Street-food plan starves poor of choice

Clearing all food vendors from all pavements robs workers of the chance for affordable food. (File photo by Patipat Janthong)

Soon after being hailed as the city with the world's best street food by CNN, and with the Michelin Guide announcing it will visit Thailand this year, City Hall which is known to have a love-hate relationship with street vendors, yesterday decided to keep street food in certain spots in the capital -- to serve tourists, not residents.

While CNN has not named any outstanding street vendors, the Michelin Guide, which will hold a press conference Friday at Phaya Thai Palace, will definitely award a few stars to restaurants in Bangkok. The recognition should certainly benefit local tourism.

Immediately after CNN's announcement last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called street food part of the uniqueness and charm of Bangkok and asked vendors to follow good hygiene practices, keep pavements clean and cooperate with city officials in maintaining order.

Earlier, City Hall had announced its determination to continue its street clean-up campaign. However it recently rolled back this policy following strong public criticism over its attempt to make the Thong Lor street food scene a thing of the past.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is an assistant news editor, the Bangkok Post.

In January, Vallop Suwandee, chairman of the advisers to the Bangkok governor, admitted to the Post Today newspaper he did not like street food vendors because "they are the worst of all types of street vendors".

They not only take public space from pedestrians but also make Bangkok pavements dirty, he said.

But yesterday, he changed his mind, insisting that street food in the Khao San and Yaowarat areas will be kept -- mainly to boost tourism. City Hall, however, will impose stricter rules on cleanliness, hygiene and waste management. However, street eateries in other street locations popular among locals, namely Victory Monument, Siam Square and Sukhumvit, are likely to be cleared.

It is clear the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) seems more eager to please tourists, who probably visit the capital once in their lifetime, than meet the needs of Bangkok's residents, millions of whom are low-income earners who depend on street food.

While many seem worried this Bangkok "charm" will be wiped from the tourism map, I'm more worried about the disappearance of affordable food choices for average men and women, especially low-income earners.

City Hall has said that vendors can relocate to new locations. But these places are usually managed by the private sector which means they will have to pay high rental fees. The BMA has never explained how low-income earners will survive once street food eateries are swept away.

Two years ago when the BMA tried to ban street food vendors at Ratchayothin intersection, it offered them an alternative location at SCB Park Plaza.

Then came the clean-up campaign against Thong Lor vendors who have long served ordinary Bangkok people and low-income earners there. These vendors were told to move inside buildings in the area.

Does the BMA really think construction workers, who struggle on the minimum wage, can afford to buy lunch in these air-conditioned buildings?

But does "street food" have to be literally defined as such and be sold on pavements or streets? It could exist more easily in the past when Bangkok was not overcrowded with 15 million residents and millions of visitors like it is today. The BMA should redefine the meaning of "street food".

This means carts don't have to be on pavements like in many parts of Bangkok or in the road like in Yaowarat.

Look at how Singapore has managed its hawker centres and food courts which are home to dozens of street food vendors. More remarkably, one vendor won a Michelin star, along with several other top-notch restaurants, when the prestigious guide arrived in the country last year.

It is the BMA's duty to provide subsidised locations where vendors can continue to provide affordable food for those who can't afford expensive meals in air-conditioned shopping malls.

But thinking about it again, should I really be bothered about the disappearance of street vendors?

While the state doesn't seem to try to provide us with places with affordable choices for lunch or dinner like Singapore, it is generous enough to allow hundreds of convenience stores to occupy every corner, almost every 300 metres, where city residents like me can pick anything for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack or late night dinner.

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