Harsh Mander

Barefoot: Cities and the right to vend

How else?: Making a living on the footpath. Photo: R. Eswarraj

How else?: Making a living on the footpath. Photo: R. Eswarraj

Street vending has been the livelihood of millions in our country since time immemorial. In every settlement, large and small, in the countryside and cities, men and women and often children carry an extraordinary variety of their wares in baskets, hand-carts or cycle-carts. Some sell these house-to house, calling out their wares as they walk or cycle past. But frequently they squat or park their carts on pavements or parks to sell their commodities.

It is from them that most middle class families purchase affordable vegetables, fruit, groceries, clothes, decorations, souvenirs, second hand books, and the majority of their daily needs. Street vendors bring into our hands the products of the sweat, enterprise and creativity of millions of unorganised tiny producers, who would have no other market avenues. Despite their major contributions to the economy, both as a source of livelihoods for the poor and of efficient inexpensive retail, they are mostly considered unlawful and victims of continuous harassment by civic authorities and police in most towns and cities. Aggravated by growing urban land value, there are recurring drives to harass and evict them, in the name of clearing encroachments and smoothening traffic.

The numbers of street vendors have increased manifold in the recent years. Today they have a presence in every urban area from the smallest town to the largest metropolis. It is officially estimated that approximately two per cent of the population is dependent on street vending. The total number of street vendors in the country would today be at least six million, which means that nearly 30 million people are dependent on street vending for survival. Many times this number benefit from the cheap retail afforded by urban vending.

Need for implementation

Street vending is threatened further today by malls and super-markets. Recognising belatedly the rights of millions who depend on this vocation, Government of India announced a National Policy on Street Vendors in 2004 and again in 2009. These policies are progressive, but were rarely implemented, because they lacked the force of law. Only legally enforceable rights can offer justice to this vulnerable and productive section of the urban poor.

The Government now has agreed to draft a “model” law. But street vendors' organisations such as the National Association of Street Vendors and SEWA believe that the proposed Bill has serious shortcomings, which fail to adequately protect livelihood rights of street vendors.

The first problem is that the Government of India has not enacted its own central law, but instead proposed its Model Bill to State governments to adopt. If the protection of street vending is left to the goodwill of States, it is unlikely that many States will enact this legislation. Under the National Policy, it was the responsibility of the States to give institutional design and legislative framework, as well as to implement the policy. Unfortunately, powerful urban interests have stymied such laws and their implementation. It has been seven years since we saw the first policy on Street Vendors but in all urban areas — big and small — street vendors continue to be harassed and evicted mercilessly. Only a national law will prevail over all State municipal laws to the extent they are inconsistent with the law for street vendors.

The two most common types of street vendors are mobile hawkers and street vendors sitting in a market or alongside roads or in designated places. Mobile hawkers earn much less than the stationary ones and aspire to getting a spot of their own. Mobile hawkers also get harassed and have to pay bribes to police and municipal authorities. But stationary hawkers face the most brutal forms of eviction from the municipalities and the police. Both mobile and stationary vendors require a transparent and liberal system of registration, along with allocation of space for the stationary vendors.

A representative of street vendors told me that there are only three things which make a street vendor viable: these are location, location, and location! This is why “natural markets” must be central to any law to protect street vendors. A “natural market” is “a market where sellers and buyers have traditionally congregated for more than a specified period for the sale and purchase of a given set of products or services as assessed by the local authority.” It is founded on the principle of “market demand”, recognising that street vendors tend to congregate in areas where customer demand is the highest; and the centrality of location for viable street vending. Throughout the world, vendors logically choose sites where demand for their goods is high, such as near bus and railway stations, residential sites, offices, parks, theatres and places of worship.

Forcing street vendors out of natural markets blocks efficient economic transactions and leads to economic waste. Regulatory regimes which ignore natural markets render vendors illegal, and consumers are inconvenienced. The demarcation of vending zones should be based on the principles of natural markets, and the total area to be demarcated as vending zones should be sufficient to accommodate all existing street vendors, and their natural growth in proportion to growth of urban populations.

Powerless

Street vendors are also being pushed out of modern urban economies because of the rising value of urban land, the multiple competing uses of public space, and the low bargaining power of street vendors. The powerlessness of street vendors leads many city governments to reduce numbers of licenses for street vendors to ridiculously low numbers. To take just one example cited by SEWA, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has recently finalised a scheme for Ahmedabad. It is estimated that there are about 1.5 lakh street vendors in Ahmedabad. Of these in the new scheme, 22,500 will definitely be evicted, 7,000 will not be evicted and presumably be given some kind of legal registration or licence, and the fate of the rest is uncertain.

The aim of this Act should be to preserve existing employment and livelihoods through street vending, and providing opportunities for the future growth of employment in the growing cities, while protecting the interests of the consumer, pedestrian and traffic. The principles of natural markets combined with minimum quantitative norms show us the way to do this. It would require municipal and State authorities to identify the existing vendors through surveys, including photo-identification, and self-registration of street vendors; identify the existing natural markets —big and small; regularise the existing markets in a planned way as far as possible; and include two per cent spaces for vendors in all future urban plans, and plan the locations of these in conformity with the principles of natural markets.

There should be strong and mandatory transparency provisions regarding the detailed procedure of deciding the holding capacity for vendors in any city and area, and demarcating vending and no-vending zones; identifying natural markets.

At present disputes between vendors and municipal authorities, including about registration and licensing, are mediated mainly through the municipal body itself, which is itself an “interested party” in the disputes. The experience of street vendors is that they can hope for just and prompt resolution of their grievances only by an independent and possibly quasi-judicial agency, which includes representatives of vendors, the municipal body, but also independent and empowered authorities.

Most existing Municipal Laws authorise confiscation and evacuation of unauthorised street vendors, but few prescribe any procedure for such confiscation and evacuation. As a result, street vendors face huge and relentless harassment by police and local body officials, and even extortion. Shops and markets are demolished without serving any notice. The law should lay down that no street vendor should be forcefully evicted unless there is clear and urgent public need in the land, and that too with due notice and humane process, and adequate rehabilitation.

Large industry celebrates its “liberation” from the “licence-permit raj”. But small vendors and service providers such as rickshaw pullers are still trapped in mindless and oppressive regulation, brutally enforced. They are further threatened by highly unequal competition from shopping malls and air-conditioned arcades. If governments do not urgently pass humane laws to protect them, millions of street vendors will be expelled from work and dignified survival, although the city — and its pavements and parks — belongs to them no less than it does to all of us.


Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 3:00:50 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Harsh_Mander/barefoot-cities-and-the-right-to-vend/article2232913.ece