“The battle between pedestrians and hawkers is not a fight for livelihood; it is a struggle for space”, writes lawyer Gautam Patel. A shorter version of this piece A shorter version of this article appeared in the Mumbai Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Pune Mirror earlier this month
This is a familiar sight. A police wagon rolls up. The street bursts into frenetic activity — shouts, calls, men running, wooden racks and trays being gathered and squirreled away into the some recess between buildings. The oddest things are flung into the police truck: pots, pans, shirts, pedestals, baskets, cutlery. It takes the better part of an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more, and then there is an unusual quiet to the street, a strange sense of space. It doesn’t last, of course; they are all soon back, later that day or the next or the day after.
Not for the first time, the language we use defines our thinking rather than the other way around. City hawkers are a “menace”, a “problem” that needs to be “addressed”. This terminology and thinking demonstrates first an institutional lack of concern for a segment low on the financial ladder. Sitting in a plush air-conditioned office a man may perpetrate all manner of heinous crimes. But it is a far greater crime to vend wares on the street. Our streets do not belong to “them”, but only to “us”, and yes, that’s the same “us” that does not think twice about littering and spewing long jets of paan-thook on to public streets.
This constant cleansing our streets of hawkers is an epic failure to recognize the nature of our cities and the role of hawkers in them. We let all this talk of “world class” cities blind us to one reality: our cities are not those of the Occidental persuasion with their motorised communities and structures set well back from the road lines where city life is either indoor or in sequestered public spaces. Our cities are extensions of villages, and every city in India is just a village on concrete steroids. Every street is an impromptu bazaar. Hawkers exist in the interstices of these village-cities, providing many essential services and goods: food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between, daily vegetables, flowers for the morning prayer rituals, garlands for special festive occasions, cheap fabric and clothing, watch straps and mobile phone covers. There is a market for these goods, and neither buyer nor seller deserves to be called a “menace”.
There is talk about hawkers’ rights, and their right to livelihood, and this tussle has occupied courts for nearly 30 years. An early decision of 1985 partly approved a policy by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, one that contemplated the allotment of 1-mtr square ‘pitches’ for hawkers, and a zoning provision. In a late 2003 decision, the Supreme Court reviewed a revised hawker zoning policy, going street by street to decide where hawking should be permitted and where it should not. It also imposed many conditions, including that hawkers should not “create any noise or play any instrument or music for attracting the public or the customers”, prohibiting the cooking of food and the selling of white goods (cameras, video tapes, etc), requiring hawkers licenses to be displayed, permitting hawking only in certain places and so on. It is one thing to impose such restrictions by judicial pronouncement; it is quite another to get someone to enforce them. A subsequent 2007 decision went into the question of how licenses should be allotted and to whom, noting that there were a very large number of unlicensed hawkers on the streets. The 2007 decision is interesting because it notes the 2004 National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, one that acknowledges their historical existence and their necessity.
Street vending as a profession has been in existence in India since time immemorial. However, their number has increased manifold in the recent years. According to one study Mumbai has the largest number of street vendors numbering around 250,000, while Delhi has around 200,000. Calcutta has more than 150,000 street vendors and Ahmedabad has around 100,000. Women constitute a large number of street vendors in almost every city. Some studies estimate that street vendors constitute approximately 2% of the population of a metropolis. The total number of street vendors in the country is estimated at around 1 crore. Urban vending is not only a source of employment but provide ‘affordable’ services to the majority of urban population. The role played by the hawkers in the economy as also in the society needs to be given due credit but they are considered as unlawful entities and are subjected to continuous harassment by Police and civic authorities. This is reported to be continuing even after the ruling of the Supreme Court that “if properly regulated according to the exigency of the circumstances, the small traders on the side walks can considerably add to the comfort and convenience of the general public, by making available ordinary articles of everyday use for a comparatively lesser price. An ordinary person, not very affluent, while hurrying towards his home after a day’s work can pick up these articles without going out of his way to find a regular market. The right to carry on trade or business mentioned in Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, on street pavements, if properly regulated cannot be denied on the ground that the streets are meant exclusively for passing or re-passing and no other use.”
That these matters should come to court, and that there should even be this contest between competing equities — the right to carry on a trade or business and the right to life — is an indicator of the ineffectiveness of our civic administration. Regulating street vending is a matter of town planning. Courts are not equipped to develop master plans and town planning strategies. At best, they tweak and adjust existing policies, and try to balance equities and this is why the courts have been at pains to emphasize that their orders are only interim measures, not final solutions. There is, as yet, no consistency in any city’s policy on street vending and the questions before us are not very different from those of 30 years ago.
So far, the battle has been lopsided. A critical failure of thinking about hawkers is to assume that all hawkers are made equal. The hawkers in the arcades along DN Road in Mumbai seem to be immune to police action. Their wares are superfluous: bootleg videos and DVDs, spurious perfumes and suspicious missile-sized sex toys that look like Defence Ministry rejects. What ‘rights’ should accrue to these hawkers, and why? They add nothing of value and take away much of substance: the occupied arcade makes foot passage impossible, and other — less illegitimate — hawkers are forced on to the sidewalk outside. Where does that leave the pedestrian?
The Street Vendors Livelihood and Protection Bill, introduced last month in Parliament attempts to recognize hawkers’ rights and control street vending in our cities. That is one-sided; an estimated additional 47,000 hawkers will be added to Mumbai. What is the suggestion? That only motorists have rights; only hawkers have rights; and pedestrians are only road-kill?
Mumbai has had a hawker policy of sorts since 2009. This strange document is a confusing web of conditions, restrictions and classifications designed for graft. The 2009 policy is flawed, and quite disconnected from the chaotic reality of Indian cities and the problems of urban planning. It does not attempt to assess the carrying capacity of any area or locality, or to determine how much sidewalk space can be shared between hawkers and pedestrians. Instead, it seems to proceed on the assumption one need only have a method of issuing licenses and specifying zones without any defined system of checking violations. One of the most wrong-headed provisions is to make licenses for “stationary” hawkers — those who are not itinerant — heritable and transferable, a provision that can only result in greater uncertainty. The policy speaks of creating food plazas and goes on to promise additional build-ability (FSI and Transferable Development Rights) without attempting to understand how this is supposed to work in already congested localities or the impact this will have. In a triumph of mindless ambition over common sense, the policy suggested walled enclosures for non-itinerant vendors in their designated hawking zone. This is the classic NIMBY syndrome: everybody needs them, but nobody wants them in their vicinity. This is exacerbated by the fascination with “zoning”, which suggests that should you need lunch or vegetables or flowers, you might have to trudge to some distant “zone” to get them. The upshot of all this is that arrangements must be made for hawkers. Pedestrians just have to manage.
This is not a fight for livelihood; this is a struggle for space, and there is no more damning indictment of our planning process than the elision from it of the pedestrian. When political muscle and vote banks substitute for planning the result is always skewed. Pedestrians constitute no constituency.
Nobody visits a street vendor in a car. You get there on foot. That means that while we should permit hawkers — because they service the city — the number of stationary hawkers in any area and across the city must be restricted, there must be some control on what is being sold where and how, enforcement mechanisms must be transparent and clear and, too, that pedestrian rights must receive recognition. But this demands softer hands and greater imagination, both in very short supply.