsibility.

One of the reasons customers flock to street side eateries is that they yearn for authentic traditional ethnic foods which are not available in most established restaurants where "quick to assemble" standard menu is offered. With Hawker Centers offering modern facilities, will the vendors stick to their simple menu or migrate to more sophisticated product regime to include products like Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, sandwiches etc? Though such possibilities cannot be ruled out, ultimately the customers will decide if such changes are acceptable to them. This is especially true when new Centers are opened up and new entrepreneurs not belonging to the original street vending community move in for starting their business. After all the skill inherent in making traditional foods is slowly disappearing and there is no established training program that is capable of reviving this skill and imparting the same to new entrepreneurs.

Why is that Singapore does not consider food truck system that is popular in a country like the US for emulation? Obviously the small size of this nation with limited land availability and high density population cannot afford to clutter its streets with large trucks causing potential traffic jam. Already the country is tightly regulating sale of new cars and many street are designated as toll roads to pre-empt too many cars entering them causing traffic snarls. The Hawker Centers also play its part in decongesting the foot paths which otherwise would have been cluttered with hawkers. India is a country where thousands of such Centers need to be put in place in hundreds of towns across the country for the sake of uplifting the lot of poor vendors as well as protecting the health of the population. Is any one listening in Delhi? Unlikely as this is the season for scams of all nature, with little time left for GOI to worry about real governing!


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