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In an age when societal tensions due to flawed affirmative actions abound and the accent is on job creation, the informal sector that is the domain of the disadvantaged, poverty-stricken millions is fighting bravely against all odds, and showing the way for resourceful self-employment. Yet, instead of making their operating conditions easier, regulators or should we say extortionists are spreading fear and making their life difficult! Is this the way to go?

In discussions on Indian economy relating to liberalization, wealth creation, job generation and reforms; the informal sector often gets overlooked. This is a sector which absorbs millions of our underprivileged, impoverished fellow citizens and helps them earn their meager livelihood, while contributing to our social needs. Yes, these are our greatest and often overlooked service providers. Where would we be if it was not for that Bhaiyya or that Bai within 5-10 minutes walking distance on that footpath selling all our requirements of greens and vegetables? Perhaps contributing to the vehicular traffic pollution by catching that car/rickshaw/bus to the market of our needs!

Street vending is very often the only occupational choice for many poor people. There have been success stories in this sector where the vegetablewallahs, fruitwallahs, Bhajjiwallahs, Batatwadawallahs, Bhelpuriwallahs, Chatwallahs of yore have graduated from just being on-the-pavement, on the cart, on the cane stand vendors to suppliers of the same to the catering industry! They have gone on to become established formal businesses. Whether in cities big or small and in towns these Bhaiyyas and Bais on the strength of their own efforts generate work and in the process constitute a chain of supply and distribution of goods so vital for our day-to-day convenience. These goods are not just fruits and vegetables; but also, readymade garments, shoes, household gadgets, toys, stationery, newspapers, magazines and so on. Elimination of street vending from the urban markets would lead to a severe crisis for fruit and vegetable farmers, as well as small scale industries which can ill-afford to retail their products through expensive distribution networks in the formal sector. Their efforts make our daily life easier and less expensive. Naturally, as is the case with such vital endeavours, a good amount of money flows through such trade. Thanks to their dourness, millions of such faceless street vendors in India save themselves from being a part of the rising unemployment figure; battle poverty to eke out a respectable living, serve a great and essential service need each day, every day, and 365 days a year. They provide affordable service not just to me and you; the poor can also afford the Bhajjis, Batatawadas and idlis they sell and in quantity. The affordability of their eatables makes the street food vendors icons of food security to the urban poor. Additionally it is also good praise-worthy business sense considering the impact of their service.

In spite of the tangible benefits that street vending/hawking brings to the nation, there is a great inherent prejudice against them. You’d rather have them serve your needs and then they should vanish, out of sight leaving the promenade, parks, squeaky clean! You are hungry; you smell the enticing aroma of the Kanda (Onion) bhajjis. Batawadas and Elaichi tea, in your local khau gully (alleys and streets where food vendors cluster) the same stuff in a restaurant would have set you down by as much as 1.5-2.5 times the money that you would have spent at the street-side food vendor. You have your hunger and thirst satiated, and then you would like them banished to the beyond. As fellow citizens and hard-working persons who fulfill a social need, don’t these people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect?

• According to Dr. Sharit Bhowmik, Professor of Sociology, Mumbai University , street vending is actually “a natural market formed because of local needs”. Thus, it follows that we the consumers dictate their numbers. Conservative estimates suggest that the street vending community of Mumbai is 250,000 strong, but against this only 14,000 are licensed. According to Professor Bhowmik, “No licenses have been issued for the past 30 years.” - Can a starker attitude of indifference be ever found? It is abundantly clear that Muncipal authorities use the licensing system only as an instrument of terror and extortion. You can often experience this as a buyer when you see vendors running hither and thither on the approach of a Municipal truck, as if anticipating a goonda raid.
• Many of India ’s 10 million street vendors face a mix of problems such as high rental fees, which in turn cause their illegal status in India . The rent-seeking fees, including bribes, collected in Mumbai annually totaled 20 million dollars. According to Prof. Bhowmik, street vendors pay 10 to 20 percent of their earnings as such fees.
• In Delhi , as mentioned by Madhu Kishwar, a journalist “Even those who have licensed stalls are not spared. Their stalls and wares are likewise destroyed or confiscated. They are then expected to pay hefty fines to get their push-carts and goods released. The going rate of penalty is Rs. 1,450 plus Rs. 300 as 'removal charges' and Rs. 100 per day as store charges for the number of days their rehdis stay in municipal yards. Thus a vendor has to spend a minimum of Rs. 1,900 to get his rehdi released from the municipality that is if it is released the very next day. Often the vendors can't pay the exorbitant fines and bribes demanded of them for releasing their goods. So they have to start from scratch again.” It is literally a brutal war on street vending.
• Madhu Kishwar observes “New entrants into street vending, are routinely beaten, humiliated and abused by the police. These constant economic and physical assaults not only depress their incomes, but also destroy their self-esteem and confidence. This routine violation of their fundamental and human rights takes place at the hands of the very same people who ought to be ensuring the safety of their lives and property.”

Indian authorities can learn from their Malaysian counterparts in Kuala Lumpur about how to include street vending in the process of urban planning. For example, Kuala Lumpur’s proposal of making food courts compulsory in high-rise buildings can be a good way for our authorities to emulate in leading the vendors towards a legal status and offering them a permanent space to sell (The future of urban architecture in India is vertical and hence high-rise).

A group in IIT Delhi has studied the space requirement for Delhi 's vendors and found that all the existing vendors can be easily accommodated in the available space, provided the city authorities are willing to plan space allocation in an efficient and rational manner. If workable, this approach could be used to transform the street vending scene in other urban centres including Mumbai as well.

At a lok Sunwayii (people’s hearing) for the street vendors in Delhi, the following demands were made on behalf of the street vendors:-
• At a time when big industries are being de-licensed, and factories worth crores can be set up without complex licensing requirements, street vending should also be delicensed.
• Instead of treating them as a "public nuisance", services of vendors should be given due recognition. The Supreme Court order requiring every city to clearly demarcate Hawking and No-Hawking zones should be expeditiously implemented, taking the actual requirements of every city's population into account, rather than based on arbitrary, bureaucratic whims. A Pay and Hawk scheme would also increase the revenue collected by municipalities, provided that payments are allowed to reach government treasuries.
• As long as the Delhi government fails to evolve and implement a viable policy for street vendors by allocating proper Hawking Zones, raids by the municipality and clearance operations should be altogether suspended.
• Keeping in view the importance of the 'natural markets' developed by street vendors, the city administration should be pressured to provide them water and sanitation facilities so that they can maintain cleanliness and hygiene in their markets.
• Since the police danda is used mostly on honest citizens while the anti-social elements actually get protection from the police, the policemen should be disarmed of their dandas. In no functioning democracy is the police allowed to wield lathis (batons) on innocent citizens, the way it is in India . Today citizens of India , especially the poor, need to be protected from the police. One small step in that direction would be danda-free policing.
• In addition, the police should be given better training and better pay packets, along with establishing effective accountability in their functioning, if they are to act as an instrument of law and order, rather than promote crime. They, too, need help in restoring their self respect, so that they do not behave like thugs and looters. We urge residents' associations to join the vendors to form Nagrik Sahyog Samitis to curb the abuse of power by police and bring municipal officials to account.

The informal sector, and within this sector the role of street vendors, is an economically significant one. For too long have these performers been denied their rightful place in the sun. Street vending must get the dignity it deserves for the role it has in keeping the cycle of our local economy moving. It is an engine and the only one of wealth creation that is available for India ’s poor yet dexterous millions. And it is high time that our planners do something concrete so that these vital contributors of Indian economy can go about their work without the fear or insecurity of suffering extortion and abuse.
–Dr. V. R. Shenoy  

It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. --Charles Dudley Warner