Monday, April 13, 2015

A kiosk that is called "gumti"

We, in India, somehow have developed what is known as a “gumti” culture. “Gumti” is nothing but a kiosk selling odds and ends or occasionally some specified items like paan and cigarettes or rendering some services like plugging punctures in tyre tubes or even repairing tyres.. They are ubiquitous in every Indian town and, I dare say, one occasionally finds them in metros too, especially close to “jhuggies and jhonpries” (shanty towns) which come in handy for the residents of the shacks. These are so common all over the country that there is a saying that if ever the moon were to be colonised the first “gumti set up there in its icy environs would be by an Indian.

I remember to have seen them for the first time in Gwalior in Central India where I was growing up. Soon after independence and the accompanying partition of the country in 1947 an unforeseen two-way mass scale migration of people had taken place between India and Pakistan, accompanied by beastly violence on both sides. Those who survived the violence came rolling in and settled down in various parts of the country. We in Gwalior had our own share of refugees from Pakistan. They were a mix of Punjabis and Sindhis – largely the latter. Sindhis are mostly a trading community and within no time the town square, with its beautiful late 19th and early 20th Century public buildings dominated by the statue of the Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia plumb in the middle surrounded by broad beautiful roads were occupied by the Sindhis and their “gumties” in multiple rows. Not only the beauty of the town-square was demolished within months, the Sindhis, having started trading from “gumties”, soon replaced the local Baniyas (a trading community) from their well-established trade in grain markets and eventually captured from the same community the cotton textile trade. One cannot, therefore, underestimate the power of a “gumti” if properly used by a resourceful man.

It does not take much to erect a “gumti”. One needs only a few discarded tin sheets to provide a covered working space of 30-odd square feet. Any public space is good enough for installing one. Generally these are erected on government or public lands with or without permission. Those who have no permission and yet carry out retailing from their “gumties” end up running the risk of being hustled out of the place. In the alternative, in order to ensure some sort of trouble-free permanence (if one might call it) in their venture they have to shell out money to the officials of the municipal corporations and “haftas” (weekly payments) to the police beat constables. Of late there are reports of municipal councillors or even members of state legislative assemblies muscling in for their share. So, one tends to wonder how does a “gumti-walla” make do with whatever is left of his income after the payoffs. The fact, nonetheless, is that just a single “gumti” provides wherewithal for survival to quite a few. There are certainly a few thousand “gumties” in Bhopal, a town of around 18 lakh and so many “gumties”, obviously, generate a substantial amount of black money, besides providing livelihood to their owners. No wonder most of the councillors and members of legislative assemblies look so prosperous.

 All this is a part of the informal economy. Participants in the informal sector are those who “do not have employment security, work security or social security”. The works they do are of diverse nature. These can range from self-employment involving working out of homes to vending on the streets and may also include shoe shiners, junk collectors and even welders. In India the range is vastly extended. One can find typists with obsolete typewriters to type out documents or public notaries who can sign away declarations made without any collateral evidence, making a living all the same out of a “gumti”. A “gumti” could also accommodate a kewab joint or even a shoe-mender or soft-drinks dispenser. Most of the operators are self-employed and, generally, falling outside the labour or tax laws and are outside the calculations for the country’s GDP. The estimated numbers of people engaged in the informal sector are not quite reliable but it is reckoned to be near about 20% of the population – quite a hefty portion that could raise the GDP up by a few notches.

And yet “gumties “are generally frowned upon. They not only are marked by filth and squalor, they are also spoilers of a city’s urban-scape – run as they are generally by the rural migrants or deprived sections or under-privileged of the city with little sense of cleanliness or aesthetics. The planners of older cities never planned for them and hence they become eyesores for visitors and the city administrators – who find themselves unable to banish them having been emasculated by the political establishment. Those who run the “gumties”, generally, have substantial political backing as they constitute a formidable vote bank – votes driving, as they do, every activity of public import in the developing world, perhaps more so in India.

“Gumties” are therefore here to stay and cannot be wished away in the foreseeable future. We all will have to live with them and sometimes even make use of the services they render. Likewise, howsoever the municipal administrations might try they cannot get rid of them. The only thing they could, perhaps, do is to upgrade them, giving them a better appearance with proper fixtures and arranging them more methodically in cleaner surroundings. Those that come in the way of movement of pedestrians or cyclists and obstructing smooth flow of wheeled traffic should be ruthlessly removed, providing to the owner, conditions permitting, suitable alternative locations for plying their trade. It has to be accepted that an Indian street can, perhaps, never look like the “gumti-less” streets in towns of advanced industrialised countries unless the country attains the levels of their development after banishing poverty.

Photo: from the internet 

This was earlier published in Record, a blogging site of Record newspaper published from Williamsborough, NC
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