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मोची moci/cobbler a story of informal economy in Mumbai INTRODUCTION

Ashely Webb & Bruce Chan Ball State University / CAP Asia V April 2008

Mumbai is a polar city. While being the financial capital of India, Mumbai is also the poster

child of informal settlements, or “slums“. With an estimated population of 14 million people, Mumbai is the second most populous city in the world, 50% of whom are living in poverty. And while the global eye is fixed on the financial rise of India and its formal economy, it is the established and necessary informal economy which runs the lives of the majority of Mumbai.

The informal sector in Mumbai, which has a long historical presence in the city, accounts

for 68% of the total employment in the city.1 It provides direct employment for over three thousand people, in addition to indirectly employing hundreds of thousands more.2 The informal sector is not only a source of employment but also provides ‘affordable’ and essential services and products to the majority of the urban population. The informal sector of Mumbai is most obviously observed in the street hawkers and pavement vendors. In a city with a growing population expected to hit 23 million in 2015, and no more buildable space in the city proper, affordable and ideal commercial space is difficult to obtain for those in the informal economy. Thus, these industries – food stalls, vegetable vendors, Mumbai has a large recyling industry, part of the informal economy of the city. Carts of plastic, cans, newspaper, and other recyclables are transported around the city. Photo: Ashley Webb

cobblers, tourist souvenir merchants, etc. - take to the streets and sidewalks, occupying the only

1 UNCHS (Habitat’s) Global Urban Observatory 2 Bhowmik, Sharit K (2003): ‘National Policy for Street Vendors’, Economic and Political Weekly, April 19, 1543-46.


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true “public space” in Mumbai. They take the form of impermanent shacks, wheeled stalls, or simply products placed on a tarp. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the city’s footpaths are unusable for pedestrians, in large part due to the presence of these street vendors. Besides the unavailability of space, the inherent nature of the services provided by these street hawkers is only viable along pedestrian and heavily trafficked sidewalks and streets, not inside commercial malls. Because these informal businesses play such an integral role in a city with no formal space for them, we wanted to study both the physical architecture of their ‘space’ and the role this informal space on the sidewalk plays in the urban context of the neighborhood. Through our investigation, we hope to better understand the functioning of the “public realm” in Mumbai. CONTEXT We chose to study a small wooden cobbler shop operated by a gentleman named Shasikant Shinde. His cobbler stand is located on Hanuman Road, a secondary street in Vile Parle East, Mumbai. Vile Parle Hanuman Road is bordered on the west by the Western Railway Line and on the east by the ever-expanding Western Express Highway. The cobbler stall stands in the middle of this area called Vile Parle East. Photo: GoogleMaps

is a suburb in West Mumbai. It is divided into West and East by the vital vein of Mumbai, the Western Railway Line, which has a station in Vile Parle. Hanuman Road runs East-West. It is a 2-way vehicular street with 4 lanes for traffic; 2 lanes for one direction and 2 for the other. The 2 outermost lanes are not used solely for traffic; residents and patrons of the commer-

The cobbler stall lies on a small commercial street, with mid-rise apartment and residential blocks linking off of Hanuman Road. Photo: GoogleMaps

cial street use it for parking. In most of the cases observed, this ‘extra’ lane was used as

an extension of the sidewalk by pedestrians. Seldom do actual taxi cars venture on this road; smaller rickshaws, personal cars, and public busses are the norm. Hanuman Road consists of mostly small


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industry shops ranging from small restaurants / cafes, appliance, stationary, computer, pharmacy, tailors, and washers; only a few mid-rise urban residential blocks make their way into this mostly commercial street. The smaller tree-line streets which link off of Hanuman Road are primarily residential blocks for middle-class working families. Hanuman Road is bounded on the West by the main avenue of Mahatma Gandhi Road and the Western Railway Line, and on the East by the Western Express Highway. Thus, Hanuman Road acts as a bustling linking thoroughfare for pedestrians and residents walking between these two vital avenues for Mumbai. It is due to this site condition that we chose to study this particular cobbler stall in the mist of the urban traffic. One of the main methods to our study was surveillance and observation of the cobbler stand during business hours. In doing so, we hoped to see first-hand the role of the cobbler stand in relationship to Hanuman Road and the neighborhood. Our study also utilized interviews and informal conversations conducted with the owner, cobbler himself. With the help of a translator, we casually administered some pre-determined questions regarding the physical structure and the logistics of his business. Photography and sketches were used as a tool to help document the patronage and business, as well as the physical details and structure of the shop. OBSERVATIONS

Formal observation was conducted on March 11, 2008

(8:15 am to 10:00 am) and March 13, 2008 (11:00 am to 1:00 pm and at 8:30 pm). On both occasions, observations were made directly across the street from the shop, under a tree, and always by a red car. This was deliberate as it was in close enough proximity to observe in detail, yet distanced enough not to disturb business with loitering. Our goal of observing the stand was to study both the operations and the physical structure first-hand. Site The cobbler stall is located on a pedestrian Shasikant Shinde in his cobbler stand.

sidewalk on the North side of Hanuman Road. The Photo: Bruce Chan


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Shinde’s stand takes up the most of the pedestrial sidewalk. It is up against the wall which borders the bank building to the street. Photo: Bruce Chan

The space behind the wall, though spacially ‘private’, is used by Shinde and the flower shop as storage as night. Photo: Bruce Chan

building which the stall is in front of is a bank on the ground floor with housing above. The space between the end of the sidewalk (designated by a spiked iron fence) and the start of the bank entrance was probably intended to be private space. However, that space is used by both Shinde to store his poles and tarp of his canopy and the flower shop to store their collection bins for clippings. There was no evidence that this is a contested space by anyone, as Shinde assumed permanent storage there. Across the vehicular street from the stall are more gated mid-rise apartment buildings, complete with monitoring guards, and a newspaper stand that sells sundries. Business The following are taken from notes documenting the events of March 11, 2008: 8:36 am

Shasikant Shinde arrives; sweeps front sidewalk space of stand.

8:43 am

Unlocks – first door.

8:46 am

First drop-off of shoes by customer.


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8:47 am

Changes trousers.

8:49 am

Second door opens and phone is placed outside.

8:54 am

Empties out store: sweeps and dusts. Everything set up.

8:59 am

Dusts every sandal, places them on rack on door to sell.

9:05 am

Sets up phone line.

9:06 am

Blue box comes out.

9:09 am

Sets up overhead tarp.

9:12 am

poles up. Tarp awning complete.

9:13 am

Shop transformation complete.

9:15 am

First phone customer.

9:19 am

Fixing shoes.

9:21 am

Second customer sits down in shack with him.

9:33 am

First customer leaves.

When closed and locked up with 3 locks, the stand occupies roughly a 10 sq.ft. footprint on the sidewalk. When opened, the overhead tarp, wooden pallet, swung open doors, and customers on the side walk occupy much more space. Sketch: Bruce Chan


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9:44 am

Slow down – wash face.

9:50 am

puts up second tarp / cloth in front of phone.

10:01 am

New couple of customers. Observation ends.

The following are taken from notes documenting the events of March 13, 2008: 11:09 am

Bag fix.

11:22 am

Break time; leaves shop.

11:28 am

Boy comes to drop off something. Drinks water. Leaves with bag.

11:30 am

Shinde returns.

11:39 am

Man buys shoes. Chats it up with 2 boys next door form the flower shop.

11:56 am

Break time.

12:09 pm

Still no more customers. But people use the phone.

Observation ends.

Through our observations, we noted that most customers stick around and wait for their repairs, often times chatting with Shinde as he works. Not many customers drop off their shoes and come back later, unless the job is large. Shinde always takes off his shoes before stepping into the stall. He sits and works on a portable wooden pallet which he brings out from inside of his stall. With any down time, he dusts. Most customers come on foot and that was clearly Shinde’s “secret of success”; his shop is located at a street corner that has thousands of people pass by a day. The shop is within walking distance to the Vile Parle train station, Parleshwar Mandir Hindu Temple and Shah Hospital to the west, and the Western Express Highway to the east. Only one person we observed came by auto (AKA three-wheeler, tuk-tuk or auto rickshaw), while several autos


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came by for the next door flower shop. It was interesting to observe that no autos parked directly in front of the shop, as if the drivers were trying to be courteous. Structure Roof, sign, and fluorescent light detail.

Photo: Bruce Chan

The main structure is roughly 3 feet by 3 feet, and 10’ tall, with the ground lifted a couple of inches off of the concrete sidewalk floor. It is made of a wooden frame with pounded metal sheets (~8” X 8”) nailed to the sides. The roof is made of corrugated asbestos screwed to wooden slats and further supported by a wooden box structure that has the name of the store on the front. Coming from various points near the top front of the structure, thin slats of wood protrude to the sides and are used to keep the doors of the shop open; the doors are affixed by thin rope to the thin slats. Another short board protrudes from the front of the sign and is used to hang a florescent tube light. On the inside of the doors and inside part of the shop,

Interior scene. Premade sandals for sale.

Photo: Bruce Chan

there is laminated plywood/particleboard with holes drilled at regular intervals uniformly all over the board; the holes are used to hang shoes to display for sale. The shoes are hung in the holes by a nail driven into the soles. The construction of the shop is very specialized to its location and piecemeal; it is definitely built on site as no pre-fabrication looks to be in-

Informal adjustment.

Photo: Bruce Chan

volved. Many nearby shops sell materials like those


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found in Shindeâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s shop construction. Some found materials are probably used as studied in other informal shops. There is a slight grade noted on the sidewalk (<1 degree) and adjustments were made by adding wooden blocks to the legs of the structure. If any piece of the structure was too short in construction, a new piece was not acquired, rather more pieces were simply added.

For protection from the brutal Mumbai sun, Shinde puts up a blue tarp overhang in the front of his stall with the aid of wooden poles and leather straps, detailed here. The man is using the ICO phone, shaded by the hanging cloth. Photo: Bruce Chan

From opening until the sun is no more a threat, Shinde shades his customers and himself with a blue tarp. A bamboo pole is strung through the front of the tarp. Two other bamboo poles support the canopy; the support poles have permanently attached leather loops on end, through which the canopy pole is strung. The tarp canopy relies on tension for support. A secondary canopy is made with a cloth sheet and shields customers using the ICO phone from sun and public view; the cloth is attached with rope to the tarp and further secured to the rod iron fence that defines the flower shop. It was also interesting to see that the shop relied on the iron fence behind it to tie part of the tarp canopy back. Once the sun falls behind buildings later in the day, Shinde puts away the tarp and cloth. The florescent tube light is turned on. PERSONAL INTERVIEW While Shinde was informed about this project and permission was granted to make observations, he expressed great hesitation to answer any questions when we approached him for a personal interview. As he explained, while he is licensed, the license is under his motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s name and he was


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not sure that we were not going to report him in any way to the government. Also, as noted above, his shop is adjacent to and has a symbiotic relationship with an illegal flower shop. The interview was almost called off. We showed him our student identification cards in attempt to ease his worries, and after five minutes of our translator’s assurance, Shinde reluctantly agreed to interview. Questions were asked hastily as our translator directed and nothing was written down in front of Shinde; Gaurab, our translator, was confident that Shinde’s confidence was fading by the minute as every passing minute meant more undesired general attention. Shinde had no desire to know our names or anything about us. Before the interview, we reviewed the questions with Gaurab, our translator, to make sure the meaning behind the questions were understood and not lost to whatever idiomatic phrasing originally was used. This helped later when we chose to put the notebook away to ease Shinde’s worries and had to recall them from memory. The following are questions that were prepared: 1. Why did you start the business? How/why did you get this space? Do you pay rent? 2. What are your operating hours? Are you open during monsoon? 3. What is the best and worst part of your job? 4. Where do you get your stock of new shoes? Other supplies? What tools do you use everyday? What training did you take? 5. How is your pricing structure? 6. How does your ICO phone work? 7. What are your “secrets of success” in business? 8. Do you have returning customers? What do talk about with returning customers? Who else visits (other than customers)? 9. How is it helpful to have the flower shop next door? Do people often buy shoes and flowers at the same time? How long has the flower shop been next door? 10. Do you make repairs on the shop yourself?


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11. What has changed in Ville Parle since the shop has opened?

Shinde did not hesitate to answer personal or general questions, but noting his hesitation, questions pertaining to licensing or utility service were avoided. The whole time the interview was underway, the two men that run the flower shop seemed to mediate the interview; they oversaw everything that went on and also offered some translation and support of both parties.

The following is an abbreviated recount and summary of some of the information acquired from

the interview: Shasikant Shinde has operated from his current location since 1973. He received his training from his father who learned from his father; the family comes from the ‘mochi’ or cobbler caste. Though the services he provides consist mostly of repairing shoes, Shinde also has the knowledge and tools to repair belts, bags, and other such leather and thicker materials. He also sells new women’s and men’s leather sandals. Attached to his shack is a wireless phone operated by him that can be used for only local calls by customers. Pricing is not fixed and varies based upon difficulty of the job. Bruce bought a new pair of sandals for 125. The price floor is 2 Rs. The ICO phone costs 1 Rs per minute and is based on a bona fide basis; customers just pay him when they are done. Shinde has roughly 3-4 shoe related customers per hour observed and 2-3 ICO phone customers per hour observed. In regards to demand, one customer was observed waiting outside of Shinde’s shop before he had opened. Related to income and demand is overhead cost. Shinde pays 3000 Rs per year in rent to Mumbai Metropolitan. On a train on the Western Line in Mumbai, an advertisement was found for a similar wireless phone system that Shinde used for his ICO phone; the entire system and installation could be purchased for 2525 Rs. In addition to the ICO phone, he had a phone inside of his shop which may have been for personal use or may have been not functioning; he also had a cell phone he used during the day. Besides licensing, the shop required electrical service and had a meter. The rate is not known. The flower shop had a light used at night that may have run on the same meter or used a separate pirated power source, acquired by a similar method to el Gatos of favelas in Rio de Janeiro as observed in Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities.


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The shop is open from 9 AM to 9 PM every day of the week, all year round. That being said, however, an attempt to make observations of Shinde closing his shop was made at 8:30 PM on March 13th; however the shop was already in the final measures for closing. Shinde operates even during the monsoon and has no other job. During the monsoon, Shinde keeps his tarp canopy extended during all business hours. In our interview with Shinde, it was asked what the best and worst parts of his job were, likes and dislikes. Shinde chortled and replied that there are no likes or dislikes to his job; it is his job and livelihood, simply put. Shinde designed and, with the help of a carpenter, built the shop himself. Any repairs to the shop necessary are performed by a carpenter. Shinde noted that only some of his customers are return clients, or regulars. Other customers are those who, while walking, experience some problem with their shoes / sandals – a broken strap, a loose stitching, a worn away sole. Thus, these customers often seek out the most convenient and most accessible cobbler in the area. And due to his ideal location, Shinde receives many of his clients this way. Shinde has been in Vile Parle for 35 years at his current location as a mochi. When asked what changes he witnessed, he said he had seen buildings erected and streets made. He also noted that the people have changed; he said he preferred the customers in Vile Parle of the past and now he did not like the people so much. He did not describe what was different particularly, but he said it had to do with new development and the kind of people it brought. Shinde as a person is soft-spoken. He has lived in Mumbai his entire life and currently lives 15 minutes away from his shop, which he walks to everyday. He is married, but has no kids, which may explain part of his special relationship with the flower shop. The flower shop next door is of particular importance. Shinde’s shop and the flower shop have shared the sidewalk for 10 years. The flower shop is run by two young brothers, aged 18 and 23. The shop belongs to their family. The flower shop and Shinde’s shop share a symbiotic relationship. The flower shop attendants mind Shinde’s shop whenever he steps away. The three of them socialize throughout the day. It was not asked whether the other really helped each other’s business, but it


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might help the flower shop—operating illegally—to be in the shade of a licensed business. REFLECTIONS Under more ideal conditions, we would have liked to ask more personal questions to see how Shinde sees his own role in the urban context of Mumbai: • Where does the name of the shop come from? • Do you feel that you compete with other mochi? • How much did your shop cost to build? How did you finance the construction? • Where do you see yourself and your shop in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? After our field research, we had a discussion as a team and we made some general observations. First, Shinde is a clever business person; he is very aware of the market he caters to, people who casually walk by. In addition to his mochi services, he has a state-of-the-art wireless phone system to stop people that would have not of otherwise stopped. Also, there are two other cobblers within a block along Hanuman Road who do not have an ICO phone, which may differentiate his shop from others. Second, as informal as Shinde’s stand might seem, it has provided an income and livelihood not only for himself, but also for his father, and his father before him. In addition, his little stall is in fact not informal at all. Shinde possesses both a license and a power meter connected to the main power grid of the city. Thus, though to a simple passerby on the street his stand might seem ad-hoc and unofficial, his business is in fact authorized, lawful, and apparently profitable enough to sustain the business throughout these past decades. If this is so, then one begins to question why Shinde doesn’t create a more permanent – both structurally and aesthetically – stall for his time-tested business. If his business seems more permanent and legal to the common passerby, would that elicit more business from the community? Some possible answers are that people just do not put an emphasize on the outward aesthetic of a stall over the quality of services provided. Possibly, as a stand-alone building unprotected from the elements and monsoon, the reason why the informal architecture is built that way is because in such a harsh cli-


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mactic and urban environment, structures will always need repair. Why use such expensive aesthetic building materials which will just need to be replaced after a certain amount of time? After the interview, Gaurab offered general insight about the mochi caste. The mochi caste, or cobblers, belongs to one of the lowest castes in India because of their handling of leather, which might explain why Shinde did not express an opinion of his job; it is the only job he has and he is thankful to be employed. Gaurab also informed us that in India, police make rounds checking licenses to try to catch illegal businesses, like the flower shop. Some police do it to enforce the licensing and penalize those who do not have a license. Other police officers operate like a mafia and check licenses just to make money by collecting bribes. In this case, Shinde would have trepidations about encountering police since his license is under his motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s name. But how would this make a difference in the eyes of the government? In a city where such a high percent of the employed is in the informal, and thus illegal, sector, would the government deprive employment to this large portion of the population just so the state can have control and regulation on these businesses? In a city with such a long history of the informal economy at play, we donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t believe so. Although India seems to be growing financially as a whole in the global market with Mumbai as its shimmering gem, the city itself, which runs on the same informal economy being criticized as the obstacle preventing Mumbai from becoming a world-class city, has little hostile sentiments towards the street vendors compare to its Western counterparts. Middle and low-class mumbaikers are aware of the benefits financially of having affordable and accessible goods in an ever-growing expensive city. Thus, it seems that, for now, Shasikant Shinde and his neighboring flower shop duo will be in business for a while.

Note: Thank you to K.C. Gaurab for his professional translating. Also, thank you to Nihal, Wes, and Olon.


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08:00 March 11, 2008

11:00 March 11, 2008

18:00 March 11, 2008

23:00 March 11, 2008 Photos by: Bruce Chan



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April 2008

moci/cobbler: a story of informal economy in Mumbai  

Ashley Webb and Bruce Chan, authors. A study of a cobbler's stand on Hanuman Road, Mumbai, conducted in March 2008.

moci/cobbler: a story of informal economy in Mumbai  

Ashley Webb and Bruce Chan, authors. A study of a cobbler's stand on Hanuman Road, Mumbai, conducted in March 2008.