Home >Opinion >Views >Why street vending is like a live-in relationship

Why street vending is like a live-in relationship

  • Street vending is a source of livelihood for many and, like a live-in relationship, it would do well without unnecessary paperwork.

Imagine if couples had to register their live-in relationships or visit a registrar to walk out of it. Bridging the gap between live-in and matrimony implies taking away the freedom to be in a consensual relationship without rights and duties. The whole point (bit.ly/2ObeYmv) of live-in is easy entry and exit sans paperwork.

Similar is the case with street vending. People with not enough capital to buy a brick and mortar store may start their roadside venture. Some may be temporarily unemployed and may take up hawking for a couple of months. Some may not be skilled enough for a well-paying job. For others, it may be an additional source of income during pastime. Be it money, time or skill, the entry threshold to become a street entrepreneur should be really low. Street vending allows people to explore the means of livelihood and be "atmanirbhar".

However, this is not the case with street vending in India. The Street Vendor (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, as the title suggests, seeks to achieve two aims. First, it intends to “protect" the rights of street vendors. Second, it “regulates" street vending.

Why do street vendors need protection? And from whom? The parliamentary standing committee report said it out loud that police and municipal officials harassed vendors and ran extortion rackets. As a response, the law prohibits evictions until vendors are surveyed and allocated licenses. But it does nothing to tie the hands of corrupt cops and municipal inspectors to stop the harassment.

Authorities have come up with innovative ideas to defeat the law. They contend that only a vendor cannot be evicted before a survey. But who is a vendor? A vendor is someone who has been surveyed, registered and licensed. It means you can avail the protection when you no longer need it. The Delhi high court applied this circular logic in most judgments involving street vendor evictions to rule against “encroachers"—a term not mentioned in the 2014 Act. The harassment goes on.

Let’s probe the second objective now. Why regulate vendors? The law does not mention any reasons. If you are thinking of congestion as a reason for regulating street vending, please note that there is no law to license pedestrians in crowded markets or processions on roads—whether religious or baraats. And no law regulates private car parking outside houses in posh neighbourhoods. On paper, everyone has equal rights. But in reality, some sections are more equal than others. Some are being regulated and some can de facto regulate others.

On 2 Sep 2019, the Supreme Court passed an order (bit.ly/2W6iKSn) directing municipal authorities to remove the encroachments on footpaths in residential areas in Delhi. It included cars parked, extended gardens and security guard cabins. A week later, the municipal officials in Hauz Khas pasted a notice in Hauz Khas market for the removal of encroachments. The notice was not addressed to residents; it was for street vendors. Doing a quick “ctrl + F" check on a pdf copy of the Supreme Court order would reveal a complete absence of the words “hawkers" and “street vendors" in the order. However, cars continue to be parked fearlessly as their owners have no clue of the Supreme Court judgment.

Some NGOs may come up with a third reason—the vendor empowerment. The law seems to “empower" vendors by constituting town vending committees with the vendor leaders. These committees will have a say in surveys, spot allocation, licensing and zoning. However, it is a mammoth task to first survey the vendors, license them, and then conduct elections. Vendor elections help budding politicians to accumulate political capital and climb the career ladder, but weekly vendors, seasonal vendors and migrant vendors without local voter IDs and domiciles are unlikely to be empowered.

Elections would be a huge administrative burden—both in terms of the budget and their conduct. Why would municipal bodies—while their officials benefit from exploiting vendors—go on to follow the letter of the law? Six years have passed and more than half of the urban local bodies have not conducted elections (bit.ly/2Dux7tl). Those that have formed the committees do not hold their meetings periodically. The committees are overall dysfunctional.

It gives a classic excuse: “laws are good but the implementation is poor." What they miss is: by design, the law is doomed to fail.

So does it mean, allow everyone to squat on footpaths? No. It means that all the private uses of public space should be identified and analysed for their commonalities and differences for regulation. Pedestrians, vendors, vehicular parking and sometimes, political meetings, campaigns and religious events also contest for public space. Regulating one of them differently is whimsical.

What is the alternative? Private uses of public resources may be charged, and charged higher, particularly if the resource is scarce. But licenses, elections and committees are not the way to either protect vendors or regulate vendors.

Let street vending be an informal relationship between streets and vendors with minimal paperwork and maximum benefit.

These are the author’s personal views.

The author is a researcher at the Centre for Civil Society.

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