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Home > South Asia Labour Activists Library > India: The extra-legal treatment of street vending

India: The extra-legal treatment of street vending

by Jayati Ghosh, 17 November 2009

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Deccan Chronicle, 17 November 2009

Where are the hawkers?

Near the university campus where I live, there used to be a row of fruit sellers behind the pavement at an intersection. It was very convenient to stop there, before entering the campus, and to be able to choose fresh fruit to take home. These were very busy roadside stalls, popular with commuters on different kinds of vehicles, pedestrians, students, local residents. A few months ago the stalls disappeared, victims of the road expansion and “modernisation” of the city of Delhi before the Commonwealth Games.

What became of the hawkers after they were removed? They were certainly given no compensation as they were in any case chased away from the area. How they find a livelihood now is unclear.

Slightly further away from my campus is a bustling vegetable market that also has stalls selling meat and fish. These vendors live under constant harassment and threat of eviction, and every so often I find that they have had to either shift position or surreptitiously provide their wares because some local inspector has decided they are not allowed.

But these are not the only petty traders who are finding it more and more difficult to ply their trade or even survive in the current economic context. The plight of small-time hawkers in Indian cities cannot be blamed on the economic recession: it started during the previous boom, as the official data shows that employment in unorganised retail activities actually declined even as the economy was growing rapidly.

This seems a bit odd because petty retail trade has traditionally been a refuge employment sector for workers, both male and female, who lose other jobs or simply do not find any other paid work. This has been especially true of the urban areas because poverty and the lack of opportunities for gainful employment in the rural areas tend to drive a large number of people to the cities in search of work and livelihood. For the urban poor, hawking is an important means of earning a livelihood as it requires minor financial input and the skills involved are relatively basic.
Two factors have limited their spread recently. In many states, deregulation that permitted the entry of large corporate entities in the retail sector provided competition to small vendors because of their ability to take advantages of economies of scale. Possibly more important are the urban laws and policies of various types, including zoning restrictions and rules that constrain the ability of small traders and hawkers to function freely.
In most states and most cities of India, hawking is regarded as an illegal — or at best extra-legal — activity. This despite the fact that several judgments of the Supreme Court since the late 1960s have recognised that street vending is a legitimate activity. A National Policy on Urban Street Vendors Hawkers has recognised the problems of hawkers and seeks to improve their conditions. Even so, hawkers remain in the grey non-legal zone because of state and municipal regulation, are considered as unlawful entities and are, therefore, subjected to harassment by police and civic authorities.

Even where hawkers are legally recognised, there are usually very low limits to the number of vendors licensed to function in particular locations or activities. The numbers legally permitted and the spaces which may be legally used cover only a tiny fraction of those who are actually engaged in the trade. Consequently, much of vending by definition remains illegal and thus amenable to either extortion or removal.

So hawkers are typically treated as encroachers of public space and are forced to bear the additional burden of legal insecurity, harassment and bribes to different elements. As pressure on urban land increases, more and more laws are invoked to harass, exploit or coerce the street vendors, including some sections of the Police Act and the Indian Penal Code.
Urban plans and urban development policies also put severe constraints upon hawkers’ activities, by allowing for hawkers to be evicted and prohibiting their functioning in particular areas. Municipal acts and city plans in general do not have any kind of provision for street vendors.
Instead, the common tendency is to view hawkers and street vendors as obstructions to the free flow of traffic and urban movement, rather than an outcome and a necessary part of this flow. It is inadequately recognised that bicycles, pedestrians and bus traffic attract street vendors, who in turn provide important services such as the provision of food and drink for commuters, repair shops, and the like. Without such services at frequent intervals, the traffic itself would be adversely affected.

The presence of hawkers often has other positive social externalities. They can make streets relatively crime free and safer for women, children and the elderly. It has been found that cities that have a large number of street vendors tend to be safer and less prone to violent street crime than those that do not.

In terms of encroaching on public space — a typically middle class notion — it is too often forgotten that urban elites also cordon off public places for car-parking, private gardening etc. Even the sheer amount of urban space taken up by private vehicles owned by better off sections is ignored. For example, it has been estimated that the parking space taken up by private vehicles in the city of Delhi is greater than the area of all the slum settlements of the poor, which house around half of Delhi’s population.
The extra-legal treatment of street vending means that there is no consideration of the working conditions of hawkers and their own personal safety as well as the security of their goods, and no attempt at public improvement of their conditions of work such as adequate sanitation facilities. It also denies hawkers (along with many other small and tiny producers of goods and services) access to institutional credit, which dramatically increases the cost of their working capital and constrains their ability to expand operations.

So here is a strategy that makes both the retailers and the consumers worse off. Why do we put up with it?