Vendors, police and governance
Amod K. Kanth
WE think of vendors as faceless individuals, strangers in the city selling small items, at times carried on the head, in baskets or small carts. They could be squatters in the marketplace or in residential areas or may be mobile in search of customers. The areas where the vendors operate could be affluent, middle class or lower middle class colonies or slums. Most slum dwellers, in fact, depend on them for their day-to-day provisions.
Looking at the Indian economy at all levels, particularly the household economy of the middle and lower classes, a major part of our commerce in terms of day-to-day trade is accounted for by vendors. Yet, they are not taken serious notice of, nor is their role recognised as such, i.e., as perhaps the most useful and dynamic agents of the economy. We often picture them as moving, faceless images. It is only when we need them for our immediate requirements that they even register in our consciousness.
In our professional perception, that is, in the interaction of the vendors with policemen, at most times they come across as transgressing the limits of law. The beat or the traffic policemen on the street, whether inside a colony or in the marketplace and definitely on the roads, look at vendors as a major obstruction. No wonder when it comes to keeping the streets, footpaths and places of public utilities clear of obstruction or encroachments, policemen and other enforcement personnel treat vendors as a nuisance to be gotten rid of.
For the vendors, however, it is precisely these sites where they can best make a living. Of course, they obstruct the free flow of pedestrians on footpaths and vehicles on the roads, creating congestion at places which the public use. It is indeed tragic that they have to suffer legal or illegal hardships at the hands of the law enforcement and municipal agencies while, in their own perception, they are engaged in activity which is both necessary and correct. To recall the words of a great historian, ‘The tragedy is not the conflict between right and wrong but that between right and right.’ Let me make clear that I do not wish to play the devil’s advocate, nor do I wish to defend those policemen or enforcement officials who are corrupt and cruel.
The authorities themselves are caught within conflicting elements, depending on the differing perceptions they have of their respective roles and, at times, those of their political masters and leaders. Conflicts between the police and municipal authorities are often aggravated in the context of the rights of vendors when municipal and land owning authorities grant them ‘tehbazari’ or some kind of licence or permission to operate in public places. The police on the other hand, feel duty-bound to clear the obstructions being caused on the footpaths, streets and public land. Somewhere, between these conflicting demands on the public roads and spaces of common public use, even right-meaning law enforcement and land owning authorities face a dilemma.
In the prevailing situation, certain questions confront everyone concerned: Is it proper for the vendors to squat on the roads and places meant for vehicular traffic or for pedestrians to walk? Must they make use of the given limited spaces which are meant for other uses? Is it appropriate for the traffic and the beat policeman to look the other way and allow obstructing vendors to continue with their business? Is it appropriate for the municipal and the land owning authorities to permit tehbazari or issue licences thereby creating conditions wherein obstructions attain a legal sanction? On the other hand, given human considerations, is it appropriate for the authorities to thoughtlessly remove the vendors for whom these public places and streets happen to be a lifeline? Perhaps these questions will always remain unanswered.
Since municipal bodies and land owning authorities are the designated agencies to permit, through licence or otherwise, vendors to operate in public places, one must examine the reasons advanced, and their implications. First, it is not that such people are being granted permission ‘only’ for the reason that it is their fundamental right to carry on their business unhindered, with reasonable restrictions, at any place during a given time. It is more because there are certain leaders and pressure groups behind their continued existence. Their strength may lie in numbers, in the vote bank they constitute, in lobbying – all indicators of visible and invisible support. Such pressures often compel local bodies to make some kind of arrangement even though law enforcement agencies like the police, or those concerned with providing civic amenities, may be opposed. Second, the municipal authorities often grant licences and collect a fee to conduct business (tehbazari) on the roads, in the market place or even for setting up markets on weekly off days in certain specified places or localities.
Third, vendors are often permitted to carry on with their trade at specified places on account of a ‘stay order’ from the courts. The perception of the courts may be based on humanitarian or other considerations, but they are often at cross-purpose with the perceptions of the local/municipal authorities and the police. In any case, police perceptions are usually at variance with those of the municipal authorities or the courts. However, when it comes to jeopardising, wrongly or rightly, the interests of the vendors, municipal authorities and the police have to work in tandem.
The police, let us say the Delhi Police, are expected to act in accordance with their legal and official commitments to keep the roads, streets and public places free from obstruction and encroachment. Section 283 of the Indian Penal Code applies nationally, permits action against vendors and such others who cause impediments in the free flow of traffic or obstruction to movement on footpaths. Under Sections 83/97 of the Delhi Police Act, similar action is taken against the vendors. Identical laws exist in other metropolitan cities where the vendors and the police confront each other as adversaries.
In contrast to the legal obligations of the police, the basic interest of vendors is survival, since their whole life and business depends on access to the streets and footpaths from where alone they can operate. It appears almost impossible to create a common platform or meeting point to resolve these conflicting demands, obligations and interests. The law enforcement agency is not expected to be humane, even at very senior levels, whatever the consequences to the business and livelihood of the vendors. There is no way that even a senior police officer can permit someone at his whim to carry on business on the streets.
Whatever the legal status of vendors, the municipal and police authorities, particularly in crowded metropolitan and bigger cities, are under constant pressure to act. It is not possible for executive, practical or human reasons for all of us to wait indefinitely for court orders. There has to be a consensus on a legally acceptable solution to both safeguard the business interests of the vendors and create conditions under which they are not constantly hounded and subjected to undignified treatment by the authorities. Obviously, at the same time, the city profile or the public convenience on the streets, footpaths and spaces of common use cannot be completely sacrificed.
In the past, several experiments have been tried by us in Delhi. The same exercises may have been attempted by others in different places. For instance, many years ago the author, as the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Central Delhi, faced a serious situation. Fortunately, in consultation with the other authorities, a large number of vendors were given space to carry on business near the prestigious Ajmal Khan Park. During discussions with a Station House Officer (SHO) of the area, I learnt that he too had similarly rehabilitated a group of law violating people in the area several years ago.
Indeed, it is possible to find spaces not far from the busy roads and footpaths wherein vendors could squat in order to carry on with their business, while at the same time keeping in mind municipal and police obligations. Such adjustments could be made by permitting free use of the marketplace for the vendors on the weekly off days. In fact, on account of their lower prices, a large number of people would prefer to shop on such days. However, this move would in all likelihood meet with the disapproval of local shopkeepers, since they stand to lose potential customers.
In most situations, the interaction between the traffic policemen and vendors on the streets, just as between municipal officials and the vendors, are hostile. Unfortunately, except in situations when an organized group of vendors confronts the authorities eyeball-to-eyeball, they are unable to protest about routine, street-level harassment as individuals. The clash between the traffic police and vendors is inevitable since most of them, albeit due to necessity, cause obstruction. Similarly, the municipal and land owning authorities, like the DDA, MCD, PWD and the Cantonment Board in Delhi, have to do the same thing on the streets.
Nevertheless, some kind of common strategy needs to be evolved since no authority, police or municipal, can operate without public support. Since vendors constitute a significant presence and are an active segment of society, they have to be brought in as partners in governance.
The conduct of the police vis-a-vis vendors is mostly uncharitable since they perceive them as strangers or suspects. Needless to add that a compassionate or humane approach is missing for the reasons of legal obligations. But then, the police is often blamed, even perceived as the so-called ‘hafta’ collecting agency. While a ding-dong battle goes on, possibly, a number of unscrupulous and corrupt policemen on the streets don’t miss out on the opportunity to collect money. Some time back, a committee was constituted to look into the functioning of such agencies and studying this problem. Unfortunately nothing concrete came of it.
As long as there is a major gap between the law as it exists and the reality, such problems cannot be wished away. The law sees vendors as a ‘public nuisance’; the human and socio-economic aspects pertaining to their livelihood, as one of basic existence, is not appreciated. Within the given legal situation there is little scope for improving understanding as there exists a major hiatus between expectations and reality. Even experiments to accommodate the vendors by the police or by the municipal authorities may not result in any lasting solution to the problem.
Behind police ill-treatment of the vendors lies another serious consideration, crime control. Under the crime prevention programmes, strangers are always suspect, i.e., individuals without a definite identity or fixed abode or occupation are seen as suspicious. The mobile vendors invariably, and the squatting vendors in a majority of cases, neither have proper identification nor regular permission to trade, duly verified by the authorities. The organizations espousing the interest of the vendors have demanded that identity cards be issued to the vendors by the police or the municipal authorities so that they may move around in an area or remain at a fixed place and do business.
Yet in the normal course of things, it is not only the police but the residents’ associations as well who do not wish to permit the vendors into their areas on the plea of security. As itinerant people, their bonafides are felt to be in doubt and they are not permitted inside housing societies. However, when it comes to buying inexpensive goods or accessing cheap services, they come handy. As a police officer with over two and a half decades of service, I have not personally come across many vendors committing serious crimes. But, decidedly, there is a need to give them some kind of identification. The verification will be both to their advantage as also to the advantage of the police, who find it difficult to control faceless metropolitan cities.
In Delhi, with the support of SEWA, a voluntary organization which has taken up the cause of vendors, we are working on a system which could work to the advantage of all concerned. By providing some kind of identification which the vendors demand, the police and residents of various colonies are likely to feel more secure. If the vendors are given some kind of identification to carry on their trade in specific areas, it would become easier for the police and the associations. In this way, the vendors would not be troubled by being branded as suspects and will be permitted inside the colonies. Such an arrangement would also help build bridges between the police, vendors and the residents of these colonies. The vendors could also become a useful source of information. They are ideally placed for the prevention and detection of crime since they operate in the open and, given a positive incentive, might act as the eyes and ears of the enforcement agencies. Personally, as a professional, I would consider this a positive programme of community policing.
Understanding the ground situation as it prevails today in terms of the varying perceptions of the vendors, police and municipal authorities, their legal and professional obligations, the human and socio-economic considerations, what is needed is a common platform and strategy. It would help sort out the problems of the vendors and the different agencies in the larger public interest. There is a definite need to identify each and every vendor, whatever their mode of operation, in the metropolitan cities and to give them some kind of identity through verification.
Similarly, when left unguided or at large in search of a livelihood, pursuing their survival interests, the vendors are likely to operate in a manner which may conflict with the interests of the authorities. The authorities should find alternative places for them or spaces in the vicinity of their business areas or give them some kind of opportunity close to where they operate without obstructing traffic or inconveniencing the public. The problem of street vendors is definitely one which cries for a solution for the simple reason that it involves human beings and their basic needs. Although the problem appears mind-boggling and intractable, it is not beyond limited and temporary solutions, at least in parts of the city.