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Delhi’s chai walas embody city’s hardships, aspirations

India's tea vendors embody the demographic shifts and economic struggles reshaping cities. (Pete Burana /

They are migrants, dreamers and armchair urbanists. Al Jazeera’s Showkat Shafi provides a window into the world of chai walas in a captivating photo essay that views India’s capital from a tea vendor’s perspective.

Part of the engine that fuels the informal economy, the tea sellers embody the demographic shifts and economic struggles reshaping cities across the Indian subcontinent.  

From their street-level vantage point, they have witnessed a city in the throes of change. Kishan Lal, 62, tells Al Jazeera that over four decades, he has seen some customers who had nothing acquire homes, cars and other wealth. But the tea vendors also speak of abject poverty, unfulfilled dreams and hopes of a better life for their children.

Reflecting the ongoing migration from villages to cities, some chai walas share that they moved from the Indian state of Bihar, Nepal or elsewhere to pursue opportunities in Delhi. The economic hardships faced by hundreds of millions of Indians are everyday realities for chai walas. They work long hours but remain destitute after selling tea spiced with cardamom or ginger for only five to ten rupees a cup, the equivalent of just a few U. S. cents. 

Al Jazeera

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