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Economy / Jobs

Barbers, dyers, tailors: India's street traders can meet almost any consumer demand

We’ve heard about fly-by-night services – but how about fly-by-day services?

On a recent trip to India, I discovered the true meaning of the informal sector of an economy. In Nehru Place in Delhi, where you go to buy computers and all their innards, I saw the most amazing pavement trade. In bright daylight, I passed by a man who appeared to be standing with his trousers unzipped and a man squatting on the pavement with his face really close to his fly.

Rubbernecking is a favourite pastime for Indians, and I am no exception. But on this occasion no one else was paying any attention to something which would have attracted attention even in London. Surely this was not possible in a moralistic and homophobic society like India.

When I got closer, I noticed a pile of zips and hooks on the pavement – and suddenly the penny dropped. He was repairing the man’s fly while his trousers were still on him. The customer probably only had the one good pair suitable for work.

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In India, street vending accounts for 11 per cent of total urban employment. The huge migration to cities from the countryside of people with few skills and educational qualifications have led to an explosion in street vendors involving specialised services for niche consumer demands.

On-street barbers is another surreal sight. Any spare wall space may be used to hang a mirror in front of which is placed a rickety wooden chair. The barber carries the tools of his trade in his various pockets. Some barbers squat on the pavement advertising their services with an ancient pair of scissors, cut-throat razors and greasy combs laid out on a large towel – a gut-churning sight that might attract only the poorest customers.

There is an innovative approach to the demand for matching sari blouses to the exact shade of the sari too. Behind textile shops in Delhi markets, like the Lajpat Nagar market, you will see large vats of dye bubbling away on coal fires next to a clothes line with colourful bits of fabric hanging up to dry. Within an hour, even half a metre of white silk or cotton will be dyed exactly the right colour, which Indians might describe approvingly in a Hindi idiom, as “a colour so exact that there is not even the difference between 19 and 20”. This is not low skilled work, and yet it is carried out at extremely low prices, even by Indian standards.

In Mumbai, at the famous Haji Ali mosque built out at sea, the 500m access road for devotees is lined with beggars, many with severe disabilities. At the beginning of the road, sits a man who charges a commission for providing change, so that visitors can decide the total amount they can afford to spend and distribute it equally to all the beggars. Even the charitable gesture can be commodified.


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