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A Price to Pay for Selling on the Street

Street vendors in New Delhi demanding their rights. Credit: National Association of Street Vendors of India/IPS.

NEW DELHI, May 3 2014 (IPS) - Bhure Lal, a 33-year-old street-food vendor, has been selling his spicy ‘chaat’ outside the New Delhi Railway Station for 15 years. But despite a punishing 12-hour work schedule, and a new law to protect hawkers like him, he doesn’t take home enough to feed his family.

More than half of Lal’s weekly income from the ‘chaat’, a lip-smacking pot-pourri that is particularly popular with women, is extorted by policemen, he says. He gets to take home about 1,500 rupees (25 dollars) weekly. Noncompliance could mean harassment by the street mafia, forced eviction or even jail.

“If I don’t pay, hoodlums dismantle my stall and loot my food."

“If I don’t pay, hoodlums dismantle my stall and loot my food. I have five kids and aged parents to look after,” he told IPS.

According to the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), the country has 20 million street vendors – believed to be the highest such population in the world – who offer a variety of goods from food to clothes and furniture to toys, especially to the urban poor.

In the absence of a law protecting their right to livelihood, the vendors used to hawk their goods illegally, making them vulnerable to extortion, harassment, heavy fines and sudden evictions. But in 2010, the Supreme Court declared hawking a fundamental right.

The court ruled, “Considering that an alarming percentage of the population in our country lives below the poverty line, and when citizens by gathering meagre resources try to employ themselves as hawkers and street traders they cannot be subjected to a deprivation on the pretext that they have no rights.”

The Indian government then drafted the Street Vendors’ (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill 2012 that was passed by both houses of Parliament. The presidential nod for it came in March this year.

But it is yet to be notified and therefore the law has not been implemented. NGOs blame the delay on the ongoing general elections in India.

The law would entitle every hawker to protection, besides offering identity cards and licences. A chunk of funds under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission would be earmarked for them, but the amount has still not been decided.

The government will also help with banking facilities for vendors under the new legislation. The bill introduces the concept of a town vending committee to regulate vending and to issue licences.

But delayed implementation of the bill is distressing the country’s vendors. Despite the huge vendor population, very few municipalities in India have created vending zones, say activists.

“Under the law, a uniform identification system and vending zones will enable vendors to earn their living peacefully,” Dr. Sharit Bhowmik, a social scientist with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, told IPS.

The vending trade pays some 800 million rupees (13 million dollars) in bribes per year in Mumbai and a similar amount in Delhi, says Bhowmik, who also co-chairs the Greater Mumbai Expert Committee for Street Vendors constituted by the Municipal Commissioner in 2012.

Most vendors in India’s cities are rural migrants or laid-off workers.

“In 1961, 65 percent of Mumbai’s population was in the formal or industrial sector,” says Bhowmik. “However, over the years, the shutting down of Mumbai’s textile mills and other factories meant that today 73 percent of the city’s populace is engaged in the informal sector, a sizeable portion of which is made up of street vendors.”

NASVI, a strong contingent of more than 762 vendor organisations, including 600,000 vendors, is active in 23 out of 28 Indian states. It has been campaigning for vendors’ rights since 2004.

“The government must immediately issue implementation guidelines. This should be a priority for the next government,” Anurag Shankar, project manager at NASVI, told IPS.

Shankar said the new legislation entitles vendors to be included in the National Urban Livelihoods Mission, so that they can receive skill-based training. “The bill gives them the right to livelihood, but they are deprived of facilities like health, housing and education, which people in other unorganised sectors are entitled to.”

The new law too does not offer these facilities.

Ram Pyare, a street vendor in south Delhi who has faced many rounds of eviction since the 2010 Commonwealth Games, said, “No facilities like housing or education are available to us while the mafia continues to deprive us of our hard-earned wages.”

A 2001 study by the International Labour Organisation on Mumbai revealed that 85 percent of Indian street vendors were suffering from stress-related diseases like migraine, heartburn, hypertension and high blood pressure.

NASVI national coordinator Arbind Singh said their organisation is fighting “tooth and nail” to reclaim the rights of street vendors.

“The severity of the problem can be gauged from the fact that there’s not a single vendor in the country who is free from the tyranny of paying extortion money.”

Bhowmik as well as NASVI officials say vendors have been taking loans from moneylenders at high interest rates while losing almost 50 percent of their income to bribes, and in the process earning less than the minimum wage (of around two dollars a day) for unskilled workers. This is not expected to change at least until the new law becomes a ground reality.

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  • SP Singh

    India and Indians will perish under the burden of burgeoning laws that never get implemented.Such rights and laws only feather the nests of politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers. We need a fundamental change in our society to treat each other as worthy human beings. Machinations of the Congress over the last sixty seven years have ruined our national fabric, ethos, civility and care for each other.Thank god for the impending change.