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Why India can't have a uniform street vending law

Going by what Ajay Maken, minister for housing and poverty alleviation says, a street vending law will be in place in the next few months. The budget session of parliament will engage itself towards its enactment and the government, along with politicians, social science academics, a section of civil society, and more importantly, another stakeholder, the hawkers have been rooting for it, and will applaud it when on the statute.

The other stakeholder of cities is averse to the idea of allowing hawking, for its various ramifications. They have their legitimate cons for the pros advocating regulated hawking. Their view is that hawking is an inconvenience and a hurdle for normal use of a normal civic facility – the sidewalk. The fact that they are eyesores, cluttering the cityscape etc. are the other elements in the opposition. They ask, how could a slice of the city meant for one purpose be handed over to another.

To city governments, it just does not matter for though it is mandated to be an enabler to make lives better for all citizens, it has not actually been that facilitator.

Reuters

Reuters

They operate for lobbies, for politicians, and the government’s several constituents to the neglect of all citizens real needs. It would be just another monster of a law too complicated to enforce and self-defeating as well because civic bodies are actually a means to exploit laws, not enforce even the simplest. Civic bodies are only good notions, nothing more.

The pro-hawker enunciations are based on the view that the poor, being poor, can, with limited resources they have, engage in hawking as a livelihood, and that by hawking cheaper items, also subsidise the city’s other poor. Major cities, you see, tend to have more poor than rich with failed rural areas. The bill’s statement of objectives dwells on how, being an “important segment of the urban population” and “unable” to get jobs in the “remunerative formal sector” due “to their low” education and skills”, they employ their own meagre finances and “sweat equity”.

There couldn’t be a better instance of a self-damning argument.

That is, cities will have its poor, and more poor would arrive with inadequate skills and with what they have, they have to fend for themselves. For this, a “congenial and harassment free atmosphere” has to be provided. This begs the question: why are the poor poor, why they have to live with low or no skills, and what did the government do to change that by building capacities?

There is a link between cities and urbanism – the civilizational acme of living in a settled and well-run society - implying an orderliness which does not just regularise a disorder. This disorder is most visible in the presence of slums, indiscriminate uses of spaces as by hawkers to an extent one sees in Indian cities, and an inability to reduce the changed uses of spaces from what were intended. The cities have failed to provide affordable housing so tolerate slums, self-help cities within cities, as it were. Likewise, hawkers: we can’t do any better in generating jobs, so let they do their own.

No doubt, the right to livelihood cannot be denied to citizens, especially the poor who need to at least survive, and the push for this law has come from the Supreme Court, which in the Sodhan Singh Vs. New Delhi Municipal Corporation case, said that the right to trade on the pavements, “if properly regulated, cannot be denied on the ground that streets are meant for passing and re-passing and no other use”. So it did in a case against their evictions filed by Olga Tellis. The crux of the opposition to hawking is the proper regulation.

It is not that civic bodies have refused the right to hawk. As many as 15,000 and more being licenced in Mumbai alone is an indication that it is an institutionalised arrangement. But the fact that the true number of hawkers is really  several multiples of that number, running into lakhs, and as yet not censused to determine their exact number, indicates two things: one, there has been no regulation; two, there has been either a refusal or inability to regulate, perhaps both. Their numbers could be anything and mindboggling too.

Maken has made it clear that the number of hawkers as a proportion to a city’s population is going to be capped at 2.5 per cent, which in Mumbai’s case would be upwards of 3.1 lakh, as calculated by the Times of India today. It would mean 47,000 more hawkers on Mumbai’s streets which are already overrun by them. The flip side is, if the proportion already hawking is higher than 2.5 per cent, then the civic body would, under law, be compelled to bring it down to the cap. Would that be possible? Or would the mischievous law-makers and enforce push to meet that as a quota?

Civic bodies are notorious for allowing the violation of their own laws with impunity and thereafter, go for rent-seeking as if by a perverse design. Sharit Bhowmik, a TISS professor had written in 2009 that an “earlier study” had shown that “street vendors pay Rs 400 cr as bribes to police and municipal authorities”, obviously annually. For Delhi it was Rs 600 cr. Such venality is what allowed the proliferation of hawkers, and the mere cap of 2.5 per cent could remain a notion on statute. If 15,000 legal hawkers could multiply into several lakhs of illegal hawkers under its watch in Mumbai, how would their morals change because of a law?

The explosion in their numbers have been facilitated also by its horrific Frankenstein nature and even the issuance of a token receipt for use of space, especially towards funding cleaning up after them, was discontinued by the Mumbai city government for two reasons: it was too cumbersome and involved a lot of manpower, and the fear that such receipts would lead to claims of ownership of the patches used by the vendors.

The several stipulations under the law, which the Supreme Court had wanted enacted by 2009 itself, would be hard to implement because of the sheer numbers involved. It is easier to take a bribe and then turn a blind eye than to methodically monitor – the bill speaks of time used for hawking as ‘time-share’ meaning there has to be strict superintendence, imposition of fines etc. for violations, making it cumbersome, to say the least, especially for civic bodies riddled, as a rule, by inefficiencies on all counts. The simple laws of prevention which exist were simply ignored.

The bill has spoken of a ‘holding capacity’ for hawkers, which is the maximum a particular space can hold. And such areas are more likely to be found not in the spaces preferred by the hawkers because already an excess relative to spaces has led to their overbearing presence on locations like station exits, bus stands, and arterial roads and streets. Sending them off to other places would ruin their businesses for want of customers. Typically, the customer is one who is on his weary way back from work.

Therefore, these zones have to be those with high footfalls. The bill lists the areas thus: “’vending zone’ means an area or a place or a location designated as such by the local authority for the specific use by street vendors for street vending and includes footpath, side walk, pavement, embankment, portions of a street, waiting area for public or any such place considered suitable for vending activities and providing services to the general public.”

Obviously, for crammed cities like Mumbai, where existing footpaths even if not invaded by hawkers are grossly inadequate, where the city plans for cars and not pedestrians, allowing use of such spaces would be suicidal. What fits, say Anand or Sangli or Valsad or Ahmednagar – more geography and lower populations spread without vertical growths leading to lower population densities – need not, and does not, fit Mumbai. Mumbai cries out for open spaces, and if dense areas are colonised thus, it spells only aggravation.

So much so, if the vendors are to minimise the spaces used and move back, as they did in Bhopal, occupying only a third of the footpath’s width, there would be scope for pedestrians to reclaim their rights. But it would also have hawkers everywhere, occupying at least three times their lengths. In parts of the city, they sit in clusters, sometimes in two or even three rows. A hawker, if his rights are pre-eminent to a city’s, then he has to the right to choose his spot. Will that be allowed?

That space for hawking is scare is acknowledged by the city body is evident from its intent of proposing parts of the skywalks – built at a price – for hawkers under the pretext of drawing pedestrians to use them. This hair-brained proposal comes even as complaints of hawkers moving in there are on the rise with the pedestrians wondering if they or the hawkers matter more. The civic body’s planned trade-offs won’t work merely because they do not manage to do simple things as boil an egg.

This impending law is not going to resolve issues, also is not going to actually regulate its menacing dimensions, and assuredly will remain largely on paper, leading to furthering the prevailing obnoxious culture of rent-seeking, and the city would remain where it is. The aphorism, path to hell is paved with best intentions, best explains it. But the government would wallow in its belief that it did its deed towards the city and the poor, neither of which would actually be the case. All aggravations would remain unchanged, those of the hawkers as well.