Hawkish about hawkers

Often, when I return at night from some literary event, I wait, at the bus stop outside Mayo Hall, in front of a youngish man selling boiled eggs. It's been less than a year since he began parking his pushcart there, and he materialises only after sundown. I watch commuters succumb to hunger one by one. He smartly knocks off the shell and hands over the egg, sliced, on a piece of paper with pepper and salt on the side.

Eggs, beans and jumpers; soft toys, berries and dictionaries; flowerpots and cookware, kebabs and underwear — there is hardly anything on god's green earth that does not find its way onto a city vendor's plastic sheet or pushcart. Hawkers have been with us for as long as we can remember, supplying whatever we need or fixing whatever is broken. But their existence has always been precarious because they do not own or rent the space they work in. Despite their fundamental right to be self-employed, city authorities consider them illegal. The government usually looks the other way but once in a while, it turns its gaze full upon them and gives them the marching orders.

This is one of those times. The government has suddenly turned hawkish and is trying to evict them. If you go by everything you read in the news about them you'll have a tough time deciding whether you're a hawk or a dove on the hawker question. They have the right to earn an honest living, they are a danger to pedestrians, they sell cheap food that the poor find a boon, they sell unhygienic food that causes diseases — conflicting opinions leave you bemused.

The charges against hawkers appear serious at first glance. Let's take the pavement situation. Hawkers force pedestrians to walk on the road, laying them open to the risk of being run over. Oh please, are you seriously telling me that, but for those pesky pushcarts, you would be gliding smoothly across the kerb with your head held high? Come walk with me down a typical, and not wholly imaginary, section of pavement. First, you bump into a scooter parked sideways, and then you step over two huge stones placed in order to prevent scooters from parking sideways. Bricks, rods and sand indicate that a house nearby is getting a makeover. You hop over a gaping hole, swerve past a lamppost and come up against a man standing, dead centre, talking into his mobile. Then you are subject to the spill-over effect: the furniture shop always has at least one new cane chair, and one old sofa with its stuffing bursting out, displayed on the pavement. The fat green hosepipe of a water lorry filling an apartment sump sprawls across the pavement and part of the road. Customers mill about in front of a sweet shop or bakery, painted grills are left out to dry, and dirty water overflows from a restaurant.

Photo frames, cut flowers, sleeping dogs, stand-up signboards — you'll agree that there is hardly anything on god's green earth that does not find its way onto our city's pavements. Now, if the pedestrian can take all of these hurdles in her halting stride, surely she can put up with a vendor or two. Besides, she needs those helpful hands behind the pushcart as much as the hands need her. The dhobi caters to every apartment on the street where he stands. The zip-repair man has more bags and trousers than he can handle. You might grumble when you have to walk crab-fashion past the fruit vendor but when you stop to buy bananas from her your complaint dies in your throat.

There are complaints that food vendors don't bother about cleanliness. Here we get into delicate territory. We don't need studies done by microbiology departments to know that roadside food teems with bacteria. The universe is filled with bacteria and not all of it kills you. Stomachs housed in sterilised surroundings, where chemicals obliterate every single germ, may not be able to digest the hawker's offerings. The poor survive on cheap food during or after a hard day's work, and no doubt they have high levels of immunity, because you don't see them falling ill or dying in the thousands everyday. I am not glossing over the seasonal outbreaks of gastroenteritis, but have they all been traced to the food and water served by the street hawker? Small restaurants, too, are culpable, not to mention sewage leaking into water pipes in poorer localities, and tankers that supply water of dubious quality from questionable sources.

To have designated hawking zones is a suggestion that some have put forth. But even as vendors move into these areas, the spots they have vacated are going to be immediately filled by other, newer vendors. Because the truth is that there is no lack of poverty in our city, no dearth of unemployed men and women finding ways to earn a decent living.

Before you puff out your chest and boast of national growth, as Independence Day approaches, keep in mind the growth of the unorganised sector. If lakhs of jobless people decide to be masters and mistresses of their own fate, should we call them a nuisance or salute their spirit of enterprise? The answer, I think, is evident.

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 1:33:10 am |