Lives of commons on streets with The Street Vendors Act-2014 - Alternative Media Forum


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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Lives of commons on streets with The Street Vendors Act-2014

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 came into force on May 1, 2014.

One year after a law was passed to protect street vendors, they are still harassed by the police and snubbed by the middle classes. How we treat our city spaces is determined by our civic imagination. Do we want sterile income-based ghettos or a rich mosaic of social interaction?

It was one of the last pieces of legislation passed by the United Progressive Alliance-II government. In its intent, it is similar to the other pro-people laws passed in the UPA years, such as the Right to Education, Right to Information and the Food Security Acts.

In the spirit of these progressive pieces of legislation, this law (henceforth the Street Vendors Act) seeks to bring in greater transparency and functional democracy in urban governance. But as is often the case in India, passing a law is one thing, and enforcing it is another. With this particular law, the biggest hurdle to implementation, it appears, is the implementers themselves.

The background

Street vendors, or hawkers as they’re more widely known, have been around for as long as civilisation. There has never been a city — ancient or modern — that did not have traders vending their wares informally in public spaces. Indian cities are no exception, as the tradition of natural markets or mandistestifies.

With the onset of colonial modernity, however, India acquired a set of municipal laws that overnight criminalised the vast majority of street vendors. They instituted a system of licensing. But the licences issued were few and far between. As Indira Unninayar, a Supreme Court lawyer who has fought cases on behalf of street vendors puts it, “There were always far fewer licences than the number of hawkers. The whole idea was to perpetrate a regime of illegality so that the municipal authorities and the police could carry on an extortion racket.”

Even the Supreme Court, while pointing out that street vendors have a fundamental right to their occupation as per Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, has acknowledged the exploitation of hawkers by state authorities.

In its landmark judgement of September 9, 2013 in the Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union vs. Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai case, the apex court stated, “street vendors … are a harassed lot and constantly victimised by the officials of the local authorities, the police, etc, who regularly target them for extra income and treat them with extreme contempt.”

Hawkers kept approaching the court to seek relief from this harassment. Says Ms. Unninayar, “Usually the courts don’t ask the government to enact a law. But the judiciary was so overburdened with all these cases over hawking rights that the Supreme Court finally asked the government to enact a law to regulate vending rights. Despite that, when no law was forthcoming, it gave the 2009 National Policy on Urban Vendors the weight of law until such time a law came into force.”

The Streets Vendors Act, largely drawn from the 2009 policy, was finally passed in 2014.

The Street Vendors Act

The Street Vendors Act, 2014 is a truly innovative solution to the problem of balancing the livelihood rights of hawkers and the right to free movement of pedestrians and traffic.

The legislation lays down four fundamental provisions: one, there will be a survey of all existing hawkers; two, instead of licences, certificates of vending will be issued to all existing hawkers identified in the survey; three, vending and non-vending zones will be demarcated and all hawkers accommodated in the vending zones; and four, no hawker will be evicted from his/her spot unless and until the survey has been done and certificates of vending issued.

The centrepiece of the Act is the Town Vending Committee (TVC), which will have representation from street vendors, traffic police, police, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), market associations, and the planning authority, among others, and be headed by the municipal commissioner.

It is the TVC which is mandated to organise the survey, decide on vending/non-vending zones, issue certificates, decide on vending fees that the hawkers should pay the municipality, publish the street vendor’s charter, and so on.

Simply put, the Street Vendors Act takes the powers currently concentrated in the municipality and police and distributes them among the various stakeholders who will have their say via the TVC. And since the street vendors are the biggest stakeholders — it is a matter of their livelihood — to ensure that their interests are protected, the law mandates that members representing them should be not less than 40 per cent of the TVC.

Additionally, in what ought to give major relief to the hawkers, Section 27 of the Act, titled ‘Prevention of harassment of street vendors’, states explicitly that this law must override any other law that has a bearing on hawking rights, and that no street vendor shall be harassed “under any other law for the time being in force”.

But the harassment continues

The Street Vendors Act is not a model law — the State governments don’t have to pass similar laws in order for it to come into effect. It is a national law and it is already in force. And yet, the harassment of hawkers by the cops and local bodies continues. In Delhi, it continues despite explicit orders issued by the Delhi government to both the police commissioner and the heads of all the municipal bodies.

To take just one example, last year, on the eve of Independence Day, hawkers in the Jama Masjid area were evicted from their areas for security reasons. This happens every year. They are usually allowed back to their spots a day or two later. But last year — barely four months after the passing of the Street Vendors Act — they were not allowed to resume their trade, and were sent away by cops who told them there would be no longer be any market in the area.

Says Sandeep Kumar, 45, a socks vendor, “We met the DCP, the JCP, the Police Commissioner, the Home Minister. All we wanted was for the law of the land to be enforced, so that we could continue our trade. But none of them was ready to help us. We finally went to the court.” Once again, the Delhi High Court ordered the municipality and the police to let the evicted vendors back. But all this took time, and the vendors had no income for about five months.

“I have been a hawker for 18 years,” says Anwar Ali, 32, a footwear vendor, “but these five months were the worst days of my life. I have a wife and children to support. With the cops not letting us ply our trade, we were sinking deeper into debt, and our lives were in turmoil. Thankfully, the High Court came to our rescue.”

But still the harassment did not end. It merely took a different form. Says Iqbal, 32, who sells watches, “Now the cops insist that goods can only be kept on the ground. No benches or shelves or tables are allowed. Not even an overhead sheet to protect the goods from the sun.”

Adds Fatima, who sells utensils, “Because of this new rule that the cops have invented, our clothes fade in the sun. Our wares get muddy when it rains. People kick our goods by mistake as they walk past. Tell me, how can we keep food items on the floor?”

Nafisa Begum, 42, a sweetmeat and water pouches vendor, claims that two weeks back, in gross violation of the Delhi High Court order, a cop from the Jama Masjid police station came and distributed all her goods free to passers-by. Her crime? She had displayed her goods on a small wooden platform. “I had taken a loan to purchase my goods. Now I have to borrow again and start from scratch.”

When contacted, a senior police officer from the central district under the jurisdiction of the Jama Masjid police station said, “Elevated sale platforms provide room to potential terrorists to plant explosives in crowded areas. They are disallowed from using them in line with anti-terror procedures across the city.”

Is the law being diluted?

The design of the Street Vendors Act is such that it requires municipalities to come up with ‘schemes’ for the implementation of the law. Most municipalities are yet to frame these schemes. But those that have a draft scheme ready seem determined to dilute the Act back to status quo.

“It is very obvious that in their schemes, the municipalities are bending the law,” says Arbind Singh, national coordinator of the National Association of Street Vendors of India. Mr. Singh gives several examples of the law being diluted in the scheme (yet to be notified) drafted by the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) as well as the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. “For instance, the NDMC scheme says cooking will not be allowed. Now, will you have chhole bhature cooked beforehand? Isn’t the very USP of street food that it is prepared in front of you? How can you say cooking will not be permitted?”

Also, whereas the Act specifies that a survey of existing vendors should be carried out, the schemes mandate issuing of public advertisements about the survey. “The moment it is advertised, vested interests will get people to set up temporary rehris (wheelcarts). Fake vendors will try to come in. The very purpose of on-the-spot survey of already existing vendors will be defeated,” says Mr. Singh.

A more fundamental problem with the schemes is that many of the issues which, as per the Act, are to be decided by the TVC, are being usurped by the municipality. For instance, it is the TVC which is supposed to make recommendations on matters such as the vending fees, conduct of the survey, issue of certificates, and charter of self-regulation for vendors. The municipality is only supposed to ratify them — the TVC, after all, is headed by the municipal commissioner. But in the NDMC scheme, the municipality becomes the key decision-maker, and the TVC, a glorified consultant.

“Given that the stakes are so high, one cannot expect the municipalities to cede control so easily,” says Ms. Unninayar.

What are the stakes?

A 2001 report by the journal Manushi estimated that five lakh vendors of Delhi were being fleeced of Rs. 480 crore annually by government functionaries. A 1998 study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which only looked at hawkers on BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation land (accounting for perhaps half the total number of hawkers in Mumbai), reported that about Rs. 385 crore were extorted by the police and municipal officials every year.

These studies were done more than 15 years ago. And these are just two cities. Sharit Bhowmik, National Fellow of the Indian Council for Social Science Research and an academic who has done extensive research on street vendors, says that if we take into account inflation and growth in the number of hawkers, by now, “the extortion rackets must be worth at least Rs. 1,000 crore in Mumbai and Rs. 600 crore in Delhi.” In the absence of recent data, what it must be worth nationally can only be speculated upon.

If the municipal officials and the cops stand to lose so much, then resistance from these quarters is not surprising. But they are not the only hurdles.

“The RWAs are another big challenge,” says Ms. Unninayar. “The elitist sections of the middle classes think of hawkers as encroachers, as a nuisance that blocks footpaths, creates traffic congestion, and dirties the place.”

But it is precisely these problems — traffic congestion, hygiene, pedestrian rights, etc — that the Street Vendors Act seeks to address by decentralising decision-making and empowering the local TVC.

Another middle class concern that the presence of hawkers in residential areas could give a free run to anti-social elements, and increase crime. “The opposite is the case,” says Mr. Bhowmik. “When hawkers were evicted some time back in Vile Parle (East), about 250 women wrote to the local MLA asking for them to be allowed back, because they did not find it safe or convenient to walk a deserted stretch of 1-2 km to buy vegetables.”

Mr. Bhowmik also believes that the municipalities, which have a vested interest in the status quo, sometimes deliberately instigate the middle classes against the hawkers by demarcating arbitrary vending zones in their development plans. “If you put hawkers on Carter Road, which is a totally upper class area, first, what will the hawkers sell there? Second, there were no hawkers there to begin with. Third, you will just get the upper classes worked up against hawkers. On the other hand, the BMC wants an area with high hawker-concentration, such as Dadar, to be a no-hawking zone.”

Another strategy said to gaining favour among municipal officials is to initiate eviction drives — on some pretext or the other — before the hawker surveys are done, so that there would be no or very few hawkers left in an area when the survey mandated by the new law is conducted. Then they can claim that there were no existing hawkers, which means so many fewer vending certificates for hawkers.

The way forward

Street vendors, Mr. Bhowmik points out, are service providers. “Even the middle classes benefit from their provision of essential goods at low cost and convenient locations. For the poor, nearly 80 per cent of their purchases are from street vendors.”

The street vendors’ enormous contribution to the economy rarely gets acknowledged. On the one hand, they subsidise the urban poor, who cannot afford to shop from malls or supermarkets for their necessities. On the other, they are a cheap distribution network for small and micro-enterprises in the informal sector that make toys, clothes, utensils, and other household goods from moulded plastic at a low cost.

These small industries cannot afford to sell their goods via conventional retail outlets. But they employ a large number of workers. If we take the number of people employed in these micro-industries, and add them to the total number of street vendors, it becomes clear that hawking sustains a great deal of employment. And in a country with a decade of jobless growth behind it, hawkers are asking for neither jobs nor handouts — only to be left alone.

Only economic stupidity or epic callousness would want to keep destroying the livelihoods of street vendors, who are, at the end of the day, a valuable class of entrepreneurs. Yet, the mindset of sections of the middle class, not to mention the municipal bureaucracy and the police who have their own reasons, remains largely hostile to hawkers.

In its very name, this legislation speaks of “protection of livelihood” of street vendors. The abiding irony is that the entities from whom protection is sought, are the ones mandated to provide the protection.

The future of this law may ultimately be determined by our civic imagination — how we envisage our cities, and our public spaces.

Do we want them to be seamless freeways for smooth circulation of pedestrians and vehicular traffic? Do we want a city of income-based ghettos where the lower income groups carry on their economic activity out of sight of the higher income groups? Or do we want our neighbourhoods to be spaces for social and communal life, where people from different socio-economic classes get to interact, transact, form social bonds, and together create a rich tapestry of urban living?

(With inputs from Lawyer Jatin Anand)

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