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In defence of the street economy

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Street vendors are good for providing local colour in Incredible India tourist campaigns, but 10 million of them are without any rights and treated as a nuisance. Yet, this vast body of people provides invaluable services in cities and adds to a city’s earnings instead of being a drain on it. Instead of evicting them, their activities should be regularised

Street vendors without any rights and treated as a nuisance

Our street vendors, all 10 million or more of them, are part of the colour of India. They provide the magical allure, the sights, the smells and the sounds that have inspired zillions of foreign writers to wax eloquent about India. They produce the colour of the East, which countless Hollywood and Bollywood directors have used as backdrops. They are in every ‘Raj’ film and book, and we make use of them when we make ‘Incredible India’ ad films to draw tourists and big bucks into our country.

Yet, though all of us Indians, rich and poor alike, make use of them every day of our lives, we take them for granted. Worse, we treat them like dirt. Middle-class housewives haggle shamelessly to beat them down by a few paise. The same women then stroll into malls and supermarkets where they pay double the poor sabjiwalla’s prices without batting an eyelid.

We  are  sorry  for  them  when  we  see  the police moving  them on,  sometimes  mercilessly overturning  their  wares on the pavement, lashing out with lathis. We watch  them  being  bullied  by  the neighbourhood cops knowing they  are  at  the  mercy of  our  so-called keepers of the law. How many of us bother to intervene, to help them? Do we ever stop to think of them as real people who have as much right to exist as bankers, teachers or lawyers and their clerks? The great Indian middle class likes the convenience of the local street vendors who provide fresh fruit, vegetables and even bread and fish at their doorstep, yet it wants them out of sight. People complain about the neighbourhood being messed up by the unsightly shanty towns of the migrants who clean their homes and sell them myriad services. Since property prices have escalated, the land the shanties occupy is invaluable so the mafia and local authorities want to grab it.

As  a  child  in Calcutta,  now  Kolkata, I  was  often  filled  with  an impotent  rage  when I  saw  the police lathi-charging our poor puchkawalla (known as pani-puriwalla in other  parts of  the  country). Likewise, with the ice-candy men, the chooranwallas,  the  aloo-dumwallas and the countless other cart sellers who made our young lives and  childhood memories unforgettable. They were dirt poor. They came from Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh or rural Bengal to eke out a living in the city, sleeping in slums or on pavements, often leaving their families behind.

More than a decade ago, I was shocked to read that Jyothi Basu’s Marxist government was on an eviction drive to beautify the city and spruce it up for British premier John Major’s arrival! A communist government punishing the proletariat to impress a visiting capitalist, conservative prime minister of a former colonial power! Paradoxical indeed, but it shows you how unimportant the street vendor is on the agenda of political parties, and therefore how utterly powerless.

And yet, street vendors don’t only contribute significantly to the economy, but more than half the urban population is dependent on them. Both men and women vendors are found all over the country. The number of women vendors tends to decrease in the north of the country, as well as in large cities, whereas it is higher in the south and north-eastern states. In Meghalaya, for example, women constitute about 70% of vendors, whereas in Kanpur they are about 20%. In Mumbai, about 17% of vendors are female, in Patna 21% and in Bangalore, 44%. Women vendors, predictably, face the additional problem of being subjected to sexual harassment by the police and local goons.

Street vendors are drawn from all castes and communities although a majority tend to belong to backward castes or the Muslim community. In some cities even members of upper-castes, especially Banias, take to street trading.

Their literacy level is usually low since they start going out on the streets at a young age. The variation in levels is, however, a reflection of the region they come from. The proportion of illiterate street vendors in Varanasi, for example, is 52%, whereas in Mangalore it is only 25%.

Recently, in Kolkata, I met Laloobhai, a puchkawalla from Uttar Pradesh. He lives in a slum, sharing a room with ten other men from his village. They came one by one, as there was no employment whatsoever in their village. “It’s not possible to bring our families here. Life in the city is so expensive we can’t afford to feed them. We manage to spend as little as possible and send the rest home so the family can eat. Sometimes the police smash everything with their lathis. Then it’s a loss. Mostly we pay them and they look the other way. If they feel like eating puchkas, they eat. They don’t pay us, of course, but what to do? We are poor; can we argue with a policeman?”

Michael Norton, British author, intellectual and innovator, once remarked: “The different levels of activity on Indian streets are fascinating. There are sellers sitting at ground level on the pavements, then there are the carts and pavement vendors, then the street level small shops and finally the big shops.” It takes a foreigner to make you look anew at what we consider ordinary and mundane.

All of these people have to be creative and innovative to survive. They lead a precarious existence, juggling prices, markets, the laws of the concrete jungle which involve bribing the police, the mafia and keeping irascible, unsympathetic, picky customers happy. In the West, these people would be the great unemployed masses, living on the weekly dole. Here, they keep the economy going. They ask for nothing, no favours, only the right to earn a livelihood. Instead they get beaten, cheated, jailed by the police, and cursed by ungrateful, urban middle class customers. They are part of the largely unorganised sector, so they have little recourse to legal aid or justice.

Across the world, street vendors have been part of the marketplace since time began. In the West, bureaucratic, soul-searing legislation has gradually squeezed all spontaneous, innovative, creative solutions off the streets. Now, a chestnut seller on a winter morning is special, a whiff of the past. In an attempt to ensure that all economic activities pay their pound of flesh by way of taxes, informal economic activity like street vending has been made illegal and driven out while formal shops, much easier to tax, have replaced them as the “legal” form of retailing.

Indian town planners and economists are striving to ape the West. So, street vendors are given short shrift. They are part of the infamous “informal economy” – anathema to the likes of the World Bank and IMF. And they have no business in a modern market economy. What Indian civic authorities conveniently ignore is that unlike in the West, these people do not have safety nets like social security or welfare benefits. And our street vendors are hard-working, entrepreneurial individuals who contribute to the economy instead of being a drain on it.

Besides this, most street vendors sell items produced by home-based and small-scale industries. The produce is designed to meet the needs, tastes and affordability of the local consumer and in places convenient to access. Hence it contributes to the economy in a huge way besides being a form of self-employment which brings down the numbers of unemployed in the country.

With the advance of modern retailing in India – fixed retail operations, department stores and malls – many expected that street vending would go away. Yet the average householder in India prefers the street seller whose vegetables are fresher than the supermarket produce. In most countries of the South, street vending persists – and probably has expanded – even when local regulations seek to ban or restrict it.    

Most of India’s 10 million street vendors are threatened with a range of problems. The biggest is high rental fees, which make vendors vulnerable and is the cause of their illegal status in India. The rent-seeking fees, including bribes, collected in Mumbai annually totalled $20 million according to reports. Some papers have reported that street vendors pay 10-20% of their earnings as such fees. The process of licensing is mandatory for street vending to be legalised. However, India’s current system is still inadequate, with only 14,000 vendors found to be licensed from the 250,000-strong population of street vendors in Mumbai.

Various citizens groups regularly start ‘drives’ to evict street vendors, supported by the municipality, police actions and court orders directed against street vendors all over the country. Such initiatives want to clean up our cities so that they look like Dubai or Singapore. That this would make them sterile and soulless, unappealing and ordinary, totally opposed to the ‘Incredible India’ image the tourism department pushes, is not something our planners take into consideration. The existing laws to support the rights of street vendors are weak. City planners and other civic authorities scrap laws that support vendors’ rights. Instead of spending money on civic amenities, improving drainage, sewerage systems and garbage disposal facilities, they shift the blame for shortages of services onto vendors and migrants. They brand them a civic nuisance and actively encourage the police to evict them. Even when the rules are in favour of the vendors, lack of operative-level transparency plays havoc with their livelihoods.

The harassment by various authorities, local bodies and departments, and the exploitative fees paid in bribes to those who exploit the loopholes in the system, leads them to destitution. This, in its worst form, takes the shape of eviction and a complete loss of working capital. Instead, regularising their activities in a manner that gives opportunities for relocation would be a better option.

Activists point out that laws for the rights of street vendors, and the way they are interpreted, make it difficult, often almost impossible, to implement them. The National Policy of Urban Street Vendors was adopted by the Government of India on January 20, 2004, yet states are still to implement the policy through local and municipal authorities and urban planning departments.

Various bills have been drafted by the National Advisory Committee, the National Commission, and National Campaign Committee to protect street vendors against unsafe working conditions and to provide security and welfare measures, but these have not yet been passed in Parliament. There is no social security whatsoever for street vendors. Nor, of course, do they have recourse to other workers’ benefits such as pension, gratuity, bonus or holidays. If they cannot work, they receive no income. They do not have security of any kind, or basic rights like leave for maternity, accidents, sickness etc. Welfare boards formed for various groups have not included street vendors.

The process and initiative to license street vendors has loopholes due to the limited number of licences that are issued compared to the large number of applicants. There is also limited staffing of registration offices, which encourages harassment and illegal activities by the police and other forces. Instead, issuing identity cards would be much easier, municipalities could earn revenue, and vendors need not pay bribes to keep their business.

The government uses double standards in handling street vendors. While the informal sector includes all street activities and other home-based and part-time work, street vendors have been targeted by the government in the name of public and traffic safety, sanitation and a more modern, western look as cities expand. Yet a number of public events, bazaars, religious festivals and other activities take place on our streets with the whole-hearted support and approval of government authorities.

Temporary and sporadic arrangements to solve the problems of street vendors are not sustainable. The national policy has to be implemented; urban planning bodies have to consider the need to provide space for vendors. Organising street vendors has been taken up by various trade unions. NGOs and unions fighting for the rights of vendors need to look at both policy-level and practical issues. We must amend the statutory laws of the Indian Penal Code, the police acts, municipal corporation acts and so on. As this is a form of self-employment that supports the livelihood of the poor, the government needs to support it through various existing poverty-alleviation schemes.

The undeniable complexity of the problem makes it seem insurmountable and hopelessly unsolvable. But, thankfully, there is hope because there are worthwhile precedents. Women vendors in the crowded Manek Chowk area of Ahmedabad were able to wrest legal entitlements through a combination of struggle and dialogue. So too in Manipur. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court conferred legal status on vending (cf Sodhan Singh vs NDMC, SC 1998). So, it has become incumbent on city authorities to plan for vendors and vending as an integral part of the town planning process. Only when all the players involved enter into a meaningful dialogue – from civic authorities to shopkeepers, residents’ associations and vendors – can we  resolve  the problem in a just and  equitable, mutually sustainable way. Otherwise we will continue to marginalise and victimise our vendors through cleanliness drives, violent clashes and populist rhetoric, as is the current practice.  

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009