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The Drought That Spawned an Ice Cream Industry

An auto remodelling hub has sprouted in Rajasthan’s arid Gangapur, where mini trucks are converted into ice cream vends-on-wheels, used by migrants to turn a profit in India’s big cities

Roli Srivastava

Ice cream carts fixed to motorbikes loaded on a truck in Gangapur, India.

Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story

Gangapur, Rajasthan: The parched villages of Gangapur in northwestern India have a new season in their calendar. At this time, auto workshops dotting the town’s mile-long dusty market open before sunrise, traders call in for more supplies of chocolate and strawberry syrups, and cylindrical stainless steel containers used in commercial kitchens are put out on display.

It’s the fag end of winter, the migration season in Gangapur, when thousands of mini trucks are remodelled into food trucks for selling ice cream. Old ice cream trucks are serviced and tuned. And local farmers-turned-ice cream makers stock up on supplies as they prepare to drive to distant towns and cities, where they will stay for the next nine months to sell the sweet treat – their livelihood lifeline when decades of water scarcity has ruined farm yields back home.

This seemingly small ice cream-selling business has spawned an entire industry in drought-hit Gangapur town, yielding the rarest of all commodities: jobs. The workshops fabricating stainless steel bodies to fix on the trucks, and shops selling a gamut of ice cream paraphernalia from freezers to containers and ladles have created jobs in this barren landscape. Local printers are also hiring staff to laser print posters of ice cream scoops against a backdrop of local temples and warrior kings, part of a trend that analysts say is an unusual outcome of internal migration.

There are an estimated 140 million internal migrants in India - people who leave their homes to find work at construction sites, factories or as daily wage workers in other states. Their decision to migrate is often rooted in rising agrarian distress back home owing to vagaries of the weather. While remittances have bolstered household incomes and local economies, an entire industry coming up on the back of a migration pattern is unusual, researchers said.

Workers at an auto workshop fix an ice cream truck in the local market at Gangapur, India.

Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story

“This market caters to 500 mini trucks every day during the peak season from November to February,” said Kalu Mohammad Pathan, standing in his workshop, where two workers slide under a mini truck with their tools, giving it final checks before its owner leaves with it for Indore, an eight-hour drive away in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh.

“We earn enough during this season to survive the year,” Pathan said, adding that there were less than 50 shops in this market in 2015, but now there were 500 of all kinds of shops dealing with products related to ice creams. Many workshops like his are expanding and hiring more workers as demand grows. Estimates place the number of mini trucks fixed with the stainless steel contraption for vending ice cream, and serviced at this market, as high as 50,000 during the four-month ‘season’. 

Workshops charge 150,000 rupees to fabricate one steel body for a mini truck, complete with rectangular windows to serve as counters, with space to place ice cream containers and freezers that the vendors buy from other shops in Gangapur’s market. These trucks have become ubiquitous fixtures across cities in India, easily identifiable by their brightly-coloured posters and neon lights.


“If there was no migration for this ice cream business, people would have remained impoverished in these villages around Gangapur. There is no water here, no jobs. And the landless find it difficult to migrate as setting up the business costs money, but now there is work for those left behind. Each workshop has created over 10 jobs,” Pathan told The Migration Story on a nippy February morning, with mini trucks lined up along the dusty Gangapur market road where his workshop is located.

Kanhaiya Prajapati poses for a picture in front of his new ice cream truck at Gangapur, India.

Roli Srivastava\The Migration Story

The drought that changed everything

Rajasthan, known for its majestic forts, desert safaris, palaces and temples, is among the Indian states recording the highest migration numbers to other states, data from India’s ministry of statistics show. The exodus of migrants has been fuelled by harsh natural conditions in the region, with low rainfall accounting for poor agricultural production in Rajasthan, researchers said.


The residents of Gangapur do not remember the last good spell of rain the region received. But the severe drought at the turn of this century that destroyed crops of maize, peanuts and chilli, and left their animals starving, is still a fresh memory. That was when the number of people seeking jobs outside the state began to swell.

Among those who left was Kanhaiya Prajapati, who was 16 in 2005 when he joined a fellow villager’s ice cream truck to Gorakhpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. 


“The farm yield had plummeted and there was no other income in sight. I returned home with 5,000 rupees after four months. It was decent money and the next year itself I decided to go on my own,” Prajapati said, sitting in front of his spanking new ice cream truck, a massive upgrade from the wooden cart he had started his journey with nearly 20 years ago.


In the past decade, 100-odd people of this village of 350 have joined the same profession, most driving the mini trucks.

Migrant vendors told The Migration Story that they take an auto loan to buy the mini truck and invest a minimum of 150,000 to 200,000 rupees to start the business - a capital they find manageable to raise, with relatives and friends chipping in as they believe this venture will succeed. After all, they have heard the migrant tales of a “culture of snacking” in the more prosperous and even-weather states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, of families and groups of friends visiting roadside food carts until late at night, buying ice creams, colas and ice lollies, unlike in their village where the day ends with the sunset. 

Shyam Singh, owner of a printing business, poses for a picture in front of two new ice cream carts that he printed posters for in Gangapur, India. Roli Srivastava\The Migration Story

It’s a similar faith in the business potential of ice cream trucks that led Darshan Tailor to set up a shop in the Gangapur market eight months ago, selling custard powder, flavoured syrups, big iron pans to condense milk and moulds to set the ice cream. “They (migrants) have seen the business, they know how ice cream is made,” he said.


In the cities they migrate to, vendors rent accommodation to stay in and to make their own ice cream. Unlike ice cream manufacturing companies that have set recipes, and take care to ensure that crystals do not form during the ice cream-making process, the sellers from Gangapur have a simpler formula: condense milk on low heat, add sugar, cardamom powder, and freeze it. Some makers also add almond pieces, but no emulsifiers. This has the Gangapur migrants taking pride in their ice creams as being healthy, as they are made of “pure milk”.


It’s a business they have settled into well.


Bhairav Lal Dhangar, 31, was also barely 15-years-old when his father bought a second-hand mini truck, tiring of travelling 150 km to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state to graze his cows and buffaloes, with land back home rendered infertile due to the lack of rain.


“I have rented a place in Manasa (a small temple town) and I make the ice cream myself. I am able to save at least 15,000 rupees every month to send to my family which I will not be able to in my village. Farming can’t feed us,” he said, as his new mini truck was getting spruced up at a workshop for his imminent travel.

Stainless steel ice cream carts parked at a village in Gangapur in Rajasthan, India.

Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story

Allied businesses also boom


Shyam Singh, 41, ran a printing business in Gangapur for nearly 23 years, printing banners for events and wedding invitation cards. Four years ago, he diversified. He now also laser prints posters for ice cream trucks, earning 24,000 rupees on each order.


“There are entire families and businesses that are dependent on this ice cream business. There is no other business here,” said Singh, adding that auto workshops have sprung up even in tiny villages around Gangapur.


The remittances from migrants have helped their families back home build concrete houses and install tube wells, both to irrigate their farms and for domestic use.


The ice cream truck business has had a cascading impact across industries in Gangapur. Inspired by the success of the men migrating, a growing number of villagers started taking ice cream trucks to neighbouring districts such as Bhilwara, where the demand for milk at the local state-run dairy shot up, officials at the dairy said. 


About two hours from Gangapur, in the lake city of Udaipur, an auto dealer said they sold up to 600 mini trucks – colloquially called ‘chhota haathi (small elephant)’ – during the four-month season, and most were sales for ice cream-vending trucks.


The Gangapur market has now become the go-to place for all ice cream paraphernalia, and now gets customers from other parts of the country. A YouTuber even struck gold by uploading videos of the market, and charging shopkeepers a fee for it, on his channel with 50,000 subscribers.

An ice cream truck parked in a neighbourhood in Mumbai, India.

Roli Srivastava\The Migration Story

Over 600 miles away from Gangapur’s market, as the sun goes down, Shankar Singh sets up his ice cream truck near a temple in suburban Mumbai. His aide cleans the counters, lights an incense stick, and switches on the LED lights that spread a fluorescent blue-orange hue around his truck. 


“My family is able to eat because of this business. I can’t close this shop even for a day,” said Singh, who like many other migrants will skip the journey back to his native place to vote in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. He cites the loss of earning in this peak summer time, and a general lack of faith in any political party to solve his village’s problems of water scarcity, lack of public transport and good hospitals, as reasons for avoiding the trudge home to vote. 


Even then, Singh’s village remains ‘home’ and Mumbai just a ‘workplace', like it does for several migrants like him.

A common poster on several ice cream trucks in Gangapur shows Rajasthan’s desert, camels and traditionally attired women, with ‘padharo mhare desh’ (welcome to our state) emblazoned in bold letters. 

Edited by Lesley A. Esteves


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