By The Nation
Much has been said about Thai street food lately and all of it is true. The food is delicious and a major tourist attraction. The majority of Thais rely on them too. But the food is anything but hygienic and the vendors in many places have proved a nuisance to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The hawkers are mostly poor people who can’t afford to rent retail space inside shopping malls.
No government is going to gain popularity by cracking down on street vendors. Despite the increasing popularity of convenience-store foods that are ready to eat after minutes in the microwave, street food remains an integral part of Thai culture. The clusters of food carts might be unwanted in some places and the hygiene is always questionable, but they’re a big part of our culture just the same. And this aspect of our culture has added significance thanks to its popularity with foreign tourists. Foreign websites have lately been urging tourists to sample Thai street delicacies before they disappear from the sidewalks.
The positives to street food have apparently prompted the powers-that-be to put on hold a plan to get tough with the vendors. This doesn’t mean a fair compromise still can’t be reached, though. There was success to a certain degree when the Bangkok administration under former governor Chamlong Srimuang tried to “manage” street hawking instead of going for an out-and-out clampdown.
Street hawking largely takes place in Bangkok and includes far more than just food. However, the outcry seems to focus on just what street vending has to offer tummies. You name it – there are fruits, beverages, full made-to-order meals, noodles and everything that can be fried or grilled. Street food plays a big part in Thailand earning a reputation as the “kitchen of the world”.
Street vending does encroach on footpaths, in many cases to the point of causing serious disruption and safety concerns. Some well-to-do people also take advantage of lax supervision and rampant corruption among inspectors by opening multiple-table “restaurants” on public walkways. The majority of food vendors, though, are people simply trying to make ends meet, who literally earn their living on the footpaths.
Bringing order to the jumbles of street-food stalls would be difficult, but not impossible. A major stumbling block has been corruption, which cannot be blamed on the poorer vendors pursuing a day-to-day struggle for survival. The bad news is that any attempt to “manage” the hawkers or make their trade more orderly must involve close monitoring and patrols – activities that are always associated with bribery. But that may tell us a big reason why efforts to “manage” the street vendors usually fail.
Previous efforts were made with a focus on the “unruly” people, not those who sought to “manage” them but those who failed to do their jobs. An inspection system boasting full-scale manpower and ethical integrity is more than possible. It just hasn’t been created yet.
The biggest question, however, is where to relocate the street hawkers. We’re talking about enough people to form a small nation. Reforming street vending thus has two bottom lines – these people must be helped, and public safety must not be compromised. These bottom lines often clash. In other words, the issue is huge, and handling it certainly has political, social and economic ramifications.
It’s a national matter that requires a comprehensive, long-term plan or solution, as opposed to the whims of any ruler or desperate temporary measures mapped out when, say, a high-level guest comes to visit.