New Delhi: At age 16, Jineesh has already given up on dreams. He is world weary, tired, dejected and pessimistic. Extremely hesitantly he says: “Perhaps my dream is to become a doctor." He quickly adds, “If circumstances change."

Circumstances have been the same ever since he remembers. Home is a cramped pavement close to Delhi’s Moolchand traffic signal, right next to a public convenience, accessing which requires money. Work is selling toys to those who can afford to buy them. The money he makes is just enough to keep the stomach filled. Everything else, including school, is a luxury.

On a good day Jineesh makes 200. Bad days mean no money. In a family of four, two are beggars, two are vendors at traffic signals. “My sister and mother beg. People pity girls easily, so sister makes better money. For us (boys), even selling (let alone begging) is difficult," says Jineesh, who works in this business with his 21-year-old brother.

My sister and mother beg. People pity girls easily, so sister makes better money. For us (boys), even selling (let alone begging) is difficult- Jineesh, a street vendor

Wearing oversized clothes, around 5 ft 7 inches tall, with a lanky frame, and a sun-burnt face, Jineesh can easily be lost in the invisible tribe of more than 51,000 street children in the capital found either running behind cars to sell something, begging for a meal at the side of busy roads, or turning somersaults for spare change.

Among these children, ragpicking is the most popular occupation, according to non-governmental organization (NGO) Save the Children’s 2011 report Surviving The Streets, followed by vending, especially at traffic signals, and finally begging.

Earlier this month, the Delhi high court decriminalized begging in the capital, and observed that “people beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to".

While Jineesh says he doesn’t beg, some people he knows keep changing their “professions" depending on the level of financial desperation, the time of the year and the customer sitting in the car. “It is not like we are born thinking this is the job we want to do. No one wants to beg, or run around cars begging them to buy toys…but this is what it is…this is our life," he says.

The freedom to exist

Just like “survival migration’’ anywhere else, this family too moved to Delhi from Rajasthan more than two decades ago looking for opportunities. They were starving, poor and jobless when they arrived. Delhi seemed the best bet then. While in the city, the housing available to them is shoddy, and their lives are always on the edge, but Jineesh insists “at least we get two meals a day". Since this reporter met Jineesh on Independence Day, apart from toys, he and others were also selling the national flag. Ask him why the flag today, and he is clueless. Ask him what freedom means, he says “my older brother might know".

As Jineesh rests his body on the edge of the pavement, fiddling with the stack of plastic flags, a six-year-old girl from Chhattisgarh dances to the drumbeats of her 21-year-old mother, and another 11-year-old girl with light brown hair intermittently taps at car windows trying to sell her neon-coloured plastic toy umbrellas.

There is a food chain in the ‘street economy’ as well, at the bottom of which lie children like Jineesh

“Among children, there are two kinds of street vendors: Those who work with their families…in which case if they are older, the income is their own…and if they are younger, the family splits the money. The second category is where the children work for agents and on commissions," says Balwant Singh Mehta, fellow with the Institute for Human Development, Delhi, who has co-written Save the Children’s report on street children.

Selling flags, toys, flowers and other products at traffic signals is a business that might not be organized in a conventional sense of the term, but it is on a par with market trends. There is a food chain, at the bottom of which lie children like Jineesh.

The business model

The story of the flag or the fidget spinner or the plastic umbrella starts from a wholesale market. For books, it is in Daryaganj—for fresh and pirated versions—and INA market. For Chinese toys, it is Sadar Bazaar, specifically Vidyanand Market, Teliwara Chowk. For mobile accessories and sunscreens, there’s Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh.

The next step is to identify what will work and then bring these goods from the wholesalers to the streets. If the product is not tried and tested, the agents or even some street vendors bring a sample at first. Only if it works, do they get the items in bulk.

Typically, a thekedar (contractor) is the point person working with the distributors. If it is a big contractor, he has agents working under him. These agents have direct connections with the street vendors In an ideal setting, a contractor has some 5-20 vendors working at the traffic signals.

At the very least, the contractor takes a 10 % commission from the vendors—it is, however, typically higher

The contractor (via the agents) hands over products for sale in return for a fixed amount to be paid by the street vendor. “Early morning, agents come on motorcycles or rickshaws, carrying things in bulk. The street vendors know the time and place. They all are ready to take their supply as soon as the vehicle stops. It’s like a swarm of bees at that time. The agent opens his diary in which he notes down the details of who took how much and brings back the same diary in the evening or the end of the week, depending on the products," says Rakesh Senger, director at NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan.

The contractor margins are built into the fixed rate they charge from the street vendor. At the very least, the contractor takes a 10 % commission from the vendors—it is, however, typically higher. The vendors make a profit if they are able to sell the products at a higher rate. For instance, if a new book costs 450 in the market, its pirated version will be bought in bulk by the contractor at 50 apiece.

On a good day, an experienced vendor can earn around ₹ 650-1,000 per day. Children, because customers pity them, sometimes make even more than that

The contractor then sells it to the vendor at 65-70, which includes the 10% commission. The vendor is also paid a fixed amount, 150 per day, by the contractor— this is for being “on the rolls". The vendor eventually sells the copy for a minimum of 150-200. It all depends on how good the vendor is. For that, the number of years of experience, the expertise in establishing eye contact with the customer, persistence, constant tapping on car windows, gauging who will pay how much and who wants what, is important.

Earlier, the market largely worked with contractors. After speaking to a cross-section of people at different traffic signals, it is clear that now the middlemen are slowly disappearing from the business. On a good day, an experienced vendor can earn around 650-1,000 per day. Children, because customers pity them, sometimes make even more than that. Shravan, 25, who still works for a contractor, sells steering covers, chargers and mobile accessories. He earns between 2,500 and 3,000 per week, and somewhere around 500-600 per day. Shravan says it’s easier because the goods come to him, rather than him having to go to the wholesalers.

The vendor hierarchy

Almost two decades ago, street vendors in Delhi sold only newspapers, books and novels. Then the market shifted to flowers, Chinese toys, sun protection screens and recently mobile phone accessories. Those working at the traffic signals say migrants from Jharkhand and Bihar end up selling more books and toys, while those from Rajasthan sell tissues, incense sticks, sometimes toys, flowers, and also beg.

Those selling books will never beg—they belong to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and are considered to be superior in the business- Sanjay Gupta, director at CHETNA

“There is a kind of hierarchy even at the traffic lights. The flower seller or the umbrella seller is mostly from Scheduled Tribes (ST). And they come from Rajasthan and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Those selling books will never beg—they belong to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and are considered to be superior in the business," says Sanjay Gupta, director at CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action), an NGO that works for street children in Delhi.

Save the Children’s report states that a majority of street children (38.8%) belong to OBCs; one out of three (36%) was a Scheduled Caste, while 16.7% were from STs. The numbers show how social class is a key determinant in leaving a child on the streets.

The invisible back story

All street vendors are migrants brought to Delhi by a neighbour or relative or family friend in the village, with the promise of a better life in the city. Subhash Kumar was 14 when he came to Delhi from a village in Bihar, with two other boys his age.

“No parent while sending the child thinks he will end up selling toys that he should actually be playing with…but what else can we do? It’s not like we are skilled or equipped to do much," says Kumar, who sold books on traffic signals for almost a decade, and is now running small shop of his own.

This isn’t the life I wanted, but maybe this is all I can get in this lifetime- Jineesh, a street vendor

People like Kumar made the decision to move only when someone they knew had gone to Delhi and came back with at least visibly better etiquette and smarter dressing. Following that one chacha, all those from Kumar’s village came to Delhi’s Ganesh Nagar and Pandav Nagar, and were attached to the contractors of these localities.

Some of those on the streets are working as vendors for more than two decades now; others like Kumar have managed to move on.

Jineesh still hopes his circumstances will change. He says as the customers roll down the windows, the air-conditioned air doesn’t cool him any more. Instead, it makes his skin burn, sometimes just because of the already-heated body, sometimes with anger. “This isn’t the life I wanted, but maybe this is all I can get in this lifetime," he says.

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