Can we ensure a place for street vendors in our social fabric without compromising on free movement of traffic? Olympia Shilpa Gerald finds out

Be it a tender coconut to quench thirst on a summer day, a bundle of ‘malli poo’ or mending torn slippers, it is not the air-conditioned department stores that come to mind, but non-descript, street side vendors. With a State-wide campaign urging implementation of laws protecting street vendors, it is to be seen if our civic authorities can ensure the right to livelihood that street vendors are entitled to, without compromising on public space and movement.

“We cannot do away with street vendors as they represent the side of the economy where idlis are still available for Rs. 2,” says Mageswaran, national secretary and state coordinator, National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), reiterating that vendors present a more affordable choice of goods and services to the common man. “It is paradoxical that while people turn to them for daily needs and conveniences, they also turn against them calling them a menace.”

The NASVI has been conducting State-wide campaigns appealing to local administrations to implement the National Urban Street Vendor Policy,2009. The policy calls for a legal status to be accorded to street vendors and the creation of vending zones in the city.

Headcount of vendors

In a recent meeting, Rengarajan, assistant commissioner, Srirangam Zone, said the Corporation was often caught between the demands of consumer forums and street vendors. While the former raised questions over presence of vendors in overcrowded areas, the latter demanded for a right to earn their livelihood. As an initial step in implementing the policy, the city Corporation has encouraged street vendors to enrol in an enumeration of vendors. Taking count of vendors can indicate the areas in which they are concentrated – an important step in demarcating vending and non-vending zones in the city.

Consumer forums have alleged that vendors have added to the congestion in places such as Teppakulam, Chathram bus stand, and Gandhi Market, to name a few. According to N.Muthukrishnan, secretary, Tiruchi District Consumer Movement, consumers understand that vendors add to their convenience but they cannot remain blind when vendors put up shelters that impede free movement and obstruct pavements meant for walking. Besides triggering accidents in overcrowded areas, vendors also cause damage to heritage structures in the Main Guard Gate and Teppakulam area, N.Ramakrishnan, convenor, federation of welfare organization, notes. The problem accelerates during festival seasons like Deepavali and Pongal, when pedestrians, vehicles and vendors jostle for space.

Search for space

Consumer activists like Mr. Ramakrishan believe the solution to easing congestion and ensuring vendors earn their livelihood lies in shifting vendors to a separate area demarcated for them and sensitising the public to it. Vendors on the other hand believe upholding restriction in vehicular traffic in area like N.S.B.Road during the festive season can ensure free movement. “Many times vehicles of important persons are parked right in front of showrooms, causing congestion,” says Ganesh, a readymade garments salesman in Teppakulam. “The police who hold us up, turn a blind eye to them.”

If vendors in overcrowded areas are to be shifted to separate areas, then local authorities must ensure these places are easily accessible by public transport, says Mohamed Ibrahim, coordinator, NASVI, Tiruchi. Besides, there is the question of convenience which is the hallmark of these trades – these street vendors survive as they are in the direct line of vision when a consumer is en route to a destination or on the way to make bigger purchases. “We can afford to feed our families every day only if we earn enough,” says A.Pushpavanam, vendor at Teppakulam. “That is possible only if we sell at a place where there is ample public movement.”

The answer lies in not evicting them from crowded public spaces but segregating vending zones within these spaces, believe social work activists. Space for vendors can be found by reclaiming land encroached by various agencies, notes Antony Stephen, social work professor. “When the government wants to encourage FDI in retail, it also has a responsibility to protect street vendors,” he adds.

Civic authorities clearly have their task cut out – will they strike the balance remains to be seen.

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