Mr. Kamalnath’s Chai Shop

A few months ago, I had been in conversation with a road side chai walla in Bangalore who was delightfully cooperative, and open to new ideas being tested out through his road side stall.

“Me: Why do you use Plastic cups?

Kamalnath: I don’t have water in this booth to wash my cups. I know Plastic is bad, I am planning to use paper cups soon.”

Kamalnath, from a small town in Tamil Nadu, owns a small stall on St. Marks road that offers wonderful lemon tea with a mint sprig on the top for all of 7 rupees that goes beautifully with his 6 rupee tea cakes or two rupee chaklis, the cheapest thing you can buy on St. Marks Road to eat. His story is that of a struggle, and the humble portable chai shop was, to him, its happy ending. As it isn’t exactly a legal establishment, he runs into trouble with the authorities from time to time, during which time he simply packs up, and his chai shop vanishes as if it were never there, much to the dismay of many of us who worked in offices nearby. It was a comforting idea, that the little booth would always, eventually come back, for Kamalnath has now been selling chai, coffee, snacks and cigarettes on St Marks Road for 17 years.

Kamalnath’s stall generates very little waste. The plastic sachets in which he buys milk are picked up for recycling. (milk sachet recycling in India is the second most organized and efficient recycling system after paper recycling, our informal recycling  sector does wonders) Apart from that, the only waste his stall generates are the little cups for beverages, the little packets of plastic coated with aluminium for tobacco that fly about, and the wet waste from making tea. Kamalnath represented something to me, how happy and contented he was occupying such a tiny, temporary, foot print. Kamalnath may not have had much of a formal education, but he had the basic understanding that plastic cups aren’t the best thing for our planet. Despite not being very young, he was open to listening, and to the idea of trying to sell chai differently, provided of course that it wouldn’t cause him to lose any money.

My friend Kankshi and I, we dreamed freely. Of changing the systems in which tea shops work. Of disposable cups made from leaves that could become fuel for his little stove. Of spray painting his stall, putting it on the map. We felt that though the disposable cup problem didn’t have a one size fits all solution, if we did something about Mr Kamalnath’s Stall, it could set an example to other tea shops that operated in similar conditions with similar constraints. Our dreams remained dreams, and I no longer live in Bangalore.

We got fairly stuck, for we were attempting to approach the cup almost entirely from his point of view, and we gave up. This was a few months ago, and I am back to being haunted by the cup, but it haunts me differently now. Approaching the cup from the eyes of individual consumers seems so much more approachable than through the eyes of the likes of Mr. Kamalnath, while it certainly helps to understand the constraints he works with.

More about ideas that worked and those that didn’t in the posts to come!

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