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Alien vs Predator; Hawker vs Pedestrian

“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.



Hawk land

Sameera Khan on the large scale hawker evictions in the city

This article first appeared in the Time Out, Mumbai –

I have a serious confession to make. I am middle class, I have a master’s degree, I live in a comfortable 3-BHK, and I regularly patronise hawkers. I frequently buy vegetables, fruits, books, chappals, dangling earrings, vada pav, balloons, kebabs, mogra gajras and other such essentials and frivolities of everyday life from them. These are people now only described as a “menace” and a “nuisance” but whose continued presence on the streets comforts me – especially late evening and night – in familiar and strange parts of the city.

I doubt we are the only middle class family dependent on hawkers in Mumbai – though the way the mainstream media in recent weeks has framed the story of large scale hawker evictions, it seems as if the only relationship between the urban middle-class and hawkers is one of antagonism and intolerance. There’s no mention of the Andheri man upset that his neighbourhood bhajiwala has been evicted, forcing him to buy vegetables from Food Bazaar at Infinity Mall. Or of the harried working woman who prefers the late evening convenience of the hawkers outside Santa Cruz station, reassured by the warm light of their petromax lamps.  And what of the old woman near Pali Hill grateful for the threedecade long presence of the same bhelpuriwala at the end of her lane? Why don’t we hear these middle-class voices supporting the people who provide daily essential services, access to cheap goods, whose existence they depend on and whose non-appearance causes them distress?

Instead, we hear the chorus of zealous “citizen” groups expressing great displeasure at hawkers. Some have put up large banners congratulating the police for their relentless anti-hawker drive. Others no doubt are waiting to download the new Hawker Tracking System, an android phone application planned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation so that concerned citizens can report a hawker’s location for faster eviction.

So much easier to target the hawker as the villain – who messes up the city and stubbornly “encroaches” on its public spaces. So much more difficult to take on your own middle-class comrades who often have more than one car and park on the pavement or the shopkeepers/restaurant owners who unashamedly extend their shopfronts or the builders who deliberately encroach on open spaces.

These are also illegal acts but somehow only the hawkers get seen as “illegal” and of course, most are “illegal” as the BMC has not issued any new hawker licences in Mumbai since 1978; only about 15,500 of the 2.5 to three lakh hawkers in this city are licensed. Hawkers desire legal status – their illegality makes them vulnerable to extortion and harassment.

Unfortunately we see the hawker question as a beautifying pavements issue and not as an employment concern. Hawking provides our urban poor a legitimate livelihood. Since hawkers often sell goods of small-scale or home-based industries, the impact of street vending on employment is even larger. Research reveals that many vendors hawk due to a decline in formal low-skilled jobs such as those in the textile mills. A street vending study by Sharit Bhowmik of Tata Institute of Social Sciences in seven Indian cities showed that around 30 per cent of hawkers in Ahmedabad and Mumbai and 50 per cent in Kolkata were former workers in the formal sector.

Looks like the formal sector has come back to claim its pound of flesh. Just observe who stands to gain once the hawkers are unemployed – big retail malls and supermarket chains like Reliance Fresh, Hypercity, Foodland, and others are all gainers in the process. The losers are the poor: as marketers and also as consumers. Everyone doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to shop at a supermarket and maybe you can drink a R80 coffee at CCD but for your domestics and other poor workers, the chaiwala on the street is a necessity.

Eventually the hawker’s issue is about who has rights to the city – “from whom” are we protecting our public spaces and “for whom” are we protecting them? It exposes our general indifferent attitude towards the working poor. We need policy and regulation but it has to be based on tolerance and acceptance of the others’ right to be there. I too want a clear pavement to walk on but just as I want my rights as a pedestrian respected, I also want to acknowledge the rights of other citizens to public space.


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City, warts & all

by Shanta Gokhale

If we want an all-round view of the city we live in, with all its warts displayed and all its complexities examined, mumbaireader ’10, published by the Urban Research Design Institute, is the book for us.

The cover photograph that wraps the front and back of the book, captures an important story about our city. Dingy tenements stand in the background, their compound walls sheltering assorted debris. The middle ground is held by a driverless autorickshaw. The foreground is a stretch of brown, pebbly earth with two dusty trees occupying the very edge.

Inside, one is greeted by a visually stimulating environment of colourful ward maps, reproductions of newspaper articles related to the subjects under discussion, and telling photographs in both black-and-white and colour interspersed  with the text. There are articles, essays and analyses here, contributed byacademics, journalists, environmentalists and local historians, that cover every aspect of life in Mumbai— housing, health, livelihood, transportation, education, open space, governance, urban form.The visuals weave through them as a parallel text, adding meaning here and making points that are tangential to the argument there. With the visuals, the process of reading, or even dipping into thebook, becomes more dynamic than one would normally expect.

Obviously, this is not a book meant to be read at a stretch like fiction. My first read, very stimulating, was a hop, skip and jump through its pages, guided by visuals that caught my eye. A photograph of the circular sweep of Elphinstone (now Horniman) Circle as it was around 1864 led me to Preeti Chopra’s study of how Bombay was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With great wistfulness I read that the then municipal commissioners “were of the opinion that the design of the buildings around the circle should have some degree of architectural nicety, which will harmonise with the Town Hall”. Later,the word harmony appears to have dropped out of the municipal lexicon altogether.

A black-and-white double spread of Bandra Fort which I had never seen from this angle before, took me to Vyjayanthi Rao’s study on urban development. “The City is Not One”, says a sub-head in the article, encapsulating Rao’s main argument. She points out that, unless the heterogeneity of the city is made the premise for planning, designing and building, it can never become “a space of refuge” for all its citizens. In Mumbai the citizens include, (whether the upper and middle-classes like it or not), slumdwellers, migrants and people displaced by infrastructural projects. To include them all to “create a space of refuge” is the ideal of planners and designers. But our politicians think otherwise. They simplify matters by excluding this large chunk of the city’s population, leaving it to fend for itself.

The newspaper headline Revenge of the Commuter is the next visual that leapt out at me from the middle of Nidhi Jamwal’s article Mumbai’s Pedestrain Paradox. This study begins by telling us that 52 per cent of road users in Mumbai walk, and only three per cent ride in private vehicles. So who’s the majority here? Why then is the city not made walkable? Why must pedestrians be forced to dodge ‘caaars’, trucks, dumpers, buses, autos and speeding bikes, putting their lives at risk every time they step out of their homes? Why can we not have footpaths, unoccupied ones, please?

If we look back on how Mumbai was built a hundred years ago, we grow wistful. If we look at the city in its present form, we feel frustrated. Does the future at least hold a promise that we can look forward to? Darryl D’Monte’s article Flawed Urban Vision puts paid to that hope. The famous Mumbai First plan of 2003 to transform Mumbai into a world-class city, was a dream we didn’t believe in even then, and which began dying a natural death almost as soon as it was born. The reason, says D’Monte, is that the “managerial-technocratic view” the vision took of the city did not accommodate its diversity. Back to square one.

Last year in March, D’Monte informs us, a 40-year plan for Mumbai, prepared by a team of Singapore consultants known as Surbana, was unveiled at the State Guest House. The plan projected a slumless city by 2052. And? “One of the weakest links in the plan is the generation of jobs….Without a clear vision on how Mumbai… will employ the majority of its citizens, most will continue to Fester in slums.”

In short, the future is bleak.

This is from Shanta Gokhale’s column in the Mumbai Mirror dated October 25, 2012

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Oshiwara residents Fight for their Playground

Oshiwara residents win back playground plot

October 7, 2012, Hindustan Times, Mumbai report

At a time when citizens are struggling to save the city’s open spaces, residents of Oshiwara have succeeded in removing illegal structures from a plot reserved for a playground. Incidentally, the reserved plot had been allotted by Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority (Mhada) to a private trust for constructing a seven-storey international school.

“It is a big victory for everyone fighting to save the open spaces in city. The playground was barricaded by tin sheets, thereby not allowing the local residents to use it,” said Sumesh Lekhi, member of Oshiwara Lokhanwala Citizens’ Association (OCLA), which had filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court on the issue. “Children will finally be able to avail of the playground that was meant for them,” he added.

On October 3, the high court directed the state government to reply to the PIL that challenged the allotment of land by MHADA to a private trust for constructing an international school.

According to the petition, in January 2002, the state had ordered Mhada to allot the plot to Janata Education Society. “Locals had been negotiating for a playground since 1996, but in 2007, the land was leased out to the school at a throwaway price. It was the only open space for thousands of citizens in the area,” said Rakesh Coelho, trustee, Tarapore Towers.

Following a meeting with Satish Gavai, vice-president, Mhada, last week, permissions were granted to demolish the illegal structures erected on the playground. “We organised a hearing for both the stakeholders – the citizens’ group and the school trustees. Based on the hearing, we passed an order for demolition of structures on the ground because it violated the law,” said Gavai.

Kunal Dalal, trustee, Janata Education Society, refused to comment on the matter as it was sub-judice.