At a bus stand in Kirnahar, a small suburb in Birbhum district of West Bengal, Jhal Muri hawker Kanan Das is busy preparing a savoury mixture by adding different ingredients into a small container and stirring it with a spoon, making a typical clanging sound. Another hawker, Israel Sk is busy serving customers Jhal Muri, moving from bogey to bogey in a train running towards Howrah from Bolpur.
Hawking is a common scene in trains, buses, markets, around exhibition grounds and in other places. One can usually spot several customers surrounding hawkers, asking for items of their choice and often it becomes too hectic for the vendors to tackle a maddening crowd.
Savoury Jhal Muri is particularly popular with Bengalis for its mild sour and pungent taste. It is a light tiffin that travellers and wayfarers prefer to take along and consume. The main ingredient for Jhal Muri is puffed rice. Other items added to it are soaked gram, peas, minced onion, finely chopped green chilly and coriander leaves, coconut, spice powder and mustard oil. To make it more palatable some use pickled mustard oil.
"For 30 years I am in this occupation," informed Kanan Das. "I am illiterate and I have no agricultural land. That is why I have chosen this occupation. Not much money is required in this and there is no fixed duty. Any time one can come and go. I come to the bus stand in the morning and hawk until evening. At the beginning the eatables were sold in annas, now the same quantity costs Rs 10. And whatever I earn, that is enough to meet the family's needs. There are six members in the family. I have two sons and easily meet their education expenses through this occupation."
Another hawker, Lakkhi Narayan Saha, aged over 70, who sells namkeen and toffees, however, said, "Hawking is better than begging or thievery. Whatever I earn, it is through my labour. This occupation is also good for old and handicapped persons. One can even sell this sitting at one place. This occupation keeps me moving, which is good for health. All the time I meet new customers. I enjoy it."
According to Railway Hawkers' Union general secretary Insan Ali Sk, the purpose of the hawkers is to serve travellers, who are tired during their monotonous journey and want to refresh themselves. The hawkers sell a range of refreshments, from water to several eatables, he added.
"The practice of hawking in trains can be traced back to when the Railways started operation. Our objective is that no traveller should remain thirsty or hungry while on a journey, even though we take money for this," said Insan Ali. He said the Trade Union Act 1926 applies to them as well. There are over 1,000 hawkers enrolled with this affiliation. He further said anyone can join this occupation but one has to apply. The union's office-bearers then consider these applications at their meeting and then allow someone to do the hawking in a zone, such as Howrah, Sealdah or Malda. We also issue an ID-card with registration number and other details. They work under certain rules and practices. There is little scope for any altercation between hawkers as routes and trains are allocated to them.
Besides selling, the hawkers also do humane service to the passengers. If some misfortune occurs, the hawkers are the first to come to their help, Ali added. Sometimes the hawkers also help police nab miscreants. "Hawkers are particularly instructed not to create difficulty to passengers and behave well, said Ali. "They are also warned not to steal any belongings of passengers. But sometimes police suspect hawkers and harass them. They even arrest them, implicating them in false cases. Thousands are spent to get them released. However, there is no problem from the TTEs."