Professor Sharit K. Bhowmik, Guest Contributor
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Of all the state attempts to provide some protection to street vendors, Maharashtra — home to Mumbai — is the worst. In 2010, the state's legislature modified the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act and all other similar laws governing local bodies. The amendment states that any person engaged in street vending in a non-hawking zone will be fined INR5,000 ($96) and imprisoned for six months. Even pickpockets and other petty criminals are given lighter sentences. Does the government think a street vendor is a bigger criminal?
The National Policy, on the other hand, attempts to "provide and promote a supportive environment for earning livelihoods to the street vendors, as well as ensure absence of congestion and maintenance of hygiene in public spaces and streets." The policy takes into account the contributions of street vendors: "Urban vending is not only a source of employment but provides 'affordable' services to the majority of urban population. The role played by the hawkers in the economy, as well as in the society, needs to be given due credit, but they are considered as unlawful entities and are subjected to continuous harassment by civic authorities." The policy, therefore, aims to "to ensure that this important section of the urban population finds recognition for its contribution to society, and is conceived of as a major initiative for urban poverty alleviation."
The policy makes concrete suggestions as to how street vending should be regulated, including collective decision-making. Ward-level committees have all stakeholders as members, and the policy suggests that they collectively should decide the number of street vendors in each ward and the fees that they should pay. This approach gives greater prominence to self-regulation among the vendors.
The policy notes that besides Article 19(1)g of the Constitution, its Directive Principles of State Policy clearly notes in Article 39 (a) and (b) that the State shall in particular direct its policy so that: "(a) The citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood. (b) The ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to sub-serve the common good." Hence, we find that the Constitution does have provisions that favor street vendors and similar marginalized groups.
The National Policy suggests that certain changes in the legal framework need to be achieved. It directs the center and the states to make changes in Section 283 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and 34 of the Police Act and the corresponding section in the state police acts. Section 283 of the IPC states: "Whoever, by doing any act or by omitting to take order with any property in his possession or under his charge, causes danger, obstruction or injury to any person in any public way or public line of navigation, shall be punished with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees." The offence punishable under this section is the nuisance of causing obstruction. Section 34 of the Police Act states: "No person shall cause obstruction in any street or public place by exposing anything for sale or setting out anything for sale in or upon any stall, booth, board, cask, and basket or in any other way whatsoever."
These two provisions create the contradiction between a legal 'licensed' vendor and 'illegal' obstruction or causing nuisance resulting in physical eviction even of licensed vendors. The policy, therefore, recommends that the Central Government and all states should amend the Police Act and rules and regulations by adding the following: "Except in case of street vendors, hawkers and service providers with certain reasonable regulations."
One of the strong points of the policy is that it tries to promote the concept of "natural markets." These markets arise whenever there are requirements in society. This means that the natural market for street vendors revolves around certain places not merely because the vendors find their consumers there, but even more because the consumer would prefer them to be there. Thus, one will find flower sellers and fruit sellers outside temples, whereas vegetable vendors tend to congregate near railway stations and municipal markets as they serve the needs of the public there.
In the case of the interim judgment of the Supreme Court, we can see that this very principle is being overlooked. This is not an exception, because the policy notes that "following the Supreme Court orders, some cities drafted guidelines for regulating urban vending activities. However, the provisions made so far do not generally recognize the fact that demand for their wares/services is highly specific and varies as to location and time, manifesting as a natural propensity of street vendors to locate in various places at particular times. On the contrary, the present urban planning norms completely disregard the formation of such natural markets. They also do not have implementation systems in place. Planning norms should be supportive of such natural markets." (Emphasis in original.)
It is hence necessary that urban plans make provisions for street vending. This could be done as in Bangkok, where pavements are made broad so that one-third of the space can be demarcated for street vendors. There is also a need for spaces that could be demarcated for weekly markets. Delhi has been holding such weekly markets in different localities. The particular area is cordoned off once a week so that a local market can function. This serves the needs of the local residents, especially the poorer ones. Another idea from Bangkok could be the holding of night markets. These become tourist attractions and places for recreation.
An important aspect of street vending is the question of encroaching on public space and obstructing the flow of pedestrians and traffic. Street vendors are frequently held responsible for these acts. In reality, this is far from accurate. The Supreme Court judgment, quoted above, shows that if hawkers are regulated properly, they could be a boon for the public. This regulation will be possible only if street vending is legalized. It should also be noted that normally street vendors do not like to block pedestrian traffic, because this would affect their sales. There is some form of self-regulation among them in this regard.
The Supreme Court has given a more favorable judgment in Genda Ram vs New Delhi Municipal Corporation in October 2010. The court has directed the authorities to frame suitable laws to protect street vendors. The judgment notes (para 79): "The fundamental right of the hawkers, just because they are poor and unorganized, cannot be left in a state of limbo nor can it be left to be decided by varying standards of a scheme which changes from time to time under orders from this Court." The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation is in the process of framing a model law which will be placed before parliament.
The other question on blocking or preventing smooth flow of road traffic is again an allegation that needs to be proven. Mumbai's Kamla Raheja College of Architecture was asked by MCGM to conduct a study on street vending and traffic flow at Dadar station, one of the busiest railway stations in the city. The findings clearly showed that it was not the street vendors but cars that are parked haphazardly that caused traffic problems. The study drew up an alternative plan for regulating traffic around the station which would ease the congestion. The study also found that the presence of hawkers actually increased the business of the shops in the lanes as they attracted more consumers.
The fact is that street vendors lend color and vibrancy to the city. If properly organized, street vendors can be a convenience for the poorer segment of the city while also serving as a tourist attraction. Going forward, the emphasis needs to be on inclusive planning for the working poor. No one is opposed to "World Class Cities," but the objective should be "World Class Cities for All." What is needed is the political will to serve the interests of the working poor and subsequently the city as a whole.
Sharit Bhowmik is with the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.