India regularly heaps praises on big entrepreneurs with rags-to-riches stories who have braved difficult markets, and have reaped rewards as the government has liberalized parts of the economy. Amid all this attention, most of India forgets the everyday entrepreneur literally seen on the streets, who braves harsher markets but is still in rags. These street vendors have yet to reap any reward from officialdom.

It’s encouraging, then, to hear that the government is giving some attention to these members of the unorganized labour force. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “new deal" for street vendors involves reserving space for vendors, and ensuring they aren’t harassed. In a letter to state governments on Monday, he urged implementation of the National Policy for Urban Street Vendors 2009. But that’s where the trouble begins.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

This policy, on paper at least, is fairly commendable. It appears to recognize two salient features about street vendors. First, they serve an important function to urban populations. They are traditional “natural markets" that spontaneously come up where demand may exist. Not everyone has the time or money to shop at big stores.

Second, street vendors are vulnerable. Faced with threats of eviction or confiscation of wares, they can easily fall prey to corrupt cops looking for a quick bribe. Here, the policy recommends registration—for which vendors pay fees—that can guarantee some kind of property right. This can also help improve business: They can gain access to cash-and-carry stores and better credit.

Yet, the devil lies in its implementation.

For one, this policy isn’t new. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had announced similar policy guidelines in 2001. A study by the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society in 2008 showed that no state seemed to be implementing existing policy. For instance, anecdotal evidence shows that a region designated as a “hawking zone" is suddenly deprived of that status. With such a shoddy record in practice, any good idea becomes reduced to a platitude. The government’s commitment becomes imperative amid a slowdown, when more people may be moving from the organized to the unorganized sector.

It’s also unclear if the kind of registration such policy has in store is really the same as a licence, a property right that can be legally defended against encroachment. Instead of this, the government offers welfare in the form of social security. Yet, the least these entrepreneurs want is proper legal recognition. And that’s the least the government can provide them.

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