Reclaim The Streets

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The Lok Sabha’s clearing of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill will offer many street hawkers in Mumbai some form of employment security. But to reach here has been a quite a struggle.

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“I have not been able to put up my stall since that day,” recounts Rehan Mohammad. Newly married Rehan has been running a vada pav stall close to Vashi station for the past five years. However, since he does not hold a license to have the stall, he describes how municipality officials recently came and tried to demolish his stall. “I tried to resist them,” he states, “and in that struggle, hot oil spilled on my lap by accident and burned me.” Rehan has been trying to reopen his stall since that day. This is the tale of a Mumbai hawker. Rehan’s is just one story. There are several others who share in his plight.

Fortunately, with the recent passing of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, in the Lok Sabha, many hawkers will finally have the security to earn their livelihood in an atmosphere free of the fear of harassment from the authorities. However, the implementation of this policy marks an important landmark in a long and arduous struggle of street vendors in the city.

Mumbai currently has approximately 2.5 to 3 lakh hawkers. Though there are 191 hawking zones in the city, only 15,159 hawkers have a legitimate license to operate from them since the municipality has not issued any new hawking licenses since 1978. Other hawkers who do not have the licenses have to pay municipal and police personnel an unofficial fine called hafta. Threats of impending demolition or confiscation of goods, pressure from above, and “complaints” made by NGOs and local residents are often cited as an excuse for an increase in this hafta. In Chembur, Suresh Sahu, a street fruit vendor who has been selling his wares for the past eight years without a license, says, “Because I didn’t pay the BMC Rs 24,000, they demolished my cart three times in these past six months. Kaam toh deti nahi Sarkar; humne kiya to karne nahi dete (the government does not provide adequate employment and puts hurdles in our way when we work ourselves).”

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Violent actions against hawkers by police and municipality have not been a new phenomenon in Mumbai. It’s been a common practice for Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials to demolish carts and stalls from the streets and pavements. They take away the carts from pavement without warning, citing Sections 312, 313 and 314 of the 1888 BMC Act and the police makes sure that hawkers do not come back. BMC and police raids were also common. If one were to talk to a hawker about the challenges of conducting his business on the streets of Mumbai, the most important complaint that would emerge would be that they would work in constant fear of demolitions and daily harassment from authorities. Apart from harassment, there are also monetary problems. Lakshman Shirole, a hawker who sells clothes says, “We are always in debt. Who will provide a loan? Banks do not give any loans to us. We borrow from money lenders and in return, they exploit us. In this month, the BMC seized our belongings twice and have not returned them. Whenever we have to purchase goods to restock, we have no choice but to borrow from a money lender. So, we are in a constant debt.”

It becomes even more challenging for women street vendors. Sixty per cent of the hawkers in Mumbai are women. Most of them set up vegetable and flower stalls. A student report from the Womens’ Studies Department at TISS states that woman street vendors are usually victims of verbal as well as sexual harassment by the BMC as well as from the police. Radha Nannaware, a vegetable vendor in Govandi says, “The police regard us rudely while asking for their hafta. Even after we pay the hafta we are not safe from the possibility of demolition. Once in a month, they raid our stalls and ask us to leave the place.”

However, things are looking better now for street businesses. With the passing of Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, there is now hope for relief to lakhs of hawkers in the city. In the early 1980s, the Bombay Hawkers’ Union filed a case in the Bombay High Court against the BMC. The hawkers’ unions argued about the unconstitutionality of what they claimed to be arbitrary BMC demolition actions and refusals to issue new licenses. Prior to the passing of the Bill, the Union General Secretary Shanker Salvi said, “We have been fighting for the licenses since 1980s. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) will benefit more than 2,00,000 hawkers in getting licenses. It can restrain the BMC and police from conducting raids and also prevent exploitation at the hands of money lenders.” Prior to the Bill, BMC made crores of rupees by exploiting street hawkers.

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Can we imagine Mumbai without hawkers? The census has shown that six out of ten Mumbai residents live in slums. Mumbai ranks third on the list of the most expensive city in the world. Clothes vendors on the pavement, book sellers under trees, newspaper and magazine vendors, fruit vendors in front of municipal hospitals, flower vendors in front of the temples; can they be replaced? Can you imagine a city without the convenience of fruit and vegetable carts on every roadside? Thousands of people flock to Colaba Causeway or Linking Road everyday for the best bargain in clothes, shoes and accessories. Book lovers spend hours at the pavement around Flora Fountain browsing through second-hand books. Mandodari Rajurkar, a student of medicine says, “I cannot imagine my life without street shopping. I get different varieties of clothes at the cheapest cost. Even earrings and bangles can be bought at Rs 5!” she adds brightly. In Govandi, cobbler Ravi Andelkar says, “A vada pav stall is the ultimate solution for me when I feel hungry.”

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There are those who would say that street hawkers are an ‘eyesore’ hindering Mumbai’s development into a ‘world-class city’. Others would complain about the fact that they cause traffic jams and crowded streets. Some would even say that they undeservedly claim public spaces. While the government aspires to transforming Mumbai into a world-class metropolis by ‘cleaning up’ its streets, it forgets just how much the people of Mumbai rely on street businesses. Hawkers are an important part of the unorganized sector, contributing to day- to-day life of the common Mumbaikar. On this, Dr. Sharit Bhowmik, Professor of Labour Studies at TISS says, “Planning must be done in such way that both people and hawkers are accommodated. If you’re trying to make Mumbai so-called ‘clean and international city’ by evicting hawkers from the street, it will prove costly to the people of Mumbai, which they will realise only later.”

The presence of street vendors is necessary not only because it would secure the livelihood of thousands of people living in the city and make the lives of the common Mumbaikar so much more convenient. It helps contribute to the identity of the city of Mumbai as that of a melting pot of cultures and people. With its familiar sounds and colours, it breathes life into Mumbai.

Photos & Design: Sandeep Viswanath & Fareeda Muhammed

 

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