No Streets for Hawkers

Mumbai’s recent hawker evictions have brought to light government’s lack of empathy to the livelihood concerns of lakhs of street vendors.

‘When we are not stealing anything, why is the government treating us like criminals?’

The road outside Santacruz railway station is chaotic  – commuters rush in and out, the alleys are choke full with parked vehicles and busy hawkers selling their wares, ranging from food to steel and clothes.

Activity suddenly and abruptly comes to a halt. The hawkers pack up their stuff and disperse without a murmur. Look around and the reason becomes clear – there is a police van nearby and the hawkers have got their message.

“This has become a regular occurrence”, says Ram Babu of Ram Manohar Lohia Hawkers Sanghathan, a Hawkers’ Union that has been working for more than three decades now. “If the policemen catch us, we have to shell out a fine of Rs 1250. It is steep and a lot of us cannot afford it.” Gupta has been associated with this group for more than four decades now.

Rajiv Gupta says, “My dad used to have a fruit thela before. I have been working on this street for more than two decades now. Nowadays, I don’t know if I can have a productive day at work. We are either lurking around in fear or waiting for the police to leave to resume our business. We are not committing any theft. Why does the government treat us like this?” Ram babu adds, “There are so many of us whose daily livelihood depends on hawking. How will we survive if the government takes away our jobs?”

A brief history of hawking in Mumbai

Mumbai has one of the largest hawker populations in India. It has also been witness to many struggles between the hawkers, civil society organizations and the State. According to the Ministry of Housing, the city has more than 2.5 lakh hawkers of which, according to BMC figures, only 15,000 have registered licenses.

A fruit seller in Mumbai. Studies point to over 2.5 lakh street workers in Mumbai, with only 15,000 registered. Pic: Shobha SV

According to a study by Sharit Bhowmik of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, more than 30% of the hawking population in Mumbai used to work in the formal sector until the textile mills shut down. According to Bhowmik, the 1981-82 strike of textile mills saw the loss of more than one lakh jobs. Currently Mumbai has about 131 hawking zones for a population of three lakh hawkers. In absence of licenses or increase in the hawking zones, the hawkers are forced to peddle their wares in an illegal manner.

In 1985, the Supreme Court had instructed BMC (in response to a PIL filed by hawking associations) to create hawking and non hawking zones in the city. However, the Supreme Court also maintained that while BMC has the right to clear encroachments in the city, it is also responsible to ensure that the right to livelihood of people is not violated.

At one point of time —1988-1997—the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) instituted a ‘pauti’ (receipt) system whereby it charged the hawkers Rs 5-10 everyday for ‘unauthorised occupation cum refuse removal charges. It was a formal acknowledgement of an informal activity with the state earning revenue from it. However, this system was discontinued in 1998 after the Bombay High Court gave an order that BMC did not have any legal authorization to implement such a system.

In the absence of a proper policy for hawking in Mumbai, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has not given licenses to hawkers for more than two decades now. Aravindh Unni, from YUVA says, “Mumbai does not have a proper hawking policy for the past two and a half decades. Till late 90s, BMC used to give pautis to about 22,000 hawkers and recognised the informal nature of labour. However, this practice changed and hawking zones were introduced in the city. Presently Mumbai has 131 hawking zones for close to three lakh hawker population but it covers just about 15% of them.”

Apart from giving employment opportunities to several in the city, hawkers also play an important role in ensuring safety. Pic: Wikipedia

Even though the pauti system did not continue for long and did not confer any legal status to the hawkers, it gave them a sense of business security against being evicted.

In the face of stiff opposition

Mumbai’s hawkers have faced a lot of opposition from various quarters. Sections of English media and residents association of the city have voiced their anger against ‘illegal’ hawking in the city. Many resident associations have also joined hands to inform BMC to clear off hawkers from their respective areas. Even Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) wants the hawkers to go away. Last reported, there were plans to create an app and a website to track actions taken against a particular hawker in a specific area in Mumbai. Despite housing and poverty alleviation minister of India Ajay Maken’s statements to go easy on the eviction drive, the BMC has maintained a strict policy against the hawkers.

Neera Punj of Citispace, a leading civil society organization fighting for open public spaces in the city says, “All we are demanding from the Government is that they follow the 1985 judgement properly. The government has to create proper hawking and non hawking zones. If crowded places like railway stations are clogged with vendors, it renders such public services inefficient. We do not want the hawkers to go unemployed but demarcation of proper hawking zones is the need of the hour.”

‘We are doing nothing illegal’

‘The hawkers refuse to be relocated to another place for business. Gupta adds, “We have been working here for more than four decades now. We have our clientele here. It’ll be like starting right from the scratch in a new place.” The hawkers’ unions have demanded that small hawking areas should be demarcated in every area of the city so that the hawkers are not left unemployed.

Their business being branded illegal, the hawkers in Mumbai are willing to pay taxes to the Government to legalize their businesses. But Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has not issued any new licenses for almost three decades now. According to the only available study conducted by TISS and YUVA in 1998, it was estimated that government officials in Mumbai earned up to Rs 300 crores as bribes. Since the Government has not given them a proper space or licenses to conduct business, they constantly remain vulnerable to eviction.

Hawkers face opposition from many quarters who avail of their services but are reluctant to give them permanent space. Pic: Wikipedia

Imam Haider, general secretary of All India Trade Union Committee’s Hawkers’ union says, “We want that the BMC create proper hawking and non hawking zones in the city in accordance to the hawking population in the city. It has been 27 years since that SC order. However, Mumbai still lacks of a hawking policy. People living in slums before 1995 are considered legal residents. However, the hawkers here have always been illegal.”

Hawkers play an important role in the city. Apart from giving employment opportunities to several in the city, they also play an important role in ensuring safety. In the wake of the Delhi rape case, Justice Verma committee had observed that hawking zones next to bus stands, railway stations will ensure safety of women.

However, the hawkers presently find themselves a victim of poor urban planning on the part of the BMC and other unfriendly policies. The Street Vendors Bill (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending), 2013 is currently in Parliament. If the proposed legislation becomes a law, then the hawkers can breathe a sigh of relief. Till then, the game of hide-n-seek will unfortunately continue.

This article was written under a fellowship given by the National Foundation of India.


Shobha S V is a journalist, sociologist, feminist (she doesn't hate men, she clarifies), traveller, Hindi film enthusiast and much much more! more


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Shobha S V is a journalist, sociologist, feminist (she doesn't hate men, she clarifies), traveller, Hindi film enthusiast and much much more! more
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