Delhi’s vendors struggle to stay on the street as lasting solutions remain on paper

Political parties made a whole bunch of promises to street vendors ahead of the Lok Sabha election in the national capital on May 25. What those who have stalls on the roads really want is social security, dignity to work, and a decent livelihood to survive, finds Satvika Mahajan

Updated - May 27, 2024 11:15 am IST

Published - May 26, 2024 05:54 pm IST

A view of a street filled with shopkeepers, who have received the PMSVAnidhi loan and are still waiting for social security, at Nizamuddin in New Delhi.

A view of a street filled with shopkeepers, who have received the PMSVAnidhi loan and are still waiting for social security, at Nizamuddin in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

At the break of dawn, Shyam, 52, leaves his one-bedroom shanty in Laxmi Bai Nagar, Central Delhi, to buy vegetables from the wholesale Ghazipur market. By 7 a.m., he returns to the area to set up his vegetable cart for the day. He is one of the many street vendors who applied for the Prime Minister Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi), a government initiative providing collateral-free working capital loans for registered street vendors.

Four years after the interest-free scheme was launched, initially to get vendors going after they lost employment due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Shyam sees his fellow street vendors go through the ordeal of first getting the loan and then paying it off. He has now decided against availing of it, because he is unsure when he will be evicted from his spot on the street, threatening his income and livelihood.

The SVANidhi scheme allowed for accessible and affordable loans which would help vendors, many of whom had gone back to their villages from cities, come back to urban centres and restart their businesses. Under the scheme, a loan up to ₹10,000 is provided under the first tranche. If vendors are able to pay back this amount in 12 months, up to ₹20,000 is offered for the next 18 months under the second tranche, and up to ₹50,000 for the next 36 months under the third tranche.

“First, when the Street Vendors Act came [in 2014], I thought I would be allowed to live my life with dignity, but it was never implemented seriously,” he says. The Act was meant “to protect the rights of urban street vendors and to regulate street vending activities”. Now with the loan scheme, it’s the same cycle, complains Shyam. 

The Act covers any person engaged in vending goods or services to people in public spaces, especially on pavements or from a temporary built-up structure, or by moving from place to place. Fruit and vegetable sellers who pushed their carts around localities; roadside stalls selling tea, pakoras, and paan in shacks; those selling second-hand clothes or books; and traditionally held weekly markets were all covered, among many others. All street vendors were supposed to be provided licences to continue their work under the 2014 Act. However, the surveys to provide licences have been on halt for two years now. Delhi has over 6,00,000 street vendors approximately, as per union records.

A Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) official said on condition of anonymity, “There are several factors for this, including the unification of MCD and the lack of a standing committee in the civic body. The MCD has hired a company to conduct the surveys, but since it’s supposed to be done through biometrics, they are awaiting permission from UIDAI.”

Poll politics

Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, leading national parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian National Congress, and Aam Aadmi Party raised the issues of street vendors. They have made street vendors poll promises of security, respect, and finding a lasting solution to their problems of harassment by the police and authorities.

In February this year, members from the Delhi Congress met a delegation of street vendors, assuring them that if they were elected, they would implement the Street Vendors Act, 2014, which was passed by the Central government under their governance.

In March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an audience of street vendors in the national capital, saying that there were lakhs of street vendors working hard to earn a living for their families. He said, “Inke thela dukaan bhale hi chhote ho, lekin inke sapne bade hote hai (Their shops might be small, but their dreams are big.”)

Similarly, AAP also reached out to street vendors ahead of the polls promising to carry out the stalled surveys of vendors by the MCD, and facilitating vending zones in the Capital.

Shakeel Ahmed Siddiqui, the general secretary of the Delhi Pradesh Rehri Patri Khomcha Hawkers Union, a trade union of street vendors affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), explains that these promises look good on paper, but every party needed to look closely at the on-ground conditions before they made promises, let alone bring about change.

During the G-20 meetings, several vendors were removed by urban local bodies (ULBs) from their spaces by authorities in the name of cleaning up streets.

Stories from the streets

Siddiqui explains the loans have done the bare minimum. Street vendors receive almost no protection from the authorities and are often at the receiving end of anti-encroachment drives. Sitting in the CITU office, a dark, dusty space in Mandi House engulfed in files and papers, Siddiqui says that access to loans is just the beginning of the problem. “Street vendors contribute to the country’s Gross Domestic Product heavily. Farmers and factories depend on us to get their products into the market, and households run through our services, but we are treated like second-class citizens.” He points to the economic and social vulnerability that he and the various communities of vendors face.

Nizamuddin, 60, sets up his clothing vend in the busy Jama Masjid market, located next to the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital. He mostly sells menswear, making ₹1,000-1,500 a day, depending on the customers and the time of the year.

Narmada Prasad, a shopkeeper at Nizamuddin, who is struggling even after he received the PMSVAnidhi loan.

Narmada Prasad, a shopkeeper at Nizamuddin, who is struggling even after he received the PMSVAnidhi loan. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Only a few months after receiving the loan from the SVANidhi scheme, his vend was razed by authorities in an anti-encroachment drive. It has been almost five months and they have not let him set up stall again. “I have somehow managed to pay off the loan in small segments by asking friends and relatives for money, but how long can I keep this up,” Nizamuddin asks, rhetorically, stroking his long grey beard. “I thought I would not have to face these issues after I received the loan, since it is an indicator that I have all the paperwork necessary to vend, but even after struggling for formal recognition, I have faced this.”

He is also an elected member of the Town Vending Committee (TVC) from the area he had his stall in. However, he says that the TVC, which is meant to give street vendors a voice within ULBs, has not had a meeting in the past year.

Mehoob, 45, has a similar tale to tell. The vendor of small religious items was removed by local authorities from his shop near the Nizamuddin Dargah months after receiving the second tranche of the loan. “They removed my business stating the wall behind me needed to be repainted. I was okay with that despite knowing that I would lose a few days of business. I don’t want to be an impediment in the work of the authorities, but it has been months now, and they have not allowed me to set up shop.”

Unions have explained that this was not allowed, but many of the police are not aware of the law, he adds.

The core issue is the lack of social security. Rekha, 43, runs an eatery which sells chow mein and Indo-Chinese dishes in south Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, with her family who hails from Bihar. As she sets up her kadhai (wok), she says, “We have been part of MCD’s vendor survey; we have all the necessary details which allow us to stay here, but every other day the police tells us to vacate our stall. Is trying to earn money honestly to feed ourselves a crime?” she wonders out loud, as she chops cabbage.

The police are accused of harassing street vendors. Narmada Prasad, 50, a mochi (shoemaker), is currently in the third tranche of the loan, but has been struggling to pay off the loan. “When I first received the first tranche three years ago, I used the money to buy shoes and start selling them. The first two years of business were good, but suddenly I am being harassed by policemen demanding hafta (bribes) to keep my business running,” he says. The Delhi Police did not wish to comment on this.

Unions and other support systems

Unions such as the Rehri Patri Khomcha Hawkers Union, Self Employed Women’s Association, and National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) work as the backbone of many of these street vendors who are often unlettered. Many work to connect the government with street vendors, educating vendors about laws and rights that support them, and conveying vendors’ tribulations to the government. They also help with legal aid. They also provide an umbrella for vendors to meet each other and find viable solutions for their problems.

Urban activist and researcher Aravind Unni explains that the scheme has worked on some level, especially after COVID-19 when there was a crisis and monetary issues needed to be addressed.

However, he feels the scheme is just an add-on to the 2014 Act, and until that is implemented, true change will not be seen on ground.

Currently, the Urban Development Ministry holds the power to make decisions for vendors. “There needs to be a push to decentralise decision-making with training and capacity-building so that it can trickle down to those working on ground such as ULBs or TVCs,” says Unni.

Disha Kulkarni, 47, a homemaker in Delhi, says she starts her day with buying flowers for puja at home from a street vendor and ends it with cooking vegetables brought from another. “There is a relationship I have developed with my fruit and sabzi wallahs. I spend less on fresh produce than I would on grocery apps or stores in malls.” She cannot imagine life without them.

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