In January last year, Bairag Mishra, a tea stall owner in Thane (west) had a strange visitor suggesting stranger things. Thirty two year-old Mishra frowned as 40 year-old Biju Nair spoke to him about joining a tea stall owners association which would give him a refurbished stall, educate him on better hygiene, and enable him to make more money.
“I heard him out politely — he seemed so passionate about it — and agreed, but forgot about it after he left. Why would a suited-booted man care about a chaiwallah’s issues?” says Mishra, twirling his carefully-trimmed handlebar moustache.Turns out that Nair did have an unusual amount of concern for the roadside chaiwallahs.
Nair, who now owns an animation studio in Thane, says he spent a fair amount of working hours at chaiwallahs when he started out as a news page designer in 1996, and went on to work in animation soon after. “In and around Mumbai, we are a part of this informal culture where we need a chaiwallah to help us bond with our team, brainstorm and unwind in the middle or at the end of a long day. But have you ever seen him up close? A typical chaiwallah works in a rather shabby and unsafe environment. I wanted to change that,” says Nair.
Cookies, chai and mini skirts
It was then that in October 2010, Nair founded the Maharashtra Tea Stall Holders Welfare Association (MTSHWA) to organise the largely-ignored workforce, educate them on hygiene, encourage self-employment and help them attract sponsors. Today, over 1,250 tea stall owners out of the 3,000 in Thane, Ambernath, Panvel and Ulhasnagar are a part of MTSHWA. Nair plans to extend the memberships to Mumbai over the next two months. Over 200 tea stall owners in Ghatkopar and Dadar have agreed to register themselves under the association.
Since March, Mishra and five other tea stall owners around Thane, Ambernath, Ulhasnagar and Panvel are part of a pilot study wherein Nair has helped them procure rather fancy stalls with a better drainage system to dispose their waste. Mishra stands behind a flaming red stall instead of his old, makeshift tin-roofed one which comprised a wooden table to prepare tea and an ugly blue drum which stored water.
His stall advertises the new offer that has turned his humble fortunes over — a cup of tea with a small packet of biscuits costs Rs 8. Mishra says he didn’t spend a penny on the stall — it is sponsored by a leading food brand, whose biscuits he stocks at his stall, which only sold tea till recently. Mishra, dressed in a fake green Being Human T-shirt, nods at the customers who have just arrived and says, “I’ll be frank with you, and don’t mind my saying so,” he says, dropping his voice. “Earlier, only rickshawallahs came to drink tea at my stall. Ab mini skirt waale bhi aate hain (girls wearing mini skirts come, too).” Mishra, who earned around Rs 1,800 every day till March, now makes more than Rs 3,000 every day.
Loans and insurance
After registering the MTSHWA under the Charities Act in 2010, Nair says he researched the tea stall owners’ operations and tried to understand what they needed the most. Till date, with the help of the Thane Municipal Corporation, he has helped his members acquire an FDA licence and the Shops and Establishments licence. The stall owners no longer pay bribes to cops, either.
Nair conducts workshops every two months to educate and inform the tea stall owners of the body’s plans and hygiene issues. He is now in the process of training the tea stall owners to get and operate bank accounts, acquire loans when needed, teach them about income tax and get them insured because they closely work with gas cylinders for over 12 hours a day.
Eventually, Nair wants to organise more than two lakh tea stall owners across Maharashtra. He says he is also in talks with some associations of differently-abled individuals who are interested in opening tea stalls across Thane and Mumbai.
Nair’s pet project, however, is one where is now helping women join the workforce and run tea stalls at railway stations. “We have got permission from the railways, too. I thought women should first open their stalls at railway stations, instead of streets, because it would be a safer environment, and they would be able to choose their own working hours.”
Chai without the cancer
Deepa Koparde is a Panvel-based social worker who is part of Nair’s association and is now in the process of getting permissions from CIDCO and the Panvel Municipal Corporation to open a tea stall either at Panvel or Khandeshwar railway station next month. “I will hire two smart, well-spoken women to help me at the tea stall. I always wanted to start something of my own,” she says, adding that this is a safe and ‘respectable’ career option for her. “My children keep telling me that that they’ll drop by during their school breaks, too,” laughs the 29 year-old.
Prem Patel, a 28 year-old tea stall owner in Thane was surprised when, a year ago, Nair came to convince him to join the association and added that the tea powder he used contained artificial colour, which may prove to be carcinogenic. “I had no clue, and we now use a different brand which Nair sources from a reliable tea manufacturer. We ourselves did a basic test to check it for colour and found it safe. The customers haven’t complained about any change in taste, thankfully,” he says.
Patel, however, has one small complaint with the arrangement. He, too, works behind the new, red stall, but is dressed in a white vest which stretches over his belly. “The new uniform doesn’t fit me,” he smiles sheepishly. “Hopefully, that will soon change, too.” We’ll leave that to Nair, who says he loves a cup of Assam chai, to decide.