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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Cleaning Up Their Act

Yoshiko Nakata

Feb. 3, 2016

India is experiencing widespread change as its economy grows rapidly. One of those changes is a new government initiative on hygiene. Food stalls add a welcome dose of spice and color to the Indian street scene. But they fall short when it comes to cleanliness. Officials are trying to get vendors to clean up their stalls.

Cheap, quick, and tasty. Those are the selling points for food stalls in India.

New Delhi, with a population of 24 million, has more than 160,000 street-food vendors.

Snacks like bean curries to vegetable croquettes with lots of spices are popular items. They cost as little as 30 cents.

"My family has been doing business here for 80 years and we have kept our recipe for generations," a street vendor says. "People like it, and they come for the familiar taste."

People are loyal to particular street stalls that have been selling their favorite food items for years.

"It's delicious! I love street food," says one local. "You can’t get this kind of flavor anywhere else but on the street," says another.

Vendors also cater to tourists who are hungry for a taste of the "real" India.

"I like to try lots of different foods, but sometimes you can get a bit ill, sometimes you're ok. Eating on the street is just getting a little bit of the experience of what the locals eat and just trying it," says a British tourist.

An American tourist says, "I've heard about the 'Delhi Belly.' Hopefully it won't happen in this particular case."

But this colorful part of street life shows signs of becoming a thing of the past. More people are going to food courts in shopping malls to enjoy traditional dishes.

Indian consumers think food courts are safer and cleaner than street stalls, which are often littered with garbage.

“It’s not hygienic enough so we have to come to malls but I do prefer street food," says a young male customer.

A father who is dining with his children says, "I never allow my children to eat at stalls on the street, because you never know what’s in it, and how it’s cooked. I don't want my kids to get sick."

Prices at food courts are 4 to 5 times as high as on the street. But people are willing to pay more for safety.

The National Association of Street Vendors of India launched a campaign in 2015 to get stalls to clean up their act. Association official Arshad Ahmed works on the front line with vendors. He asks them if they are interested in hygiene training.

Officials from the association and the Ministry of Tourism are teaching vendors about hygiene and personal grooming. They hope to train 15,000 operators of food stalls across the nation in the first year.

Vendors take a 6-day course at a school for top chefs and restaurant managers. They learn the basics, like washing their hands before cooking and keeping utensils clean. Vendors who pass the exam receive a certificate.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. He vowed to transform India's image. He didn't waste time in launching a “Clean India” campaign.

Public sanitation standards haven't kept pace with economic growth. A lack of public toilets and litter in the streets have long been public-health problems.

Modi wants to clear the streets of garbage and human waste by 2019 -- the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahathma Gandhi. He wanted to make sanitation a priority for India.

But it's hard to change people's mindsets overnight. Ahmed has trouble convincing street vendors to take part in hygiene training. Taking even a short break could cause big losses for vendors. Ahmed says the association gives them about $5 for each day of training. That’s about the same amount they'd normally make in one day.

"Many street vendors don’t have enough knowledge of hygiene and management. We have to make visits and explain over and over until they understand that keeping stalls clean is beneficial for them and customers."

Arshad Ahmed / National Association of Street Vendors of India

Association officials conduct regular checks to make sure vendors practice what they've learned.

"I learned that it's important to keep myself and utensils clean. I used to put food on paper sheets and leaves, but now I use disposable dishes," a vendor tells Ahmed. "My customers like that change."

It appears this vendor learned something at the training course. But as Ahmed walks away, he takes off his gloves and starts to knead dough with his bare hands.

Ahmed notices what the vendor is doing. The vendor explains. "The dough sticks to the gloves, and I can't handle it. The work isn't going well, and it takes a long time. The gloves slip, and I have to pull them all the time," he says.

Food vendors aren't going to give up old habits overnight. But people in India want to keep the familiar flavor of street food without risking their health.

NHK World's Yoshiko Nakata joins Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: It looks like changing the mindset of the food vendors isn't exactly easy. Is that because there are so many of them?

Nakata: It's estimated that India has more than 3 million food stalls. It's hard to reach all of the vendors and conduct follow-up visits. The street vendors association is sending more than 100 people like Ahmed around the country to invite people to join the training course. So far, 25,000 vendors have taken it. But as we saw, simply taking the course doesn't mean they'll give up old habits overnight. It'll take a lot of time and money to improve things.

Shibuya: Prime Minister Modi says improving sanitation is a priority for India. Has there been any progress?

Nakata: Yes, we've seen some changes. Cleanliness is a big selling point now. I saw vendors with big signs saying, "We use mineral water." Modi sees the problem in a broader context. He wants to revitalize the economy thorough foreign investment. The government realizes India needs more toilets, water supply, sewerage systems, as well as safe drinking water and garbage management systems. He has set 2019 as the target year to achieve a Clean India. India's rich, diverse food culture is popular with tourists, and food stalls are an important part of that. I hope this colorful part of India's culture can be preserved, while making it more hygienic.