Barriers to an honest livelihood

The ‘ton-ton’ sound made by the vendor with his metal stirrer as he roasts groundnuts lures every passerby to go for the healthy snack. Autorickshaw drivers grab cheap lunch from pushcart vendors. Toothless grannies sell little heaps of berries loved by school children. Closer home, using only their voice as advertisement, vendors hawk everything from strung flowers for the puja in the morning to ‘thaati nung’ at night.

It is amazing how many vendors survive on an investment that may not exceed Rs 100 per day. Studies reveal that the average earning of a male vendor is Rs 70, and of a woman Rs 40 per day, and many borrow money at an interest rate of up to 110 per cent.
The government has been speaking constantly of the need to shift millions from rural areas to non-farm activities in urban areas. But when the people do come and create their own jobs as vendors, they live in constant fear of being evicted by officials. The thinking of many in power seems to be frozen, schooled as they are in archaic British laws still adorning our law books, which failed to understand the country’s street culture and saw vendors merely as illegal encroachers who obstruct pedestrians. One would have thought any government would have welcomed these self-reliant entrepreneurs who ask the government for nothing. Many fail to see that the fault lies not so much with the vendors as in the failure of planners to make provision for hawking spaces in master plans.

Regulate street vendors

Thankfully, a progressive National Policy on Urban Street Vendors has been evolved after much nationwide debate. This aims to give legal recognition to the valuable contribution of vendors towards urban employment and poverty alleviation. In Karnataka, the HC judgement in 2008 on a public interest litigation forced the state government to issue a circular on March 19 to all urban local bodies (ULBs) to take measures for registering and regulating street vendors. A legislation too is in the offing.

The circular calls upon all ULBs to designate three types of vending zones: ‘restriction-free’, ‘restricted’ and ‘no-vending’ zones. It also asks ULBs to compulsorily implement both the SC directives in the Maharashtra Ekta case as well as the national policy. Quoting the SC directive, the circular says that there should be no hawking within specified distances of places of worship and railway stations. However, this contradicts the concept enunciated in the national policy of ‘natural markets’ where “sellers and buyers have traditionally congregated” and which should be kept in view while notifying zones.

Other SC directives asked to be adopted in the circular are that vendors should not use handcarts, that there should be no hawking on streets less than eight metres in width and in exclusively residential areas. This will sound the death-knell for thousands of vendors and their services at one’s doorstep. These directives again contradict the national policy which states that a ‘no-vending zone’ should be notified only with full justification and for particular times of the day only, and that the ensuing public benefit “should outweigh potential loss of livelihood”.

Strangely, the circular does not take note of the subsequent clarification of the SC in the Maharashtra Ekta case that the scheme and directives issued by the SC were temporary in nature and that these should not influence the regulations framed by the state, which should be in consonance with the national policy only. Critics opine that the circular has been issued, deliberately overlooking the SC clarification, to get rid of vendors. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that a state-level minister and officials have been recently pouncing on some vendors unawares and ordering their eviction without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

These high-handed actions are again in total violation of one of the most positive features of the national policy which is that the vending and non-vending zones should be identified and monitored by a participatory town vending committee (TVC), including vendors’ associations (40 per cent), RWAs, NGOs, distinguished citizens, etc, with one-third women members. Evictions being ordered by persons other than the TVC amount to usurpation of the powers of the TVC and a total negation of the national policy. There is no evidence yet on BBMP’s website of the TVC being set up.

Will the proposed legislation also overlook the SC clarification and repeat the error in the circular? That will mean the end of the road for vendors and their efforts to make an honest living.

(The writer is executive trustee of CIVIC Bangalore)

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