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Targeting hawkers

Print edition : Jan 19, 2002 T+T-

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's drive to evict hawkers from the streets of the city raises protests and a slew of issues.

BULLDOZERS are relentlessly tearing down the livelihoods of hawkers on many of Mumbai's roads. And a battle is on between the thousands of evicted hawkers and Chandrashekhar Rokde, Deputy Municipal Commissioner. Rokde is adamant on implementing a 16-year-old Supreme Court order that bans hawking on the city's main streets.

Implementation of the 1985 court order would drastically transform the city, which never sleeps and which thrives on enterprise. In many ways, Mumbai's hawkers symbolise the city's spirit of ingenuity and drive. The order prevents them from doing business using handcarts or tables. It disallows vending after 10 p.m. and cooking on the street. If Rokde has his way, the drive will mark the end of Mumbai's trademark junk food - pau bhaji, bhel puri and vada pau. Chaiwallahs, who serve tea to thousands of office-goers as well as establishments every day, will also be gone.

In October and November, 2001, Rokde pushed more than 5,000 vendors off the streets. He estimates that once he is through, at least 20,000 - who would account for 10 per cent of the city's two lakh hawkers - will be cleared from the city's busy street. "We are only clearing around 60 of the city's main roads, particularly the ones near railway stations, so that Mumbai's 70 lakh train commuters can have free access to the station. Some streets are so congested with hawkers that buses have had to change their routes," says Rokde. But while clearing the streets he is also destroying a section of the economy with an annual turnover of Rs.1,590 crores. If legalised and regulated, annually this sector could earn the deficit-strapped municipal corporation a revenue of Rs.146 crores. Yet, justifying the demolition drive, Rokde adds: "We are not taking action against small hawkers. Only those occupying prime space and those who have encroached on public space and run businesses with large turnovers will be removed."

But this claim is often not true. Radhika Dhoiphode, who sold vegetables at Dadar, earned Rs.3,000 a month. "Even that was not enough to run a household of eight," she said. "For the past two months, they have not allowed us to do business. How will we survive? I have four children in school. I am the sole earning member in the family," she says.

The municipal authorities want to shift Dadar's vendors into a five-storeyed 'hawkers plaza'. "We don't mind shifting to an open market close to the main Dadar station. But if you send us into a building, our business will collapse. Mumbai's commuters don't have the time to climb five floors to buy some vegetables," Radhika points out. "Besides, they want us to pay Rs.one lakh per stall in the hawking plaza. I don't have that kind of money. If I did, I wouldn't be selling on the street," she explained. There is a proposal to replicate this project throughout the city if it is successful.

However, in Rokde's view Dadar's hawkers are "lucky". "The municipal corporation has constructed a hawkers' plaza for them. Why should illegal occupants be rehabilitated at the cost of taxpayers? The other hawkers will have to go to the 131 streets of Mumbai's 1,000-odd roads that the Supreme Court has marked as 'hawking zones'. We cannot allow these illegal activities to continue, or they will convert the roads into slums," Rokde says. But these 131 roads, he admits, can accommodate only 20,000 to 40,000 hawkers, leaving little room for the remaining 1.60 lakh hawkers. Where roads have been earmarked as 'hawking zones', there has been stiff opposition from local residents and shopkeepers' associations: all of them patronise hawkers but do not want them in their own backyard.

When asked how hawkers are expected to earn a living in the absence of any plans for their rehabilitation, Rokde said: "If they have a problem, they should approach the court. There is strong opposition to them from residents and traders. We cannot go against the wishes of the court or the city's residents". But Mumbai's hawkers too are its residents.

The manner in which the municipal demolition squads have conducted their raids has been no less brutal. Bhagita Krishna Gaikwad, a vegetable vendor of Dadar, was put in the lock-up for two days. "We were all rounded up and put in jail for two days. They cursed and beat one old woman," she recalled. The municipal corporation then hired the services of private security agencies to patrol the streets and ensure that the hawkers do not return. "Even now, when we go back to the street, private security guards grab our goods. They don't tell us where to claim them from. We don't have the time or resources to keep running between the municipal office and the police station. I need to keep earning every day to stay alive," said Bhagita.

Hawkers at Dadar claim that the police entered a hawker's house at night and seized his goods. He had to pay a fine of Rs.1,200. According to Mumbai hawkers union leader Suresh Kapile, on Deepavali day, two children who were selling firecrackers were arrested. "Ask the municipal authorities to step into our shoes for one day and they will know what it is like to stand in the street all day, to keep running away from the police, to rebuild stalls every time they break them. They are comfortable with their steady jobs," said Rafiq Mohammed Attar, who has been selling nimbu paani (lime juice) in suburban Andheri for the past 20 years. "A government that cannot provide jobs to its people has no right to take away our only source of livelihood. The police say we are illegal occupants. What kind of justice is this?" he asks.

Kapile points out that the 1985 Supreme Court judgment states that subject to reasonable restrictions, hawkers have a right to do their business in the public interest. Another judgment given by the court in 1989 upheld the hawkers' right to earn a livelihood as a fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, which relates to the right to trade.

Hawkers apparently got a better deal before Independence. Mumbai had 14,000 licensed hawkers in 1950. Then the municipal authorities decided to stop issuing licences. In 1988, they introduced the 'pauti' system, whereby hawkers paid the municipality daily cleaning charges (between Rs.5 and Rs.15 which was later increased to Rs.30 and Rs.100) and were issued a receipt. This gave their trade some legitimacy. However, in 1998, following a High Court order the system was stopped. The municipal corporation had been earning Rs.30 to Rs.40 lakhs a day, or Rs.146 crores annually, through the 'pauti' system. According to Rokde, now that money is being given as bribes to municipal and police officials. Asked about the regular hafta (bribe) collections by the municipal authorities, which have in turn allowed 'illegal' hawkers to flourish, Rokde said: "The first offence is with the bribe giver. Anyway, we don't want their hafta anymore. We want them to go away."

The hawkers' contribution to the economy is hardly acknowledged. Their annual turnover is estimated to be Rs.1,590 crores. A survey conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) in 1997, when the plan to allocate hawking zones was mooted, found that there were 1.02 lakh hawkers who comprised 1.6 per cent of Mumbai's 12 million residents. Since then, the vendor population is estimated to have risen to over two lakhs. The Mumbai Hawkers Union claims that the figure is three lakhs.

In Mumbai, around 20 per cent of the hawkers are those who have been retrenched from mills or other industries, said Dr. Sharit Bhowmick, head of Bombay University's Sociology Department. They have been forced into the city's unorganised sector, which comprises 65 per cent of the workforce. Hawkers serve a large section of Mumbai's population - selling everything from food to books and clothes. "Where else can I grab a bite on my way back home? It's so cheap and convenient. Please ask them to put back the chai shop, the vada pau and Chinese food stall outside my office. They have the best food. They are not blocking the roads, the street is bare without them," said an office secretary in south Mumbai's commercial area.

The National Alliance of Street Vendors, led by Magsaysay award-winning social activist Ela Bhatt, is in the forefront of the pro-hawker movement and is organising an International Convention of Hawkers in Kolkata in February. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy are likely to attend the convention. Representatives of hawkers' organisations from countries such as Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Pakistan will meet at the convention. The Indian office of the International Labour Organisation has also emphasised the need for formulating a labour policy for workers in the informal sector, and has called for the prevention of any repressive measures against hawkers.

In an effort to organise the street vending business, the Central government had set up a task force on street vendors/hawkers. The Centre wrote to the Maharashtra government on October 18, 2001, asking it to direct all enforcement authorities to stop the removal of hawkers until a national policy on street vendors is finalised. However, in Rokde's opinion it is important to uphold the Supreme Court judgment, or else the municipal authorities can be hauled up for contempt of court. However, Kapile points out, "The municipal corporation chooses to implement the judgment selectively. If it wants to create hawking zones, it should regularise hawking and provide alternative pitches to people before coming at them with bulldozers."

While the municipal corporation has chosen to target the hawkers, it has spared illegal encroachments by the elite and the politically powerful. In fact, some of the biggest shop-owners of Dadar who are demanding the removal of hawkers, have encroached the streets. Ironically, some of them started out as hawkers selling saris on the street.