On the margins

Print edition : August 10, 2007

At Shahjahanabad in Delhi, famous for its roadside eateries. Food safety regulations assume that food cooked on the streets is more unhygienic than that cooked in restaurants even though some studies have proved otherwise.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The absence of political will to implement the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors keeps this section of society prisoners of bias.

PETTY retail trade has traditionally been a refuge employment sector for workers, both men and women, who lose other jobs or simply do not find any other paid work. This has been especially true of urban areas because poverty and the lack of opportunities for gainful employment in rural areas drive a large number of people to cities in search of work and livelihood.

Those who migrate generally possess low skills and lack the required education for the better-paid jobs in the organised sector, where in any case aggregate employment has not increased much. This has led to a rapid growth of informal work, including street vending or hawking. For the urban poor, hawking is one important means of earning a livelihood as it requires minor financial input and involves relatively low skills.

That is why it comes as a surprise to learn from the recent National Sample Survey Organisations large survey data that there has actually been a slowdown in the growth of usual status retail employment for urban men and absolute decline in such employment for urban women. This was mainly owing to declines in private employment in both organised and unorganised sectors. This contrasts with the picture in rural India, where employment in retail trade grew faster in the first half of this decade than in the 1990s.

This is definitely odd because the same surveys show other features of urban labour markets in India in the recent past: an overall decline in prospects of paid employment, a decline in average wages of those employed especially as casual workers and the emergence of self-employment as a major means of ensuring livelihoods for workers who are unable to find paid work. So petty retail trade, which used to be a favoured means of self-employment, should also have grown.

The fact that it has not grown suggests that there are forces that make it increasingly difficult for individuals to engage in petty retail trade and have made it a less viable option to fall back on in the absence of other productive employment opportunities.

Obviously, many factors are significant in this but two of them are especially important. The first factor is deregulation, which has permitted the entry of large corporate entities into the retail sector, providing competition to small vendors because of the formers ability to take advantages of economies of scale. The second one is urban laws and policies of various types, including zoning restrictions and rules that constrain the ability of small traders and hawkers to function freely.

Advocates of corporate retailing argue that this will give rise to more employment. But only a tiny proportion of retail employment is in the organised sector and organised retailers are shifting to more labour-saving techniques. In fact, as more corporate retail displaces small traders, total employment in the retailing sector is likely to shrink, as it has already been doing in the recent past.

Obviously, street vending is not a goal of decent work per se, but as long as other employment opportunities are limited, it is important to deal with the problems faced by hawkers. The first and most basic problem relates to their very right to existence and stems from the fact that in most States and most cities, hawking is regarded as an illegal or at best extralegal activity.

This despite the fact that several judgments of the Supreme Court since the late 1960s have recognised street vending as a legitimate activity. Hawkers remain in the grey non-legal zone because, under state and municipal regulations, they are considered unlawful entities and are, therefore, subjected to harassment by the police and civic authorities.

Even where hawkers are legally recognised, there are limits to the number of vendors licensed to function in particular locations. The numbers legally permitted and the spaces that may be legally used cover only a tiny fraction of those who are actually engaged in the trade. Consequently, by definition, much of vending remains illegal and thus amenable to either extortion or removal. So hawkers are typically treated as encroachers of public space and are forced to bear the additional burden of legal insecurity, harassment and bribes to be paid to various elements. As pressure on urban land increases, more and more laws including some sections of the Police Act and the Indian Penal Code are invoked to harass, exploit or coerce the street vendors.

Urban plans and urban development policies also put severe constraints upon hawkers activities by providing for their eviction and prohibiting their functioning in particular areas. Municipal Acts and city plans in general do not have any provision for street vendors. Instead, the common tendency is to view hawkers and street vendors as obstructions to the free flow of traffic and urban movement rather than as an outcome and a necessary part of this flow. It is inadequately recognised that bicycles, pedestrians and bus traffic attract street vendors, who in turn provide important services such as provision of food and drink for commuters and repair shops.

Without such services at frequent intervals, the traffic itself would be affected adversely.

The presence of hawkers often has other positive social externalities. They can make streets relatively crime free and safer for women, children and the elderly. It has been found that cities with a large number of street vendors tend to be safer and less prone to violent street crime than those that do not. In terms of encroaching on public space a typically middle class notion it is too often forgotten that urban elites also cordon off public places for car-parking, private gardening, and so on. The sheer amount of urban space taken up by private vehicles owned by better-off sections is ignored. For example, it has been estimated that the parking space taken up by private vehicles in Delhi is greater than the area of all the slum settlements that house around half of Delhis population. A major threat to hawkers, as well as to the urban poor in general, comes from a section of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that essentially represent the interests of the rich and middle classes.

While these NGOs collectively represent less than 10 per cent of the citys population, they get disproportionate publicity in the media and wield substantial political clout through their social and political contacts. As a result, their views on urban planning are taken up with utmost seriousness by municipalities. On the other hand, the much greater proportion of the population that resides in slums is typically ignored in urban policymaking, and their views are rarely, if ever, sought by either officialdom or the media.

The extralegal treatment of street vending also means that there is no consideration of the working conditions of hawkers and their personal safety as well as the security of their goods, and no attempt at public improvement of their work conditions such as adequate sanitation facilities. It also denies hawkers (along with many other small and tiny producers of goods and services) access to institutional credit, which can dramatically increase their working capital, and constrains their ability to expand operations.

Even government policies that appear to be beneficial or otherwise innocuous can affect hawkers. For example, food safety regulations assume that food cooked on the streets is more unhygienic than that in closed restaurants, even though studies in cities like Pune have found that the cheapest street food actually had less bacteria than samples taken from restaurants.

The government apparently recognises all this, since the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors has already highlighted these problems and provided very specific recommendations. The problem is rather the absence of political will, anywhere in the country, to implement them.

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