The Slow Boil
Street Food, Rights and Public Space in Mumbai
Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria


Chapter 1


While idled in traffic one afternoon, an elderly driver of an autorickshaw, the affordable, three-wheeled, motorized taxi ubiquitous in Mumbai’s northern suburbs, leaned back to strike up a conversation. He had a speckled beard and a broad smile, and he seemed to enjoy his job and the conversations with strangers it offered. After asking where I was from and what I was doing in Mumbai, the conversation took an unexpected turn.1 “What’s the famous monument of New York?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s the Statue of Liberty, right?” Without waiting for my response, he continued: “What’s the monument of Mumbai?” I stumbled while searching for an appropriate answer. I proposed the Gateway of India, the arch overlooking the Arabian Sea, completed in 1924, an icon of city promotional materials and popular tourist spot. He shook his head. If this was a test of my research credentials, I had failed. “No, no, it’s the vada pao!” he said. And with that, he turned again to face me and took a hearty bite out of an imaginary sandwich.

Vada pao consists of a fried ball of battered mashed potato, the vada, crushed within a sweet and spicy chutney-soaked bun, the pao. It is Mumbai’s most popular snack. There are others that are famously associated with the city, such as bhel puri and pao bhaji, but no other food is as ubiquitous and passionately consumed. Vada pao hawkers can be seen in front of train stations; near schools, colleges, and hospitals; at busy street corners; and near the entrances of parks. They prepare the snack on makeshift metal tables perched on the curb. The vadas are deep fried in well-used black pots. The chutneys are stored in small metal tins. The sandwiches come wrapped in recycled newspaper, accompanied by a green chili pepper. They are cheap and filling and consumed by a broad spectrum of the city. To some, eating vada pao is a guilty pleasure—a quick bite on the way home from work. To others, it is a means of surviving in an expensive city. However its role is conceived, the humble vada pao was an unlikely object to elevate to monumental status. Monuments, write Wohl and Strauss (1958), are “symbolic representation[s]” of a city. They produce images that circulate, shape, and, their creators hope, elevate a city’s global status.

Monumentalizing street food was surprising in other ways. To many political leaders, journalists, and residents, hawkers represent a “symbol of metropolitan space gone out of control” (Rajagopal 2001). They are often described as a “‘menace’ [and] a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘addressed’” (Patel 2013). On seaside boardwalks, signs such as “Do not patronize hawkers and beggars,” make avoiding street food into a civic duty. Alarmism over the hawker “menace” is seemingly everywhere. One day while waiting for the elevator in my Mumbai apartment, I noticed a flier freshly posted to the foyer wall. I looked closer. It was an article, titled “Hawker Proliferation—Economics and Impact,” that listed the inconveniences to drivers and pedestrians that hawkers cause. “Hawker encroachment [is so pervasive],” the article explained, because of corruption and the fact that “people do not care enough to protest.” Taking up the provocation, a neighbor had scrawled a message above the title: “WHY WE SHOULD NOT DO BUSINESS WITH HAWKERS.” Writings like these are commonplace. Two years earlier, Citispace, a civic group, distributed a pamphlet with a similar message. If you want “clean and orderly surroundings,” you should “play the role of ‘watch dog’” and “complain about persistent illegal hawkers” (Citispace 2004).

Local newspapers display a similar perspective on hawkers. Every week newspapers report on hawker trouble spots and the efforts by the state to deal with them. Articles with titles such as “Keep Vendors away from No-Hawking Zone” (Verma 2005), “Download an App, Take an Illegal Hawker to Task” (Subramanian 2013), and “Hawkers Look to Take over Rs 4 Andheri Auto Deck” (Rao 2015) depict Mumbai’s streets and public spaces as conflict zones consisting of pitched battles among residents, state functionaries, and a ragtag army of encroachers. Newspapers regularly describe “pedestrians [who] have been battling for two decades to reclaim their streets from encroachers” (Subramanian 2006) in neighborhoods “worst hit by [the] hawker invasion” (Bhatia 2007). “The hawker issue is important for citizens, who are used to fighting—most often, a losing battle—for space” (“Times View” 2015), says another. Articles describe the feeling of disempowerment among residents living in areas where hawkers have “laid siege” (Baliga 2013) to the roads. Says one resident, “We have been fighting this battle for many years now but over a period of time the number of hawkers have [sic] actually increased” (quoted in Bhatia 2007).

The vada pao is an unlikely “monument” for other reasons. To civic activists frequently quoted in the media, hawkers are often a symbol of poor governance, an indifferent bureaucracy, and broken democracy. Unlicensed vada pao vendors and hawkers like them are thus not only physical annoyances but understood to be part of a larger problem of encroachment enabled by corrupt officials. Hawkers are understood to be a manifestation of a nexus with state functionaries fueled by a mix of retail corruption, unofficial compromises, and dubious appeals to social welfare. While unlicensed, they appeal to the state on the basis of entitlements owed to particular disadvantaged groups. They mix rights claims based on individual citizenship with belonging in a larger collective. They are said to blur the boundary between private subjecthood and public practice. In this discourse, the mere presence of hawkers signals the failure of the state to abide by the principles of liberal citizenship and the rule of law. To them, hawkers not only obstruct pedestrians; they also obstruct the flourishing of political modernity itself.

In 1998, the Citizens’ Forum for the Protection of Public Spaces (later renamed Citispace) brought their campaign against encroachment to the Bombay High Court. To Citizens’ Forum activists, not only was the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) failing to fulfill its obligations to regulate public space, but its ad hoc practices gave unlicensed hawkers “rights” to the street. By 2003, the case went to the Supreme Court of India, which issued a groundbreaking ruling in Citispace’s favor. In addition to instructing the BMC to implement a hawker regulation system, it issued new guidelines restricting hawking. Among them was a ban on curbside cooking. And yet following the 2003 ruling, vada pao vendors and other hawkers were as visible as before. Few hawkers, or state functionaries, were aware of the ban. Implementing the law was complicated by another factor: most hawking was already criminalized. If Mumbai’s street food vendors already lacked licenses, how could they be banned? In a telling sign of this legal confusion, Mumbai’s hundreds of thousands of hawkers continued to work on the street following the ban as before.

Monumentalizing the vada pao was also ironic in light of the new “global city” discourses circulating in Mumbai at the time. To those who aspired to transform Mumbai into an international business hub modeled after Shanghai, the city’s street economy represented an impediment—a problem of world becoming. By the early 2000s, the effects of India’s economic liberalization, a process that had begun a decade earlier, started to be visible. New shopping malls, office complexes, luxury apartment buildings, and elite spaces of leisure and consumption such as cafés, nightclubs, and grocery stores, all rare in the late 1990s, became commonplace. To many, this new landscape of consumption offered hope of transformation. The fact that many of the first new symbols of globalized Mumbai, such as shopping malls and clubs designed with an international aesthetic, appeared in former textile mills facilitated a narrative of a city in transition. A report produced by Bombay First and McKinsey & Company, “Vision Mumbai: Transforming Mumbai into a World-Class City” (McKinsey & Company 2003), spurred dreams of a transformation of the city’s image; the once gritty city of mills and slums might soon give way to a proud global metropolis with a slick, international aesthetic. As a headline at the time put it, “From Mills to Malls, the Sky Is the Limit” (Bharucha 2003).

A devastating flood in July 2005 tempered some of this euphoria. Cheeky billboards appearing on the streets in 2006 asked: “Shanghai ya Doobai?” (Shanghai or Doobai?) playing off of the Hindi word dubna, which means to drown. Nevertheless, with multiple billion-dollar infrastructure projects built up in subsequent years, such as the Worli-Bandra Sea Link, the Mumbai Metro, and a stylish new international airport terminal, the dream to remake the city through dramatic aesthetic and architectural intervention reemerged. Amid these urban transformations, important questions arose: Can Mumbai’s landscape of squatters, slum settlements, and vibrant but visually chaotic street commerce be reconciled with transnational aesthetic ideals? What is the place of the poor in this story of transition? Or, put in another way, is there a place for the vada pao in globalizing Mumbai?


The hundreds of thousands of hawkers that line Mumbai’s streets are emblematic of the city’s compelling—and to some, frustrating—contradictions. Although most are unlicensed, they profoundly shape the appearance and feel of the city.2 They are subject to periodic raids but are also essential providers of services who distribute nearly all of the city’s fresh fruits and produce while providing affordable meals to its millions of working-poor residents. This book explores the meanings of these incongruities. I show how this criminalized street economy is not just a space of exclusion, but also a space for active engagement in the political sphere; spatial contestations are characterized by violence as well as dynamic negotiation, debate, and compromise over political form. Whereas much writing on squatters, hawkers, and slum demolitions sees them as instances of elite appropriations of space, I show how tensions surrounding evictions are also a way in which crucial questions of rights, citizenship, and global belonging are worked out—for instance: How might universalizing ideas of citizenship be reconciled with a heterogeneous political sphere? In a democracy shaped by political liberalism, can rights claims be context specific? And can participation in global modernity emerge in coordination with, rather than only as a negation of, local context?

The Mumbai hawker controversy parallels transnational trends; however, it diverges in significant ways from these trends on account of hawkers’ vital place in public debates over the city and its future.3 Through ethnography and historical analysis, the chapters in this book highlight how the mundane question of street vending speaks to broader issues about space and rights in the city. The evidence shows that everyday conflicts over encroachment and corruption constitute a critical discussion over how to inhabit and make claims on the city. In Chapter 2, I begin with the question: Are we witnessing a new moment of spatial contestation and exclusion of the poor? I show that for over two centuries, the authorities in Mumbai have struggled to control a landscape of encroachments and illegalities. Moreover, the municipal government has dealt with the “hawker nuisance” at least since the 1880s. And yet scholars often treat demolitions, dispossessions of the poor, and elite-oriented development as effects of a new logic of urban governance associated with neoliberalism. I provide an account of the history of informality in Mumbai to challenge this assumption of novelty. Drawing from various historical documents—including official publications, travelogues, and early twentieth-century newspapers—I show that for over a century, people’s encounters with state functionaries have been characterized by compromise, co-option, and negotiation rather than anonymity and discipline. What is new about the contemporary urban moment is not spatial contestation itself but its broader significance as a site for negotiating the form and content of rights.

FIGURE 1.1   Arranging vegetables before the evening crowd of commuters arrives

What does it mean to work on the side of the road without a license? Is it a result of urban exclusion or an act of rebellion? Writings on informal economies typically fall into one camp or the other. In Chapter 3, I offer a different approach; I provide an account of hawkers’ life histories and their relationships to the street, work, and the city’s recent dramatic transformations. I show how hawkers occupy a contradictory existence, inhabiting a precarious legal status while deeply enmeshed in the daily life of a neighborhood. I argue that this space between precarity and possibility offers a model for urban ethnography: attention to political economic processes and affective experiences is not mutually exclusive—with one more “real” than the other—but exist in a generative tension that is constitutive of urban life.

Hawkers’ spatial claims are secured through cultivating relationships, sometimes intimate ones, with state functionaries, often through unofficial payments called hafta, but also through countersurveillance, social interactions, and public protest. Chapter 4 examines these encounters with the state. I show how, despite being unlicensed, hawkers’ everyday experiences are marked by proximity to the state rather than distance. Hawkers’ protracted encounters with BMC officials, clerks, workers, and the police challenge the language of abandonment and abjection that informs much scholarship on urban marginality. As I demonstrate, the street is not only a product of the disciplinary techniques of rational governance but an outcome of a negotiated process: in the eyes of the everyday state, unlicensed hawkers are not outside the law but more or less illegal (Björkman 2013). This spectrum of illegality opens up possibilities for negotiation. As a result, what is otherwise called corruption is also, in a practical sense, a space for the negotiation of rights claims—claims that ironically might otherwise not be recognized.

When civic activists brought new attention to the “hawker problem” in the 1990s, they raised new questions concerning urban citizenship, corruption, and the proper form of democratic politics. This activism demonstrated that the question of whose voice is heard in urban governance was inseparable from the question of how to speak to the state. Chapter 5 shows how middle-class residents’ engagement with the informal life of the street produces what I call a sensibility of the “estranged citizen” that reflects a feeling of alienation from traditional circuits of power. To civic activists, hawkers symbolize state corruption and inefficiency, but also powerlessness in face of the illiberal rights claims of the poor. However, I argue that as a sensibility, the subjectivity of the estranged citizen is irreducible to a single political position or political economic process. This ambivalent subjectivity has the potential for open-ended politics that goes beyond efforts to appropriate urban space from the poor.

Whereas to civic activists, Mumbai’s fluid streetscapes represent a problem, these features are increasingly celebrated as a virtue by architects, designers, students, and writers around the world. Chapter 6, the concluding chapter, examines the new place of the ad hoc streetscape within transnational architectural discussions on the megacity. Thirty years ago, Mumbai’s landscape of squatters, slums, and informality was seen as an embarrassment; now these characteristics are often celebrated in exhibits, blogs, and films as signs of innovation, ingenuity, and small-scale entrepreneurialism. Resignifying “underdeveloped” urban landscapes as instances of “makeshift” or “tactical” urbanism raises a new question: How does informality figure in the branding of cities? How is this new way to read urban landscapes recalibrating the relationship between the universal and the particular? And more important, this perspective on informal urbanism puts ethnography itself in critical crosshairs, with the geographer Ash Amin (2013), for instance, arguing that the trend toward narrating cities through affective experience, strategies, and maneuvering precludes attention to structural inequality.

This book documents a long-simmering tension over the street consisting of a mix of violence, subversion, shifting illegalities, ambiguous regulations, and flexible state practices. A hawker once summed up these everyday processes as producing a long simmering “boil” on the street. Seeing the city as a slow boil introduces a perspective absent in urban studies writing that so often rests on either dystopic or celebratory narratives. This perspective highlights the small maneuvers and negotiations that produce the city. It also highlights the generative element of spatial conflicts—for instance, how hawker demolitions are inextricable from long-standing debates over the content and meaning of rights, citizenship, and political modernity. Swirling alongside moments of exclusion are other symbolic processes and imaginative work that are remaking the physical and political spaces of the city.

The arguments contained in this book emerge from nearly a decade of research in Mumbai, the most intense period taking place in 2004, 2005–2006, and intermittently between 2008 and 2012. A central aspect of the research was conversation with hawkers as they worked on the street. When it was possible and welcomed, as it often was, hawkers generously enabled me to get a firsthand sense of their spatial practices, allowing me to sit with them on the street and observe their interactions with customers, passersby, and the small army of government functionaries who visited each day. Our conversations took place during their brief breaks from work or during downtimes, such as the early afternoon. I also conducted semiformal interviews with dozens of hawkers and hawker activists in a variety of locations throughout the city—in tea shops, parks, quiet spots amid construction sites, in their homes, while on casual walks, and in more unusual locations such as police stations, the foyers of municipal offices, and the spaces in front of municipal warehouses.

Mirroring hawkers’ own experiences, my fieldwork on their entanglements with the state would often occur unexpectedly. Casual afternoons talking with hawkers while they worked would often be disrupted by the arrival of a BMC truck or police jeep and the subsequent scattering of people and their goods. On other occasions, conversations would be interrupted simply by the rumor of a municipal truck heading our way. Within moments of these rumors, the street would be abuzz with people scanning the road, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. At these moments of crisis, a hawker leader would be summoned via cell phone. Arriving at the scene, at times he or she would see me and request that I join their entourage as they met the relevant authorities. In this manner, I would accompany hawker activists to BMC ward-level offices, godowns (warehouses), and police stations as they dealt with the fallout of the raids.

The goal of this research was to understand how the street functions as a locus of political contestation. Toward this end, I interviewed people actively involved in the campaign to reorder Mumbai’s streets by regulating hawking. This research with civic activists, leaders of citizens’ groups, and organizers of residents’ associations was conducted under very different conditions from fieldwork with hawkers. These conversations were held in private settings and in English rather than on the street and in Hindi. We met in offices, homes, and community meeting rooms—settings that encouraged more formal conversations. Whereas on the street I kept note taking to a minimum—because the sight of pen and paper usually attracted a crowd, as well as suggestions of official connection—in more formal settings, note taking was expected, if not encouraged. While lacking in spontaneity, these interactions enabled detailed, on-the-spot recording of people’s words that was not possible in my work with hawkers, which I reconstructed as soon as I was alone, such as on train platforms, in buses, at cafés, or at home that evening.

In the following sections, I outline the Mumbai hawker controversy, as well as how three themes in urban studies and related fields speak to it. First, I focus on political economic approaches to spatial conflict. Second, I examine transnational processes and concepts of public space. And third, I show how conflicts over urban transformations must contend with the state’s incongruities and the varied forms of political recognition it offers.


Demolitions of street markets in Mumbai present ritualized scenes of terror, chaos, and confusion. They start with a murmur. Hawkers’ stalls quickly shut down one by one as news of an impending raid ripples down the street. The market comes to a standstill as hawkers flee with what they can—a pot, a scale, a bundle of coriander, a basket of bananas. Customers unexpectedly caught in the frenzy look on as municipal workers swoop down from gray trucks to tear down stalls and grab equipment. Wooden poles, scales, pots, blue plastic tarps, tables, chairs, wicker baskets, broken sign boards get thrown into the cargo bay. As the trucks roll down the street, they crush tomatoes, spraying red juice and seeds on the pavement. The demolitions end as abruptly as they begin, leaving shards of wood, the refuse of vegetables, and stunned men and women in their wake.

A few hours later, the markets often come back to life. People emerge from the anonymity of the crowd to start rebuilding. The process is calm. There is no bickering over spots or attempts to gain more territory since the markers of ownership—paving blocks, trees, street signs, utility boxes, and garlanded images of gods—remain in the aftermath of a demolition. Bricks are restacked, a table rebuilt, canvas spread on the ground, and tarp tied to a tree. Merchandise hastily hidden in advance of the raid is retrieved from a gutter dried out in the post-monsoon aridity. A man lifts a canvas cloth, revealing piles of fresh eggplant and cabbage hidden behind a fence. Others carry tables of merchandise that had been hidden behind a sympathetic shopkeeper’s store. Back at their spots, someone is seen restacking fruits in neat pyramids, or rearranging garlands of flowers in tight concentric circles, or starting up a gas stove for tea and waiting for customers to return.

How can we make sense of this ebb and flow of street life, markets, and violence? Why do these demolitions happen? Why are people able to reoccupy space so easily? And what is the relationship between these spectacles of eviction and moments of return? Many scholars have used the economic reforms in India in the 1990s as a starting point to understand related conflicts over space. India’s metropolises are commonly deemed neoliberal, meaning that they are newly “opened to global investments by an entrepreneurial municipal body” and characterized by processes of “‘creative destruction,’ where livelihoods and landscapes are destroyed to make room for those that can efficiently fix capital” (Chatterjee 2009, 147). Gavin Shatkin (2014, 3) argues that the politics of space in India are simultaneously products of “resistance to a state-led modernist ideology” as well as effects of Indian cities’ “integration into international networks of production and exchange.” If we followed these writings, we might interpret hawker demolitions as manifestations of two interlinked phenomena: (1) the disciplinary state exercising power through spatial intervention and (2) restrictions on the “right to the city” (Harvey 2003) of the poor resulting from linkages with transnational political economic processes.

FIGURE 1.2   Preparing paan before the evening commute

This reading of Indian cities reflects a larger trend in urban studies, including city-oriented work in anthropology, sociology, and geography, that emphasizes how power and economic processes manifest in space.4 Marxist-inspired scholars building off the work of David Harvey (1989) have shown how spatial contestations are manifestations of a new logic of development, such as “entrepreneurial governance,” that focuses more on creating consumer-oriented and corporate-friendly cities than on providing for social welfare (Smith 1996, 2002). Echoing this view, in the literature on the politics of urban development in South Asia, infrastructure is seen as increasingly fragmented (Gandy 2008), development policies elite oriented (Banerjee-Guha 2007; Dupont 2011; Anwar and Viqar 2014), and urban politics increasingly aligned with middle-class “lifestyle” needs (Fernandes 2006; Nair 2005). The effects of metropolitan India’s new global linkages, many argue, is a severe reduction in the poor’s quality of life. According to Sharma (2010, 71), for instance, “such an urbanisation under global forces . . . [is] dividing city dwellers into great ‘consumers,’ living in gated neighbourhoods and separated from the unprivileged ‘others,’ whose rights to the city are denied or infringed upon.”

In this way, scholarly critiques of urban spatial processes in India since the 1990s often hinge on a direct link between economic liberalization and restrictions on rights. Many authors argue that postliberalization policies, court cases, and development practices fundamentally changed whose voices get heard, whose rights count, and on what basis those rights get recognized. For instance, Gautam Bhan (2009, 2014) analyzes how, in cases related to slum clearance in New Delhi in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Supreme Court of India established a new precedent of differentiating rights based on class. According to the Supreme Court’s rulings, the legitimacy of one’s claim to urban space hinges on how that person inhabits the city, that is, whether one lives in a “housing colony” or slum (Bhan 2014, 5). The court determined legitimate occupation of space based on the physical appearance of buildings rather than their legal status in a formal sense (Björkman 2015; Ghertner 2011b). Bhan thus argues that as a result of this new juridical stance, “the very citizenship of the urban poor began to be called into question” (2009, 135). Goldman’s (2011) study of new urban development practices and institutional shifts in Bengaluru also emphasizes the link between marketization and restrictions on poor people’s rights. Like Bhan, he emphasizes how neoliberal-sounding discourses manifest in the city’s institutional structures. By examining what bankers, civil servants, and consultants say in public meetings and other fora, he provides an account of the discursive logic of elite imaginations of the future “world-class” city that is “creating a new art of ‘speculative government’” (Goldman 2011, 556). The effect of this new form of governing, argues Goldman (2011, 577), is a “redefining [of] state relations, urban citizenship, rights and rules of access” that threatens to thrust the poor into a condition of “‘bare life,’ no longer covered by legal or civil rights that once guaranteed them some access to the city and its resources.”

Considering the massive slum evictions in India in recent years carried out in the name of urban improvement, one cannot deny the importance of these critiques of urban discourses that naturalize the exclusions of the poor. However, in focusing on one question—How are large-scale evictions of the poor justified in the name of development, profit accumulation, or world-class city making?—this approach overlooks other equally important ones. For instance, how do people remain where they are between evictions? How do the poor engage with state practices that are, especially in India, heterogeneous and often in competition with one other? How do globally circulating development and governmental discourses work through the varied and often competing political forces within the state? And finally, what are the historical genealogies of contemporary spatial contestations? Indeed, the problem with the dominant critical framework in urban studies is that it tends to reduce the entirety of urban politics to singular rationalities of governance or effects of transnational political economic processes. It assumes an uninterrupted trend toward greater marginalization of the poor, dispossession, fragmentation, and commodification. This analytical framework tends to portray city processes unidimensionally as products of power, whereas spatial contestations are interpreted as straightforward signs of class-based conflict, elite assertion, and a state captured by capital. In sum, Marxist-inspired critiques of urban development mix a dystopic vision (e.g., cities consisting of a dispossessed poor and all-powerful corporations) with nostalgia (e.g., substantive citizenship is linked with class now and urban development is no longer inclusive). These critiques paint a picture of straightforward struggles between globalizing forces and local resistance, between the powerful and the powerless, suggesting a flattened and misleading “opposition,” in the words of Hansen and Verkaaik (2009), “between the spontaneous fullness and anarchy of life . . . [and] the impoverished, grey and disciplining forces of society, city and state” (19).

Recent ethnographies by anthropologists Lisa Björkman (2015) and Ilrena Searle (2014) and the sociologist Liza Weinstein (2014) offer important alternative perspectives to the politics of urban development in India. Rather than start from the premise that cities are on a trend toward greater exclusion, they emphasize the contestations within projects to remake the city. Searle’s ethnography of real estate and value making in New Delhi reveals the mutual incomprehension, frustrations, and failures at the heart of spectacular accumulation. Indeed, rather than a neat story of foreign investors lining up to link with local investors, Searle shows the “frictions” (Tsing 2005), failures, and compromises at the heart of the globalized real estate sector. Liza Weinstein’s (2014) ethnography of developers and housing rights activists in Mumbai similarly shows the competing state forces and democratic processes that undermine narratives of total urban transformation. And finally, Lisa Björkman’s (2015) ethnography of Mumbai’s water politics shows that neoliberal infrastructure policies and programs exist as unactualized projects rather than as new forms of governance. When read together, these studies show that neoliberal ideas get refracted through a dense terrain of already existing political practices, resulting in physical landscapes and a corresponding terrain of rights that do not correspond with the “world-class vision” of its proponents. “Accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2006), like the hawker or slum-free city, is more accurately the stuff of developers’ dreams than a reality.

The critical Marxist perspective either takes these dreams at face value (by saying, for instance, that dispossession is happening and the city is captured by neoliberal forces) or dismisses them as obvious assertions of wealth and power. What this perspective overlooks is how these dreams act as unactualized projects enmeshed in the city’s existing political, social, and imaginative worlds. This critical perspective also often encourages a tautology—for example, that evictions of the poor show how the poor are marginalized—that overlooks the contingencies, incongruities, and unevenness associated with spatial conflict.5 It also ignores the symbolic and imaginative processes that swirl alongside the evictions, squatting, and everyday tussles over space. As I argue, the hawker controversy in Mumbai, like spatial conflicts elsewhere, is not only a story of inequality (even if, surely, the actors have unequal access to power); it is also a story of how ordinary spaces of the city get made. Furthermore, I show how urban transformations are always mediated by historical legacies of rights claims, political practices, affective relations, and urban aspirations. Thus, rather than see spatial contestations as manifestations of larger political economic trends, this book sees contestations as crucial sites where we can witness implicit debates over the content of rights and the promise of citizenship, along with the shaping of subjectivities—for the poor and the elite alike—that go beyond an either-or story of inclusion and exclusion.

The complications around Mumbai’s street contestations exist partly because globality and political modernity in Mumbai are unfinished projects that, in their partiality, also contain a potential for productive negotiation and imaginative exchange. Surely the word globality has wide-ranging connotations, variously understood as a set of policies or linkage with transnational circuits of capital, goods, and people (Tsing 2000), and the project of modernity is unfinished everywhere (Gaonkar 2001). But here I specifically refer to the experience of modernity as “a question of difference” (Ferguson 1999) and the related sense of globality as an (often illusory) “transcendence of place” (Mazzarella 2003, 55). Consider Jumbo King, the restaurant chain that hoped to modernize the vada pao by taking it off the streets and giving it a sheen of international respectability. Dozens of Jumbo King restaurants opened throughout Mumbai (Shanbaug 2014) in the mid-2000s. Their innovation was to sell vada pao but without its associated street sociality. Moving away from the bustling street corners where vada pao are usually sold, Jumbo King situates its vada pao in the sanitized aesthetic of international fast food chains. These small storefronts are brightly lit and have big signs clearly displaying menu items and prices. Whereas street vada pao come wrapped in recycled newspaper, Jumbo King’s vada pao are served in waxed paper printed with company insignia.

When the first Jumbo King stores opened, they introduced themselves to the city with billboard advertisements saying: “We aim to make the vada pao world class.” Borrowing the language of civic boosters and international consulting firms such as McKinsey & Co. was significant: Jumbo King was not only transforming a popular snack; it was also transforming the image of the city. But as I argue, we need to explore the symbolic and imaginative worlds that swirl alongside seemingly obvious political economic processes. Urban interventions like Jumbo King do not simply reflect a trend toward corporatized and sanitized public space but also link street vending, and the humble vada pao in particular, with a desire for world belonging that has had a long historical legacy in India. Jumbo King’s billboard thus “offers a solution to a puzzle,” as Mazzarella (2003) discusses in the context of the Mumbai advertising industry, of how to reconcile the culturally embedded, intimate sphere with outward aspirations for globality.

Thus while this book focuses on street vending, it also addresses the larger question of how we read everyday engagements with the street, the city, and globality. We might interpret other city phenomena similarly, whether middle-class civic activism or even BMC evictions and police hafta, or negotiated bribe demands—as phenomena linked with powerful forces remaking the city, but also enmeshed in conversations, ideas, and imaginaries that exceed political economic explanations and exist in the realm of desire. Consider, for instance, the civic activists who have protested against hawker encroachments since the mid-1990s. Do they represent an embourgeoisement of urban politics (Chatterjee 2004; Fernandes 2004; Arabindoo 2011)? Perhaps. However, this would overlook the link between their struggles to reshape the meaning of rights and the content of citizenship and their aspiration to achieve the universality of the liberal subject, an effort that does not always coincide with specific class interests. Or consider municipal workers who recognize the legitimacy of hawkers’ place in the city despite the latters’ illegality, thereby contradicting policies made at the upper levels of bureaucracy. Or the police, whose overlapping social worlds with hawkers at times explain their cursory law enforcement and willingness to negotiate illicit payments in return for permission to stay on the street. And, of course, consider hawkers’ own complex engagements with public space, the state, and the globalized landscape of consumption around them, which are irreducible to a logic of insurgency against powerful forces of urban restructuring.

The transformations of Mumbai associated with neoliberal globalization, once touted by critics as foreboding signs of the future, remain incomplete. Gated community-style enclaves for the rich are common but still not quite the norm. Big box stores run by multinational corporations have recently arrived, but only on the city’s outskirts. Air-conditioned supermarkets continue to be a rarity patronized by a small elite.6 Despite eager pronouncements in the media of the mall replacing the street market, the ubiquitous cycle of hawker evictions and reoccupation of space does not correspond with critics’ narrative of expanding urban exclusion. The demolition trucks that crush vegetables, the men who tear down stalls, and the officials who threaten fines do not index completed projects of urban transformation. Likewise, while hawker evictions at times mirror neoliberal-sounding development narratives, they are also enmeshed in ongoing, contested, and at times internally contradictory city-making processes. These processes brim with incongruities and contradictions that writers have yet to fully grapple with: the generative mix of hope and despair; state functionaries’ central role in sustaining slums and hawker markets; civic activists who campaign against hawkers and wealthy developers; unlicensed hawkers who advocate for enhanced regulation of space; municipal officials who advocate for street regulations they know won’t work; and middle-class professionals who rely on street markets even as they support their removal. And then there are hawkers’ complex uses of the street, its infrastructure and associated regulatory apparatus: the unlicensed dosa vendor who places his griddle just to the left of a “no-hawking zone” signpost pointing to the right (and in the rain, using the sign to support a plastic tarp to keep his customers dry); a fruit vendor who builds a table out of sidewalk paving bricks abandoned on the side of the road (hoping that the municipality will not confiscate its own property in a raid); constables waiting on a street corner while a hawker makes paan for them; and finally, the dozens of unlicensed hawkers hiding in plain sight, it would seem, on the streets in front of BMC offices.

Mumbai’s street vendors represent many contradictions: beloved nuisances, legitimized criminality, streetwise futurity, and precarious persistence. Their relationship with the state is characterized simultaneously by violence, predatory extortion, intimacy, collaboration, and hope. Or consider the street itself. From one angle, Mumbai’s streetscapes represent the slow violence of socioeconomic inequalities; from another, they provide astonishing opportunities for small-scale economic enterprise. This precarious condition may not last; however, at the moment it suggests that analyses of spatial conflict need to address how people stay in place as much as how they are forced out. It also suggests that we need to understand urban life in terms of productive incongruities rather than inexorable forces.


1. The city’s official name changed from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995. While historical documents published before 1995 refer to the city as “Bombay,” for consistency, I refer to the city as Mumbai when speaking of both pre- and post-1995 eras.

2. According to a survey in 1997, roughly 5 percent of hawkers are operating with a license, very often one that has been renewed over the years (Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action 1998). However, because licenses are not transferable, the percentage of hawkers who work within the regulations may be smaller (Bhowmik 2003, n.d.). There are a few important exceptions to the criminalization of hawking in Mumbai. At least since the 1960s, people from the Chamar or Mochi communities—dalits, historically “untouchables”—have had special permission to open small shoe repair stalls throughout the city.

3. The literature on the politics and experience of street vending, once limited, is now expansive (Mcgee 1973; Austin 1994; Bhowmik n.d.; Jellinek 1997; Robertson 1997; Cross 1998; Duneier 1999; Street Vendor Project 2006; Donovan 2008; Vahed 1999; Cross and Morales 2007).

4. Research on the link between urban transformations, whether in the name of “beautification,” modernization, or “world-class city” making, and the removal of the visible presence of the poor is vast (Cross 1998; Delaney 1999; Rajagopal 2001; Popke and Ballard 2004; Herzfeld 2006; Mitchell and Staeheli 2006; Ghertner 2011b; Schindler 2014).

5. See also Ferguson (2009) for a related discussion of scholarly denunciations of neoliberalism.

6. Writing on Mumbai’s incomplete embrace of the late-1990s privatization agenda then sweeping the globe, Lisa Björkman (2015, 60) argues, “In the end the privatization storm blew over in Mumbai. Or, as Gupta [an informant] pointed out, perhaps it never really arrived to begin with.”