Professor Sharit K. Bhowmik, Mumbai Guest Contributor
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
For the urban poor, hawking/street vending is one of the means of earning a livelihood, as it requires minor financial input and the skills involved are low. While many migrants are hawkers to earn a small income, many street vendors were once engaged in better paid jobs in the formal sector. Most were employed in the textile mills or in other large factories. Formal sector workers in the city have had to face large-scale unemployment due to the closure of large industries. The textile workers strike of 1981-82 resulted in job losses of over 100,000, after the mills restarted. At present, the mill work force is around 30,000, as compared to 250,000 before the strike. Many of these retrenched workers men and women have become street vendors in order to eke out a living. A study I conducted on street vending in seven cities showed that about 30 percent of the street vendors in Mumbai were previously workers in the formal sector.
The working conditions of the vendors are tough. Most of them (90 percent) leave their homes by 6:00 a.m. and return late at night. A recent survey on street vendors  showed that in Mumbai, 65 percent of hawkers reside 10 kilometers or more from their places of work, and use suburban trains for commuting. The working day of a street vendor, irrespective of her/his income, is more than 10 hours. In addition, we found that vendors needed preparation time before setting up their stalls. Since the stalls are not permanent built-up structures but are temporary makeshift arrangements on the pavements, the vendors must set aside some time to set up shop every day. This preparation time may vary depending on the types of products. For instance, for the food vendors, the preparation time includes cooking, while for the garment vendor it implies time required to buy the products and later display them. Approximately 95 percent of vendors need one to two hours of preparation time daily. The remaining 5 percent devote a lot more: they spend three to five hours daily in preparation before starting to sell.
Though the hours are long, the income of street vendors is meager. The daily income of the vendors, according to the survey mentioned earlier (see endnote 2), varies. Only one percent of vendors earn the lowest daily income group of less than INR20 (US$0.35). These are vendors who sell goods for a limited period of time in order to supplement their income. The number of vendors in the next income category of INR21-50 (US$0.36-0.90) is two percent. Those earning between INR51-70 (US$0.91-1.25) are another two percent. These vendors are invariably women. Most of the vendors, around 64 percent, earn between INR141-350 (US$2.55-6.34) per day.
At the time of the study, INR146 (US$2.64) was the minimum wage for unskilled workers in the state (it was INR217 (US$3.93) in 2011). The minimum wage is, firstly, the minimum requirement of a family for one day. Secondly, it is calculated on the basis of eight hours of work. A street vendor may earn a minimum wage/income, but the time she/he invests is disproportionate to the income earned.
Most women vendors earn less than men for two main reasons. Firstly, they belong to poorer strata and hence their investment is less than their male counterparts. Secondly, they also have to take care of children and do the household work. This allows them less time for attending to business. The women squatting on the pavements in the working class area of central Mumbai have started hawking after the closure of the textile mills in that area. Their husbands had worked as permanent workers in the textile mills and are now unemployed for the past several years. These women provide for most of the expenses of the household through their meager incomes, as they are the main earners. In comparison to male vendors, the incomes of women are 20 percent lower. We have not come across a single case where a female hawker's total household income is more than INR3,000 (US$54) per month. In most cases (more than 90 percent) their household income ranges between INR2,000 (US$36) and INR2,500 (US$45) per month. Undoubtedly, these women belong to families that are below the urban poverty line.
Street vendors and the urban economy
Though there are an estimated 250,000 street vendors, the total employment provided through street vending becomes larger if we consider the fact that it sustains certain industries by marketing their products. A lot of the goods sold by street vendors, such as clothes and hosiery, leather and molded plastic goods, household goods and some items of food, are manufactured in small scale or home-based industries. These industries engage a large number of workers but they could have hardly marketed their products on their own. In this way, street vendors provide a valuable service by helping to sustain employment in these industries. Our study of micro-industries in Dharavi showed that many of the goods manufactured there are sold by hawkers in the city. 
John Anjaria Shapiro, a research scholar from the United States who studied street vending in Mumbai for over a year, looked at the wholesale market in Vashi, in the northern area of Navi Mumbai, which is the main supplier of vegetables to the city. Shapiro found that of the thousands of tons of vegetables sold daily at the market, two-thirds are for household consumption marketed exclusively by street vendors in the city while the remaining one-third are bought by hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls. Besides this, vegetable vendors in the Western suburb of Kandivili (who number more than two hundred) get their supply of vegetables directly from the farmers on the outskirts of the city. Removal of street vendors, according to Shapiro, would have a devastating effect on the vegetable growers in the state.
The poorer sections also procure their basic necessities mainly through street vendors, as the goods sold are cheap. The study we conducted on street vendors showed that the lower-income groups spend a higher proportion of their income on purchases from street vendors, mainly because their goods are affordable. Without street vendors, the plight of the urban poor would be worse than it is at present. In this way, one section of the urban poor, namely, street vendors, helps another section to survive. Hence, though street vendors are viewed as a problem for urban governance, they are in fact the solution to some of the problems of the urban poor. By providing cheaper commodities, street vendors are in effect providing a subsidy to the urban poor, something that the state should have done.
Harassment and bribes
Street vendors in Mumbai, especially those in the central business district and the affluent residential areas in the city and the suburbs, work under constant threat of eviction. In fact, from June to November 2000, the municipality carried out rigorous raids in the central business district and in the affluent residential areas, such as Colaba, Cuffe Parade in south Mumbai, Bandra (West), Santa Cruz (West) and Ville Parle (West) in the suburbs. These raids were carried out mainly under the supervision of a reinstated Deputy Municipal Commissioner Khairnar, who had become known for his demolition drives in the city.
The fallouts of the mass evictions were:
- Street vendors reduced to penury. For example, the street vendors in the Fort area, who were envied for being the most prosperous in the city, become paupers overnight. Many of them were back on the streets, as they had no other means of income but were heavily in debt.
- Bribes paid to police escalated. The amount paid as bribes to the police and municipal authorities by hawkers in these areas went up steeply, sometimes as much as ten times the earlier rates. The street vendors were in panic and were willing to pay any amount to enable them to carry out their business or to be forewarned about an impending raid. We had made a brief survey of these areas after these raids and we found that the vendors pay INR100 to INR125 (US$1.81-2.26) at a time to the authorities for these "services."
- Mental and physical health affected. A study by SNDT Women's University and ILO  shows that 85 percent of the street vendors covered suffered from ailments associated with stress. These include hyperacidity, migraine, digestive problems and lack of sleep.
An almost identical situation occurred after the massive raids conducted in 2003 by another Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Chandrakant Rokde. As in the case of Khairnar, this person, too, had the full encouragement of NGOs representing the elites in the city. The English newspapers sang the praises of these two stalwarts for their courage and honesty. 
The survey cited above (endnote 2) showed that 68 percent of the vendors have faced eviction by the municipality where their goods are confiscated. In some cases, we found that the maximum number of evictions a street vendor faced was three in that year. Of those whose goods were confiscated, only 32 percent could recover all of their goods after paying the fine. The others could recover less than half the goods confiscated. Besides raids where their goods are confiscated, street vendors also must bribe the authorities regularly in order to vend, which eats into their income. In this survey, it was found that 33 percent of the total number of vendors did not pay bribes. These were either older people or impoverished women vendors. Almost 66 percent said that they were forced to pay bribes. The bribe amount paid by the vendors ranged from a minimum of INR5 (US$0.09) to a maximum of INR1200 ($22) per day. The mean amount was INR219 ($3.97).
Even in areas where they are unionized, vendors have to pay bribes. In general, we found that male hawkers usually had to pay bribes, and the amount was grater than the bribes paid by the female hawkers. One possible explanation for this is that the income of female hawkers is lower than that of the males. Food vendors tend to pay more bribes to the municipality, as they are frequently faced with threats that their goods will be destroyed for being unhygienic.
Sharit Bhowmik is with the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
In Part II of this series on street vendors in Mumbai, we will look at relevant laws and regulations. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on hawkers and vendors and how cities should interact with and regulate this profession.
- How are street vendors treated in your city?
- Have similar demolition campaigns occurred there?
- Are there laws to protect the hawkers in your city?
2. Sharit Bhowmik, Varsha Ayyar, Vaijyanta Anand, and Indira Gartenberg, Workforce Development and Mainstreaming Informal Sector in Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Urban Institute, Washington and USAID, 2007 (mimeo)
3. "Study of Hawkers in Mumbai," conducted by SNDT Women's University and ILO, 2001 (mimeo)
4. Ironically, Mr. Rokade is under suspension at the time of writing (June 2012) as he has been charged with rent seeking. He was caught while accepting a bribe from a contractor.