Economics of puchkas/golgappas in Bengal..

It is economics of puckas/golgapaas in Kolkata to be precise.  But the idea can be applied to Bengal and any other place.

Abheek Barman of ET Now has a piece on how many people are employed in Puchka industry in Kolkata.  He says it employs more people than the big firms:

I am a phuchka addict. Luckily, in the south Kolkata neighbourhood where I grew up and where my mother lives, I’m spoilt for choice. Each vendor has a wicker stand, nearly keeling over with the weight of a steel handi full of spiced tamarind water, pots of spices, boiled chana, and the red-cloth-wrapped container full of paper-thin, deep-fried balls. These are filled with spicy potato paste and tamarind water and served apace.

For the last four years or so, my local vendor, a youngish man, used to work alone. But recently he has employed a helper, a chhotu, who peels potatoes, mixes ingredients and serves lesser snacks like churmur and aloo-kabli to customers.  If a relatively ‘small’ phuchka vendor needs at least one helper, how many people are employed in the trade across Kolkata? The best person to bounce this off was, naturally, my childhood friend Somen Gaine: government babu and peripatetic encyclopaedia on everything Bengal eats.

We needed to first reckon how many phuchkawalas plied their trade in the vastness of Calcutta. To estimate that, we selected a 40,000sqm (200m x 200m) area of the city we know backwards. Fairly fast, we counted the number of phuchka vendors in this area.

We then extrapolated this number on the roughly 201 sq km area of the metropolis, defined by the jurisdiction of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. With some qualifications — areas like New Alipore, say, had fewer vendors than places like central, north or south Kolkata — we realized that the total number of standalone phuchkawallas was around 200,000.

Since the smallest, and most ubiquitous ones, could employ one person and larger ones anything from three to five helpers, we assumed a fairly modest 1.5 helpers per phuchkawala. That gave us 500,000, or half a million, people employed selling phuchkas on the pavements of metropolitan Kolkata.

The vendors do not make those delicate shells, boil potatoes or prepare the delicious chana. These are made, from early morning onwards, by women working tirelessly with aloo, chana, dough and woks in sprawling shantytowns. The colonies are located in areas like Beleghata in north Kolkata, Narkeldanga in the east and Chetla south of that. This is labour-intensive work. We reckoned it probably takes at least three women to produce enough shells, boiled aloo and spiced chana for each vendor daily. Three women plus 1.5 chhotus working with each of 200,000 phuchka vendors: that should give us the total Phuchkanomics workforce.

This number is a staggering 1.1 million folks. If you stretch the geographical boundaries of the trade to areas now included in Greater Kolkata, Phuchkanomics could employ even more people.

What about some comparative nos?

So, this all-conquering snack probably came to Kolkata sometime between 1940 and 1950. The people who brought it came from eastern UP and Bihar. In the following 75 years, Phuchkanomics grew to employ more than a million people in Kolkata alone.

To see the scale, here are some numbers, based on a recent Economic Times report on top employers in 2014-15. That year TCS had three lakh employees, State Bank of India 2.2 lakh, Infosys 1.6 lakh, IBM India 1.5 lakh and Wipro 1.34 lakh. The Phuchkanomics workforce is larger than all put together.

In February 2015, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee said it was silly to harp only on big business as sources of livelihood: “One can set up a tea stall or a telebhaja or sweet shop and have a decent income.” Guffaws followed. Didi might have said this to score debating points, but factually she’s not off the mark. If Phuchkanomics alone can sustain a million souls, many more are nourished by the manufacture and trade of ready-to-eat streetfood: telebhaja, sweets, kebabs, kathi rolls and momos.

Bengal might be starved of big investments, but the gargantuan Bengali appetite, literally, feeds its engine of growth.

Not surprised really. One could see similar trends for vada pav industry in Mumbai as well.

Big ticket is mostly noise. It is the small things which matter in economics. Actually most things that matter really are the ones we rarely notice.

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