Roles and perceptions


back to issue

THIS essay is really about perceptions. Most things change as we perceive them in different ways. And as perceptions change so do our actions and attitudes. At one time a tree or a clump of trees or a forest was seen as an obstacle to growth, to be cut down and replaced by roads and dams. Today, the environment is to be preserved at any cost, and trees are seen as the lifelines to health, to be planted and protected.

So too our perceptions of what constitutes a city or a town. Opinion-makers – the media, officialdom, educational institutions, NRIs – define what constitutes a good city. They turn to the well-known cities of the world, to London, Tokyo, Chicago and increasingly Singapore, the current favourite. They point to the many cars, the broad roads, over-bridges, shopping centres, high-rise apartment complexes, schools, hospitals, air-conditioning and central heating, the bright lights and the cleanliness. They point in horror to Indian towns and cities – to the ‘clutter’ in public spaces, the dirt and filth, the many slums and the bad roads.

However, Indian cities and towns have their own character, a life and an ambiance based on their culture and history. Each Indian city has layer upon layer of history reflecting successive civilizations, something that you may or may not see in Singapore or Tokyo. Indian cities reflect the Indian economy as it is, with its rich, middle class and poor. They reflect live links with the countryside, and above all the culture of the people, played out in every mohalla, apartment complex and slum.

Urban areas have always provided an arena for interaction between different classes, communities and interest groups, each trying to find a foothold in the city. The rural dialogue both continues and is metamorphosed as, searching for new opportunities, different classes and communities migrate to the towns – the rural rich heading for multistoried flats, the poor for the slums. The urban areas are also centres of commerce and the interaction of trade has been a medium of market dialogue which has kept the city alive.

The street vendors in many ways represent this dialogue and interaction within the city, with all its successes and in all its cruelty. The urban vendor, many of whom are women, reach goods and services to all classes of people symbolizing the interdependence of the rich, the middle classes and the poor. They represent the linkage between the slums and the flats, the residences and commercial centres, and between the rural and urban areas. They represent the multiple use of public spaces and the public and open nature of urban interactions.

Street vending is the most lucrative of all activities and the most available of all employments open to the poor, one which could lead the way out of poverty. It is also the most cruel in its competition for expensive urban space, marked by the vendors facing the wrath of the police and the city governments. Perhaps as no other citizen, the street vendor becomes the focus of interaction of almost all city pressure groups – the municipality, police, politician, consumer, real estate agent, shop owners, vehicle owners.



Our perceptions of street vendors remain confused and much too conditioned by the streets of London and Singapore. On the one hand we welcome street vendors who offer us the necessities of life, at our doorstep and at reasonable prices. They lighten the rigours of urban life. On the other hand, we feel that they have no right to be part of our cityscape. Like the pot-holed roads, the garbage and pollution, we feel that they too contribute to the bad look of the city, that they destroy the beauty of urban areas.

Beauty is a matter of perception. People contributing to the city can be as beautiful as cars or billboards, parks or fountains. Utility and beauty often go hand in hand. Public spaces in Indian cities have their own character, dynamics and culture. And with proper planning they can be as beautiful as any city in the West. Beauty need not mean the exclusion of large sections of the population, but can reflect an essential harmony and interdependence. How we treat the street vendor reflects how we perceive her – as a part of our culture and economy to be preserved and upgraded, or like a pothole in the road to be removed as soon as possible.

Urban India has steadily grown through the decades, with rates of growth somewhat higher than that of rural areas. The period between the last two censuses from 1981 to 1991 saw a growth of 36% in the urban population.1 Although the census classifies all areas with population above 10,000 as urban, there are in fact major differences as we go from the small towns which have just emerged from being villages, to the district towns which are local trading centres or seats of government, to the large metros with populations of many million. In India, unlike in many other countries, the process of the rural metamorphosing into the urban is slow, as villages grow into towns, small towns into bigger ones and as the towns and cities extend outward to take over the surrounding villages. In fact, nearly 60% of the urban population lives in small towns with populations of less than 2,00,000.

The urban areas are centres of intense economic activity, and their workforce reflects the type of economy that keeps the country going. However, despite frantic economic activity, the urban areas continue to have their share of poverty, surprisingly, not much lower than the poverty in rural areas. The proportion of people living below the poverty line is 32.4% in the urban areas as compared to 37.2% in the rural areas.


Distribution of Population by Town Size



Size of town by population size

Proportion of population

Upto 50,000


From 50,000 to 200,000


From 200,000 to 400,000


From 400,000 to 1,000,000


Above 1,000,000





Source: Dubey, Gangopadhyay and Wadhwa, p. 14.



The majority of the workforce operates in what is often called the unorganized or informal sector. These are workers who do not have a regular employer-employee relationship and who work under conditions of economic and social insecurity. In the urban areas this sector includes workers in small manufacturing, street vending, domestic services, transport and so on. The size of the unorganized sector has grown and now accounts for 91.5% of the workforce,2 including rural workforce. Unfortunately, we do not have reliable figures on the size of the unorganized sector in urban areas. However, if we take as a proxy those who earn a regular wage or salary as an indicator of their being in the organized sector, then the size of the unorganized sector varies from 65% in small towns to 46% in larger cities.


Size of the Unorganized Sector Across Different Town Sizes



Size of town by population

Regular wage and salary earners as per cent of total workers

Self-employed, casual labour and others (unorganized sector)

Upto 50,000



From 50,000 to 200,000



From 200,000 to 400,000



From 400,000 to 1,000,000

49 %


Above 1,000,000



Source: Dubey, et al., p. 15.



In general, the earnings of this sector are much lower than that of the organized sector. Studies have shown that the earnings of the informal sector are about one-third that of formal sector workers.3 At the same time their work is insecure, in that they are not sure of their earnings the next day.

Of those within the urban informal sector, a large number are street vendors. Estimates show that about 15% of the urban informal sector workforce are street vendors – self-employed persons who earn their living by selling in the streets. These vendors can be mobile, moving from place to place, or they can be stationary, selling from a fixed place in the market or street corner.



It is difficult to describe a ‘typical’ street vendor. The street vendor may be a little girl sitting at the street corner selling green masala, or he may be a mustached man with a cellular phone selling electronic items in the heart of a metro commercial centre. He may be a small farmer selling his vegetables in the urban haat (market), or she may be an embroiderer selling cushion covers to tourists. Whatever their specificity, all street vendors are part of the vast urban informal sector and depend on this uncertain form of entrepreneurship to earn a living.

Both men and women vendors are found all over the country. The number of women vendors tends to decrease in the North, as well as in large size cities, whereas it is higher in the South and North East. In Meghalaya, for example, women constitute about 70% of vendors, whereas in Kanpur they are about 20%. In Mumbai about 17% vendors are female whereas in Patna 21% and Bangalore 44%. Street vendors are drawn from all castes and communities although a majority tend to belong to backward castes or the Muslim community. In some cities even members of upper-castes, especially Banias, take to street trading.

Their literacy level is usually low since they start going out on the streets at a young age. The variation in levels is, however, a reflection of the region they come from. The proportion of illiterate street vendors in Varanasi for example is 52%, whereas in Mangalore it is only 25%.

Street vendors learn their trade from family members. Children start at an early age since the entire family is involved in vending. From haggling in wholesale markets at 4 am, to walking the roads in the middle class colonies for eight hours a day, street vending is not only labour intensive, it involves hard physical work. Although many street traders buy wholesale and sell retail, many others especially in smaller towns tend to be producers as well. Family members of food vendors tend to prepare food at home to sell in the streets, artisans make their own products to vend, farmers bring in their produce from the rural areas.



Vendor earnings vary greatly, depending on their location, the city and the product. Generally, mobile vendors earn less than stationary ones, those selling perishable goods like vegetables or fish earn less than those dealing in industrial goods like garments and electronics, and vendors in small towns and those selling in residential areas earn less than those in large cities selling in commercial centres. Women, who tend to be mobile and sell mainly perishables, on average earn less than men. In Lucknow, for example, the median earning was found to be about Rs 50 per day whereas in Mumbai it was close to Rs 100.

Like other entrepreneurs or businesspersons, street vendors too need capital. Unfortunately, since they are perceived as a ‘nuisance’ or ‘obstruction’ rather than as entrepreneurs, the banks tend to disregard their need for capital. The result is that they are forced to borrow from private moneylenders or wholesalers, paying on average 100% to 125% interest on their loans. Often, the rate may be even higher at 10% per day, i.e., over 300%! This exorbitantly high rate tends to be a major drain on their income.



In addition to high interest charges they also have to pay ‘costs’ for being ‘allowed’ to sell. Some of these costs are ‘legal’ – daily payments or tehbazari charged by municipalities, fines for traffic violations or payments to municipality for release of confiscated goods. Others are, however, illegal and take the form of bribes to the police, municipal officials or to local strongmen. A study for the city of Ahmedabad indicates that while the legal fees paid to the city by street traders in 1998 was Rs 5.6 crore, illegal fees paid was Rs 5.5 crore.

Since street vendors practically spend their entire life in public spaces dealing with all types of people, they tend to become brash and hardened. However, the major problem they face is the exposure to violence. Violence from the police is a fact of life. Violence from municipal authorities or from goondas leaves them feeling perpetually threatened. For women the problem is far worse, involving sexual harassment as well as beatings. The violence is accompanied by uncertainty and fear, when they run at the appearance of the municipal or police vans. On the other hand, their easy manner and bantering attract people to them. They tend to enjoy life interacting with many different types of people, often develop close relationships with customers and like other businesspersons, use social skills to enhance their business.

Street vending is covered by a multitude of laws from municipal and traffic to criminal laws, from railway acts to laws covering parks and other public spaces. In most laws the sections concerning vendors are based on earlier legislation, many of which can be traced back to British laws, more specifically the Poor Laws, enacted in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century.

Most laws deny a person the right to sell in a public space, unless the authority incharge of that space gives him or her the permission to vend. In other words, the public authority has discretion to allow or disallow vending. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has ruled that street vending is a fundamental right and decreed that it is the duty of the authorities to provide means for the hawkers to sell.

This is where perceptions distort reality. Most public authorities, although empowered to do so, refuse to permit street vending. They grant permission only to a small percentage of actual street vendors, leaving the vast majority as ‘illegal’. Under a different and sympathetic gaze, the vendors could easily be assimilated into the city-scape. Unfortunately, since most street vendors are ‘illegal’ they are subject to the worst abuse by police, municipal authorities and goondas. To defend themselves they seek protection of politicians and criminals and pay bribes. Instead of experiencing a harmonious relationship with their city, they become an excuse for confrontation and discord.



There are many reasons why the street vendors should be perceived positively and seen as an integral part of the city.

They create their own employment: Unemployment is a major problem in the country. Organized industry is shrinking and jobs are near impossible to come by. In such a situation any sector which provides employment needs to be encouraged. As urban populations grow there is an escalating need for trade and services which is met by the informal sector. This sector generates its own employment, the people earn their own living and do not ask the government for jobs. If their employment is destroyed, it will only increase the ranks of the unemployed, create pressure on the economy, darken the future prospects of their children and may even induce criminal activity.

They reduce poverty: Poverty is perhaps India’s biggest burden. More than 50% of the children are malnourished; illiteracy is one of the highest in the world. The primary reason for poverty is a lack of remunerative employment. As poor people get economic security they first attain a minimum level of nutrition and then begin to spend on other necessities like housing, health care and education for children. Street vending is a route that poor people take to move out of poverty. Destroying their livelihood would mean pushing a larger number under the poverty line.

They provide an important service: The street vendors reach fruits, vegetables, fish, flowers, ready foods, clothes, household goods and a wide variety of necessities and even luxury goods to people in the cities. They make these goods available at the most convenient places – at the doorstep, on the way home from office, near the market place, at bus stops, all at affordable prices; a full meal near your office on the Calcutta streets costs only Rs 10! Without street vendors the expenses of the middle class and the poor would definitely increase, not to mention the inconvenience and cost of travelling to far-off shopping centres.

They contribute to economic growth: Since we perceive the street vendors as marginal, their economic contribution is not realised. In fact, due to the large number of vendors, their trade constitutes a substantial part of the city’s economy. In Mumbai, for example, it is estimated that the annual turnover of the street vendors of the city is over Rs 6000 crore. They combine employment and growth in a labour intensive industry!

They are a part of culture and tradition: The early morning flower seller, fruit vendor, coconut seller, idli maker, peanut vendor, the chatwallah are all part of our public culture. To drive them away and replace them by supermarkets would destroy a part of our own being and certainly stint the growth of our collective psyche and self-definition.



It is no one’s case that street vendors may sit wherever they like, at all places all over the city. Rather that if we plan for and accommodate them in the city spaces, they will not obstruct other essential functions such as traffic flow. The reason that vendors now seem such a nuisance is that there is no place for them, and so any place they occupy belongs to some other function. It is therefore necessary to evolve both national and state policies on street vendors which could feed into urban plans and schemes. We would like to propose three broad principles which should guide the plans that would be formulated by towns and cities.

Preservation and promotion of employment: Every city has a large number of street vendors who earn an honest livelihood without being a burden on any system. Although exact numbers are not available, studies indicate that there are about 200,000 street vendors in Delhi, 2,50,000 in Mumbai, 100,000 in Ahmedabad, 50,000 in Patna and so on. These vendors generate not only their own employment but also support a large number of producers who depend on them for their sales. Since the government is unable to provide employment to these vendors and producers it has no right to snatch away the employment that they have created through their own entrepreneurship.



The first and most important principle is that any scheme must preserve existing employment. Equally, that it should promote future employment which will be needed as the city grows.

Indian culture of public spaces and service to consumers: The vendors provide an important service to the consumers. Street vending is a part of Indian culture. Unlike the West where the culture places an emphasis on privacy and individualism, ours is an open and community-based culture. In western societies, most activity happens behind closed doors, whereas in India the public spaces, especially the streets, are the sites for interaction. Open markets, street corner markets, weekly haats, door to door service are a part of our tradition and culture.

Street vendors are both part of our tradition and yet integrated into the modern markets. They are traditional entrepreneurs providing modern goods. The consumers prefer them because they are cheaper and often provide better service than the shops. Over half the urban population with lower incomes is totally dependent on them. The better-off consumers too buy at least 50% of their needs from them. The street vendors constitute 2% to 3% of the urban population, i.e., for every 30 to 50 persons there is one vendor. Or for every 6 to 10 families there is one street vendor to serve them. The second major principle is that every project should ensure service to and convenience of the consumers.

Economic growth and commerce: It has to be recognised that the hawkers are an essential part of the city’s commercial system. For example, it has been calculated on a conservative estimate that the hawkers of Mumbai city have an estimated turnover of Rs 6000 crore a year in addition to providing direct and indirect employment to more than 400,000 persons. Given the above, it is necessary to recognise vendors as a full-fledged rather than marginal sector of the economy. The third principle is to increase the earnings and commercial possibilities of the street vendors through both space allocation as well as other inputs such as credit.

Each city ends up creating certain ‘natural markets’. Even when suppressed by police and municipal authorities, these markets take on a life of their own.



Similarly, every city has its own locational arrangements. Within these arrangements the consumers prefer to buy their products in different ways. In cities with a longitudinal layout and where travel time consumes a large part of the day (as in Mumbai), the consumers prefer to access goods along the travel routes. In cities where there is a separation of commercial and residential areas, consumers prefer to buy certain goods such as fruits and vegetables nearer the home and other goods in commercial areas.

Although the natural markets will vary according to the city’s layout, there are certain principles which generally apply to all cities. For example: (i) The need for fruit, coconuts and cooked food outside hospitals for the patients and relatives; (ii) the need for prasad, garlands, coconuts and so on outside mandirs and Kurans,topis outside masjids; (iii) the need for fruit, cold drinks, cooked food, pan-bidi, travel items outside railway stations; (iv) the need for fresh fruit, vegetables, fishes, cutlery (i.e. small household goods) near residential colonies; (v) the need for cooked food, pan-bidi, cold drinks and stationary items outside offices; (vi) the need for snacks, drinks and small household items near bus stops; (vii) the need for snacks, drinks, amusement items near parks.

In addition, there are specialised markets such as for garments, old clothes, second hand furniture and so on. Furthermore, special markets are needed during festival times. All these natural markets exist in residential as well as commercial zones, although their nature is different.



The street vendor, in many ways, is a metaphor for the interactions in the urban areas. He/she symbolizes the link between rich and poor, formal and informal, public and private, trade and production. These interactions have many sides, some pleasant and productive, some discordant and confrontational. In order to build a stable urban culture, we need to reduce confrontation by opening forums for dialogue and accommodation to enable all sections of the population to live and interact in harmony with each other.



1. Chandan Sengupta, p. 5.

2. Sarla Gopalan.

3. Unni, p. 58.




Amaresh Dubey, Shubhashis Gangopadhyay and Wilima Wadhwa, Occupational Structure and Incidence of Poverty in Indian Towns of Different Sizes, 1999.

Sarala Gopalan, Women and Employment in India, Har-Anand, New Delhi, 1995.

Fareeda Jalees, Survey Report of Kanpur Street Vendors, unpublished, 1999.

Renana Jhabvala, ‘Interventions in the Labour Market: The Case of Sewa’, in T.S. Papola and Alakh N. Sharma (eds), Gender and Employment in India, Vikas, New Delhi, 1999.

Renana Jhabvala, Poor Women in Urban Areas, SEWA, Ahmedabad, 1999.

Renu Khosla, Scheme for Urban Micro Enterprises. Draft submitted to the Ministry, 1999.

D.D. Malhotra, Synthesis Report of the UBSP Benchmark Survey. National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi, 1997.

Arup Mitra, Urbanisation, Slums, Informal Sector Employment and Poverty, 1994.

Swapna Mukhopadhyay, Role of the Informal Sector in Urban Poverty Alleviation in India, 1991.

National Accounts Statistics, Central Statistical Organisation, Ministry of Planning and Programme Implementation, Government of India, 1997.

NCAER, The India Infrastructure Report (Volume I, II, III), Policy Imperatives for Growth and Welfare, Expert Group on the Commercialisation of Infrastructure Projects. National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, 1996.

NIUA, Compendium of Indian Slums, TCPO and NIUA, Delhi, 1985.

NIUA, Handbook of Urban Statistics, 1993.

NIUA, India’s Urban Sector. Profile Research Studies Series Number 61, National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi, 1998.

T.S. Papola and Alakh N. Sharma (eds), Gender and Employment in India, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1999.

Sandipan Deb (ed), The India Infrastructure Report: Policy Imperatives for Growth and Welfare, NCAER, New Delhi, 1996.

T.S. Sankaran and V.R. Rao, The Urban Informal Sector in India. A Study of Govindpuri (Delhi), Jaishankar Memorial Centre and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, New Delhi, 1995.

Shramshakti, Report of the National Commission on Self Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector. Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, New Delhi, 1988.

Surjit Singh, Urban Informal Sector, Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 1994.

Social Dimensions of Urban Poverty. Seminar held at Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 3-5 March 1999.

The World Bank, India: Achievements and Challenges in Reducing Poverty. A World Bank Country Study, The World Bank, Washington D.C., 1997.

The World Bank, Reducing Poverty in India: Options for More Effective Public Services. A World Bank Country Study, Washington D.C., 1998.

Jeemol Unni, SEWA-NCAER Project on Contribution of the Informal Sector to National Income Research Unit, SEWA, Ahmedabad, 1998.

Pravin Visaria, Urbanisation in India: An Overview. Working Paper No.52, Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, 1993.