The problem

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With nearly a third of our billion plus population located in urban centres, increasing attention is now being directed to the management and sustenance of our cities. Not surprisingly, the dominant imagery is one of a breakdown, of over-stretched infrastructure, traffic jams, filth and pollution, crime and insecurity, in short, of an unfriendly and unlivable habitat. A far cry from earlier perceptions of cities as centres of civilization, of growth, enterprise and energy.

It is not unusual that harassed city-managers look for scapegoats as an explanation of failure. There are just too many people, an unending flow of migrants, a proliferation of slums and jhuggies colonizing public and private lands earmarked for alternative uses. Rarely, however, are we conscious of the class and cultural bias of such perceptions which target the poor as the source of our urban problem.

Power breakdowns are routinely credited to the ‘unauthorised’ users in slums, not the indiscriminate and often illegal (and thus unbilled) use of electricity in factories and commercial complexes. Despite a vast majority of urban citizens relying on public transport, or cycling and walking to work, transportation plans and policies continue to favour the use of private motorized vehicles.

Examples can be multiplied. The fact remains that city-planners suffer from a distorted and myopic view of the city, drawn more from the experience of the West than our own history. Whether or not one would go along with the evocative phrase coined by architect and city-planner Jai Sen, ‘the unintended city’ (Seminar 200, April 1976) focusing on the indelible rural character of even our metropolises, it is difficult to deny that the city’s poor, often rural in origin and orientation, are acceptable to the city elite only as service providers, preferably invisible.

Street vendors, as a strata, tellingly capture this ambivalence. At one level is the realization, howsoever grudging, that vendors provide a useful service. A large proportion of our populace, particularly the less well-off, depend upon the street economy, not just for cooked food, fruits and vegetables, poultry and meat, but readymade garments, kitchen utensils and a bewildering variety of lower end goods. They find vendors both convenient and affordable. And increasingly, even if they do not so readily admit it, middle class consumers too access the vendors.

Simultaneously, particularly in the elite and planning circles, vendors are seen as a pestilence – crowding pavements, spilling onto busy streets, creating transport bottlenecks, not just adding to confusion and chaos, but a source of filth, disease and crime. Above all, they are seen as squatters on valuable commercial and residential space, both public and private, violating our sense of order. Little wonder that demands for city planning result in drives against hawkers and vendors.

It is not that these actions go uncontested. Though the poor self-employed, vendors in particular, are only now getting organized, actions by civic authorities, both municipal and police, are resisted, often resulting in violent clashes. Increasingly, NGOs and even political parties are getting into the fray, using a combination of direct activism, advocacy through the media, even approaching courts to advance the interests of this strata. Expectedly, they highlight the positive contribution of street trade and traders to civic life. Equally that vendors are poor people, working hard to earn an honest living; that a state unable to provide jobs to all has no business to destroy livelihoods.

Resolving these differing perceptions and demands requires both a fresh look at the various laws and regulations governing hawkers and vendors as also a reconceptualisation of the political economy of our cities. For a start we need to have a better idea about vendors and vending – the numbers, the background, the activities. Second, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that just because much of vending is informal, it is unorganized. City spaces are valuable and highly coveted. Operating on a street corner involves deals with not only civic authorities, but the local goon and the political protector. The estimates of illegal gratification associated with street vending are staggeringly high. Thus, while most vendors are poor, somehow surviving, they form part of a large network where the primary returns are made by a shadowy set in the background.

A third enduring problem relates to our civic laws. Municipal authorities across the country permit regulated vending. The problem is that the numbers legally permitted and the spaces which may be legally used cover a miniscule proportion of those engaged in the trade. Consequently, much of vending by definition remains illegal and thus amenable to either extortion or removal. A similar situation exists regarding the rickshaw trade in Delhi. As against a mere 4000 licensed rickshaws, the actual numbers on the street exceed 100,000. And a significant proportion of these are owned by the very authorities who conspire to keep them illegal.

Despite the undeniable complexity of the problem, there are worthwhile precedents. Women vendors in the crowded Manek Chowk area of Ahmedabad were able to wrest legal entitlements through a combination of struggle and dialogue. So too in Manipur. And now that the Supreme Court has conferred a legal status on vending (cf Sodhan Singh vs NDMC, SC 1998), it has become incumbent on city authorities to plan for vendors and vending as an integral part of the cityscape. Only a meaningful dialogue between all those who constitute the city – from civic authorities to shopkeepers, residents’ associations and vendors – can help mutual accommodation. Otherwise we are likely to witness cleanliness drives, violent clashes and populist rhetoric. This issue of Seminar hopes to make a small contribution in the search for sanity.