Steering clear of icebergs

Gerson da Cunha

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This may well be a tale of narrow geography and Mumbai relevance. But in India issues are multiplying that are no longer ‘local’, where some generalisation can be instructive. If Ranthambhore and Borivali have more in common than one syllable, why would unlicensed hawkers in Mumbai and their management not be pertinent elsewhere? (Borivali is where the Sanjay Gandhi National Park is located).

To start with, proliferation of hawkers in Mumbai is rooted in at least two features shared by most cities: first, migrants are driven there from rural and semi-rural areas seeking a living and, second, they are victimised by the politician-local administration-police nexus, which in Mumbai also means the mafia.

Let us, therefore, be clear what it is we are talking about. As in city slums, where the mainspring is not the slum dweller but the slum-lord, and with mendicants, where the key is the beggar-lord, and with polluting taxis, where the problem is really the taxi-lord or fleet owner, so with hawkers too, we must cope with hawker-lords and their connections, not just the hard-working citizen from the districts eking out an honest living. That is, a key factor in any solution will be the people who exact from the hawker a price for hawking space and for the ‘right’ to that space.

There are other baroque details. Given the numbers involved and the clash of many interests, hawkers could not but get unionised. The press regularly reports on how in consequence the matter has got politicised and therefore, as in politics, criminalised. So the term ‘street vendors’, while serviceable, captures our present subject about as neatly as ‘public servants’ describes Parliament.

The object of this piece is three-fold: (i) to outline how Mumbai citizens got together to address the issue and dialogued with senior levels in the municipality; (ii) to touch on the position taken in the High Court by a citizen body; and (iii) to look around and ahead a bit. Resolution of the issue holds its breath somewhat as we await the order of a Division Bench of the Bombay High Court. The matter is therefore sub-judice as these lines are written. But first, a brief overview of the subject area.

Hawkers are part of the informal sector of Mumbai’s economy which, as early as 1991, accounted for two-thirds of the city’s employment. The sector offers ease of entry for low-skilled workers and use of traditional technologies but low returns. It tends to operate on streets, pavements and public spaces. Here is where hawkers have come up against the BMC and residents/citizens, the latter very resentful because they are if anything even less organized than hawkers, who often have been able to put up a threatening front.

Virtually all hawking takes place in unlicensed places (TISS-YUVA report. See below). Two-thirds of it is on pavements and the remaining third on the carriageways of streets and roads. Licensed hawkers make up no more than six per cent of the total. It may be time to note a significant actor in our scenario.

Sharad Rao is in some ways and seasons, the man by whose writ the city runs. He is leader of the Bombay Hawkers’ Union, the main vendor group, heads the Municipal Mazdoor Union, which regularly holds the city to ransom for better remuneration to its overpaid and inefficient members and is union kingpin among Mumbai taxis, for many the city’s only wheels. He recently demanded that Mumbai save its 300,000 hawkers from harassment and extortion at the hands of our very own ‘cops and robbers’, that is, the city’s police and municipal workers.



Two years ago the city’s administration, still commonly called the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation), called for a study of various aspects of hawking and hawkers in the city. It was done by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and YUVA. Among many other things, it reports that hafta or weekly bribes paid out by unlicensed hawkers amount to a staggering Rs 3240 million annually (The Times of India, November 1997). But then, that boils down to just Rs 35 a day per hawker, if Rao’s numbers are accepted – in turn quite reasonable, seen against the vast business reportedly done by these folk here. It is valued at hundreds of millions annually by the National Alliance of Street Vendors.

But the TISS-YUVA report puts the total number of licensed and daily fee-paying vendors at just 100,000 or a bit more. The report cautions that the following figures may represent under-reporting, but 70 per cent of them seem to earn between Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000 per month. Forty per cent deal in agricultural products, which brings out their importance to the city housewife.

All this was in the first half of 1998. Since then there has been proliferation through influx into the city. While nearly half the city’s hawkers are covered by no scrap of permission or paper, there is a group using the law against the law to do business, a strategy gaining currency.



An interested person occupies public space, usually near or on the way to a suburban railway station, or educational institution, or place of worship, or on a railway over-bridge – in general in an area of profitable pedestrian traffic. If/when authorities arrive to demolish or seize things, the hawker seeks and invariably gets a ‘stay’ of removal from a city civil court. The plea is that, until the BMC obeys a Supreme Court ruling of July 1985 to set up hawking and no-hawking zones, no demolition is just.

Given the scale of daily graft, here then is an invitation to delay of zoning and slow motion implementation by municipal functionaries and their allies elsewhere. Nothing in fact was effectively done about hawkers between 1985 and 1998. The real problem was that hawkers were no longer hawkers at all, in the sense of being ambulant street vendors. They were taking possession of, and defending, specific pitches and areas, while in most cases living, cooking and washing there as well. Enter the Citizens’ Forum for the Protection of Public Spaces (CFPPS).

CFPPS is a spin-off from another initiative, an effort to clean up Churchgate. This is an area in the vicinity of a suburban railway terminal in south Mumbai. The clean up was greatly successful but not at once obvious. Success was veiled by the sullying and health-threatening presence of some 400 hawkers, 90 per cent of them unlicensed. They also obstructed pedestrians on pavements, forcing them onto carriageways, thus posing dangers of accident and death from vehicular traffic. Their links to the underworld, often forced upon them, were numerous and open. Clearly, no clean up of the city would be possible without solving the hawker problem.

CFPPS came together more than two years ago. That it was an idea whose time had come was proved by how quickly it grew. From six persons, it became 30 organizations in four weeks. Residents’ associations came together against unauthorised hawkers. It is now a network ten times larger. Its unifying goal is to fight land grab, encroachment and illegal building. In Mumbai’s narrow, crowded, sea-locked space, land is gold. A few years ago, its business and residential accommodation was the most expensive in the world. The lure of its land to miscreants is powerful.

But CFPPS began as a reaction to the way unauthorised hawking had taken over streets, pavements and public space in key areas of the city and to the accompanying problems of health, hygiene, lawlessness, corruption of public officials and infiltration by criminals.



The forum met regularly and there was constant consultation among members. It grew in size, strength and boldness. Here it was aided by the openness of an Additional Municipal Commissioner, V. Ramani, with whom regular meetings were held with the objective of including citizens in the BMC initiative vis-a-vis hawkers. The CFPPS filed a public interest litigation suit praying, in essence, that the High Court direct the BMC to implement the July 1985 Supreme Court ruling. Many residents’ associations were co-petitioners. Hawkers were also represented in court.



In mid-1998, the Mayor-in-Council system was introduced in Mumbai and the Mayor, Nandu Satam, was enthusiastic in wanting to regulate hawking. Three days before hawking/no-hawking zones were meant to come into force in September 1998, the view was taken in decision making circles that adequate consultation with citizens had not taken place. Enforcement of the scheme was held up. Implementation of a scheme now awaits the Bombay High Court’s orders, expected some time in June 2000, on the prayers of the CFPPS, among others.

Basically, the petitioners have urged that hawkers should be confined to ambulant vending and have no rights over the land where they pitch, that hawking and no-hawking zones shall be defined on the lines of the Supreme Court ruling of July 1985. A court order will automatically vacate the stay orders against demolition which were valid only as long there were no zones defined by the BMC/High Court.

CFPPS has always made the point that it is not against hawkers as such because they provide city homes an important service. The point they stick by is the Supreme Court ruling (July 1985) that, ‘Public streets are meant for use by the general public and not to facilitate the carrying on of private trade or business.’ In the same order, the apex court held that hawkers may not hold society to ransom by squatting on busy thoroughfares, thereby paralysing civic life. The municipality’s power to grant licenses is coupled with a duty to ensure that it is exercised after due consultation and in the interests of the general public which, therefore, has a stake in showing how and why the hawking trade should be regulated.

The same order laid down many specific and detailed provisions, among them the following: no hawking within specified limits of railway stations, education institutions and places of worship. Hawking could only take place up to 9 pm in the case of foodstuffs. Creation of hawking and no-hawking zones was to be completed by October 1985.

In a later ruling, the Supreme Court once again upheld the rights of the pedestrian over footpaths and pavements as against anybody’s right to make a living on them. Whatever the economic compulsions, public property may not be used for private purposes without requisite authorisation.



In 1988, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court recognised the right of a hawker to transact business while going from place to place subject, however, to proper regulation for the convenience of the public. The right to carry on trade or business on streets or pavements was also recognised but with appropriate regulation to facilitate traffic and convenience of the travelling public. Hawkers do not have a right over a particular place to carry on trade or business.

The TISS-YUVA report notes, interestingly, that about 45 per cent of hawkers are in favour of the creation of zones. But the problem is now of giant scale. As against the TISS-YUVA census of 100,000 hawkers and Sharad Rao’s estimate of 300,000 brethren, there are only some 25,000 licensed vendors. AMC Ramani had calculated that there could be no more than some 50,000 hawkers accommodated in the newly defined zones, and that was some time ago. What is to happen of the remaining traders on the city’s streets?

It is a familiar tactic of operators on the fringe of legality to enlarge the proportions of their misdemeanour to complicate and delay solution. This has happened in the case of illegal building and land-grabbing in Mumbai, now a huge, nearly intractable problem; with vehicular pollution from malfunctioning diesel engines and adulterated fuel, something in which tens of thousands of vehicles are now involved. It has happened with our hawkers. Many of them, the licensed ones and perhaps some others, are victims, along of course with several lakh citizens.



The thought in the minds of many, among them the PIL litigants themselves, is, ‘After the High Court ruling, what?’ Who will enforce whatever it is that the court orders? The record of the BMC and the city police (which has a body of policemen dedicated to the BMC’s tasks) has not been a good one over the years. Clearly, the citizens’ duty cannot cease with the court order.

This at least may be said: the Citizens’ Forum for Protection of Public Spaces has made a public issue of the need to regulate hawking. Scores of residents’ associations, which means thousands of members, are aware of the problem where once there was ignorance or apathy. They also know what can and cannot be done by particular public authorities. The media have been sensitized. Municipal ward offices and their functionaries and, most importantly, the venal fixers who once operated without qualm or hindrance are now on notice.

There is some evidence that the vast ship of (local) state is slowly veering a few degrees. Hopefully it will steer clear of the icebergs ahead.