By Sreya Sarkar
November 14th is celebrated as International Street Vendors Day for the last eight years. This year the significance of it was not lost on a world lamenting a summer lost to cancelled street fairs and events forcing all to stay indoors. As cities and towns all over the world dip in and out of sporadic pandemic-induced shutdowns, street vending has self-chosen itself as one of the stop-gap arrangements to assist economic recovery.
It is hard to ascertain the exact number but more than 2 billion people worldwide, which is over half of the planet’s employed population, work in the informal sector, many of whom are into street vending, full or part-time. Hawkers have been in existence since time immemorial in all civilizations. They shape-shifted and updated to keep up with changing times. More interestingly, they have made a recent comeback even in countries that discouraged them in favor of modern, smarter cities. Even China that has been rather tough in opposing street vending is now applauding it as a source of employment, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Fried food aroma wafting from temporary sidewalk stalls and hawkers drawing attention with their high-pitched voices to everything from household goods to clothes in pushcarts have continued to be common sights in Indian cities as well as other more developed ones despite the rise of swanky shopping malls and the march of large retail chains. Though modern urban planners, city administrators, and the wealthy think of street vendors as a nuisance and a public health hazard-- street vending has lasted because there is a big demand for it--in assuring livelihood to a large underprivileged and marginalized section of the society in every country.
Challenges for Indian street vendors
National Hawker Federation estimates 4 crore or 40 million people selling on the streets, in cities, small towns, and rural hubs across India. In cities, the throng of street vendors serves an even bigger army of urban poor and the middle class. It is a parallel economy with a turnover of 80 crores a day.
Yet, street vendors are regularly subjected to extortion and harassment by the local police and the municipal corporation officials. They often have to pay bribes to police and to flee eviction drives ordered by officials who see them as a blemish on a city’s modern image.
Historically, they have been regulated by state and municipal laws. But a landmark law was created in 2014. After 70 years of judicial and regulatory battles, advocacy efforts by vendor unions, associations, and NGOs such as the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) and Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill got enacted in 2014 and finally legitimized a vendor’s right to livelihood in India.
The Street Vendors Act 2014
The Act is supposed to systematically fill the regulatory gap, regularize street vendors, open channels for negotiation, and minimize extractive opportunities. It provides for the establishment of Town Vending Committees (TVC) in each local authority of which 40% of members will have to be from amongst street vendors to be selected through an election. A survey is supposed to be conducted under the law, once every five years to identify the street vendors, and subsequently, a Certificate of Vending to be issued to them. The planning exercise will have to ensure that the provision of space or area for street vending is reasonable and consistent with existing natural markets. It calls for the establishment of an Independent Dispute Redressal Mechanism. It also provides for the protection of street vendors from harassment by police and other authorities.
Implementing the unwieldy multiple part Act has taken far more time than was anticipated. According to a 2020 progress report prepared by the Delhi-based Center for Civil Society, there seems to be no consistency in the state performances. That even states that have performed relatively well, have not strictly adhered to the procedures laid down by the Act.
Prashant Narang, Associate Research Director at the Center for Civil Society believes that the Act is too complex. In an email, he wrote, “It is a huge administrative burden; it is high on objectives and low on outcomes. It is a flawed and overly complicated Act, as (is) also evident from the difficulties in the implementation in the last six years. A law just needs to ensure transparency in the licensing process and accountability of public officials - something this law doesn't do.”
The law intended to balance the overall interests of city mobility with the welfare of street hawkers. It aimed at protecting the livelihood of street vendors and providing them with a conducive environment for carrying out their business, but the truth is that the administration still discourages vendors from occupying pedestrian space or disrupting traffic. In the current situation, the eviction of street hawkers continues to be the natural response in Indian cities.
Narang holds the opinion that the problem of sharing public spaces can be solved without much complication. “The idea of the vending zone and no-vending zone should be scrapped. Wherever vendors have been squatting for years, those spots should be formalized. Current law recognized it as a ‘natural market’ but there is no auto-process to formalize. I suggest natural markets should be deemed ‘protected’ in the law; the protection should not be dependent on the discretion of local authority as in the current law.”
Pandemic Augmented the Challenges
The raging pandemic that no one has figured out how to tame yet has amplified the troubles of the street vendors. Coronavirus infections are rising fast in India with a total surging to 9.2 million, according to the latest official data. It is the world’s second-worst affected country after the United States, which has more than 12 million cases now. The pandemic has pummeled the Indian economy and led to loss of jobs and businesses.
The Indian central government floated a scheme to help street vendors. The PM SVANidhi, a special microcredit program for street vendors (a part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan Package) started in July of this year, and offered the vendors a working capital loan of up to Rs. 10,000, which is repayable in monthly installments in the tenure of one year. The prime minister distributed 300,000 loans last month. The Centre has earmarked a stimulus package of Rs. 5,000 crore for 50 lakh vendors but its scope remains elusive because of a rule. The scheme applies to those vendors only who were vending before March 23rd, 2020. Many vendors who were migrants left during and in between lockdowns and several previous daily wage laborers and unemployed workers switched to selling fruits and vegetables. So, ascertaining the right number of vendors has become a challenge and might not necessarily help deserving vendors.
Shalini Sinha, the India representative for WIEGO, a global non-profit that works with informal workers, vented her concern in an article. Though the credit loan will provide initial working capital, will it be sufficient? She wrote, “Instead of credit, the government should have converted it into direct income benefit, a cash grant, as livelihood support to restart economic activity in a regular way.”
While the pandemic has caused difficulties, it has spurred innovation as well. The street vendors have adapted. Still the hotbed of the virus, big cities and urban centers have had to open up. The lockdown relaxed, requiring 78 percent of the working population to return to work. The daily workers needed a place to eat. So, business has started to pick back up, ever-so-slowly, for street food vendors, though differently this time. Some of them are working with third-party online ordering apps. Delivery apps have assured business, with no limits on capacity, and provided the support needed for handling digital, cashless purchases.
Few vendors have stepped up their efforts to deliver items to the doorsteps of people in residential complexes. They have embraced technology receiving assistance at the backend from B2B retailing supply chain management firms. Vendors of fresh produce have kept supply chains functioning. Findings from a survey of over 50 retailers in 15 locations across India show that the people who lost their jobs in cities and could not return to their villages switched to vending fresh produce and groceries.
The low entry barriers to informal retail led to an expansion in the number of informal retailers of food during the several lockdowns. Farmers have become vegetable sellers with farmers' markets shutting down and began delivering produce directly using WhatsApp to gathered orders in housing cooperatives in nearby cities.
Covid 19 is making us rethink city living. The urban reformers who have often viewed street vendors as the enemy of city beautification and have generally moved them to sidelined sites--- are stumped. They are discovering how retail giants with strong backend investments are struggling during these uncertain times because of limited labor availability and restricted movement among zones. Despite sophisticated procurement and stocking systems, only a fraction of online orders through e-grocery were being fulfilled. So, the default option became the street vendors and neighborhood mom and pop grocery stores employing family members.
Beyond the Pandemic
The pandemic will eventually fade away but the new learning that we need all kinds of entrepreneurship to survive a crisis, including street enterprises, might stick. Narang said that this pandemic has bared how important the street vendors are in the supply chain. "The most significant feature of street vending is informality. It has its pros and cons. Low cost of entry and operations, and easy entry, easy exit - all are advantages.”
So, in the future, it has to be decided if too much policy focus on formalizing street vendors is at all necessary. “What is really desirable is the protection from harassment by state officials.” If a law can ensure this, that would be more than sufficient to make street vending easier.
The pandemic has disrupted economies worldwide. It has exposed glaring social inequalities that are bound to make recovering economies consider in all seriousness whether or not they would like to go back to following structures and rules that celebrated and served primarily globalization of economy and technology.
There is a renewed realization that street vendors are an integral part of the world's urban economies, contributing to vibrant retail markets and providing affordable, accessible goods and services to urban consumers. And that it also offers livelihood for those who have few employment options, especially to the migrants and internally displaced people.
Cut copying formal sector rules for the informal sector, especially for the street vendors does them a great disservice. To make policies to help them, one has to listen to what kind of problems they face in their daily dealings.
The Street Vendors Act 2014 in that way represents a step forward in recognizing street vendors as important members of the urban economy, but whether it will guarantee them consideration and representation in urban planning processes, is something that has yet to be seen. The law is after all silent on the accountability of public officials, such as municipal officials and police, who continue to harass and evict them even against the law sometimes. We are still far from the time when spatial conflicts between vendors, residents, and government officials get resolved constructively, but we may be on our way there.