Reclaiming the city for street vendors

While norms have been eased for FDI in multi-brand retail, no effort is taken to ease the livelihood of the poor street vendor or rickshaw puller.

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:37 pm IST

Published - November 03, 2012 05:05 pm IST

Give him his space Hawking for attention. Photo: M. Govarthan

Give him his space Hawking for attention. Photo: M. Govarthan

The streets of every city in the country are not only home to tens of thousands of working poor and destitute men and women, they are also vibrant hubs of livelihood for impoverished people; and reliable sites for cheap and affordable retail. On city pavements, women and men energetically hawk an extraordinary variety of goods, including cooked food, fruit and vegetables, clothing, toys, books, household utilities and decorations.

An estimated ten million people live in India by street vending. To impoverished migrants, as also laid-off workers, street vending affords low-end but steady employment. It is the only sale outlet available to many small producers of garments or cottage products. It allows working people, and even middle class consumers, to purchase their needs at convenient sites and cheaper prices than in any store. Street markets are in many ways invaluable spokes in the wheels of the urban economy. They also enrich the distinct cultural life of every city.

Street vendors, however, typically lead a very hard life. A survey conducted by Sharit Bhowmik with the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India in seven cities, found their working conditions abysmal; their average working day stretches ten to 12 hours. There is no protection from the rigours of climate, no health services or social security. Their earnings typically fall well below statutory minimum wages; these ranged in 2002 from Rs 50 to Rs 100 for men and Rs 35 to Rs 40 for women. Credit for working capital is available only from private moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest.

But the greatest stress and insecurity of this vocation is created by a hostile state. Street vendors are condemned to fight daily undeclared – and unequal – battles against the police and municipal authorities. The seven-city study confirmed that in all the cities street vendors are forced to pay daily and weekly bribes to police and municipal authorities, as well as huge fines, but even this does not free them from the perennial dread of sudden, violent eviction. The study estimates that at least 20 per cent of their income is lost to rent-seeking by public officials. “Bribery is the only way most street vendors can survive in their trade”.

Official extortion and insecurity arise from an oppressive and opaque license regime, which effectively illegalises almost the entire profession of street vending. An arbitrary, ridiculously low ceiling is placed on the number of licenses in a city, and this is only a small fraction of the actual numbers who vend in the city. In Mumbai, for instance, an estimated 2 lakh hawkers operate, but the municipal corporation arbitrarily fixed a ceiling of only 14,000 licenses, and even these were not issued for many years. Therefore most vendors were illegal and there is huge rent-seeking in the grant of licenses. The situation was worse in Kolkata, in which all street vending was barred by law, and hawking was a cognisable and non-bailable offence.

Since the 1990s, the declared official policy was to free private business enterprise from the stranglehold of the license permit raj. Government efforts focused on deregulating and easing norms for setting up businesses in the organised sector, and in licensing, taxation, regulation and credit. Recently, norms have been eased for foreign direct investment in large multi-brand retail stores. Land acquisition laws are being amended, with a declared objective of facilitating access of private industry to land.

However, no such efforts have been made for easing up the livelihoods of poor producers and service-providers, such as street vendors and rickshaw pullers, which remain choked in unjust licensing systems. Far from being eased, these have only become more stringent and unforgiving in recent decades.

Only the poor are left out

Vendors depend on an estimated two percent of urban land, but these sites are mostly legally barred to them. The seven-city study found that only Bhubaneshwar and Imphal made provisions for street vendors in their city development plans, but these were absent in the plans for Delhi, Patna, Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Kolkata. The plans earmark spaces for hospitals, parks, offices, residential colonies, and bus and rail terminals, but neglect that around all of these, vendors naturally congregate, and these vendors provide essential services to people at low costs. The urban plans provide for malls and covered shopping arcades, but the imagination of town planners and officials excludes all shops which are run by the poor, for the poor.

An important central law is currently before Parliament, which promises to correct these inequities. Laudably the law affirms that its purpose is not just to regulate street vending, but also to protect the livelihood rights of street vendors. But in practice, the major part of the Bill is devoted to registration and licensing, and the system that the Bill proposes is still opaque and confusing. It places the burden on persons who wish to vend to apply for registration. There are many dangers inherent in this. Municipalities may establish preconditions such as domicile, they may require documents which poor street vendors will be unable to produce, and they may declare high value current vending markets as ‘non-vending’ zones. It is not clear that all or most registered vendors will automatically be eligible for licenses.

The draft law demonstrates once again how difficult it is to free the livelihoods of poor people from the stranglehold of the bureaucracy. In effect, all the law does is to give the right to a vendor to vend if she or he has a certificate of registration; and this certificate depends on the scheme prepared by the local body, prescribing where vendors may run their businesses, and in what numbers. In material terms, how does this change the situation in which vendors find themselves today?

This can change only if the law mandates that most vendors are registered, and that vending zones and vending capacities are decided through a transparent process, by a broad-based agency which includes representatives of vendors.

In the end, what this entails is an entirely new imagination of the city, which includes the masses of urban poor people as legitimate and legal partners. And, indeed, it entails a new imagination of economic growth, powered not just by the profits of large transnational companies, but the enterprise of millions of the working poor.

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