A raw deal?

Sharit K. Bhowmik

back to issue

Workers in the informal sector account for around 92% of the total workforce in India. According to the 1991 census the total number of employed was 317 million. Of these only 27 million were employed in the organized sector and the rest were in the unorganized sector, a majority of them self-employed. Hawkers and street vendors fall in this category and constitute a significant proportion of the urban informal sector.

This paper examines the various perceptions about hawkers, especially those of the civic authorities, sections of the urban population and the hawkers themselves. Much of the data is based on preliminary results of a study of hawkers in eight cities conducted by the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India (NASVI).*

It may be recalled that Hart developed the concept of an ‘informal sector’ in his study of markets in Ghana.1 He found that there were scores of villagers who migrated to the towns to sell their products while others hired out their services as casual labour. Since these people rendered services which were unlicensed, or did not involve legal contracts and were thus unprotected, they were categorised as the informal sector.

It was believed that as these societies developed the informal sector would be absorbed into the formal/organized sector. This belief was subsequently found to be incorrect. Far from being absorbed into the organized sector, the informal/unorganized sector has in fact expanded in all countries, including developed ones. However, what is significant is that it was through the existence of hawkers that the concept of an informal sector was developed. Hawkers, thus, are not only a significant part of the informal sector but an integral part of the urban economy.

Hawkers perform a number of services for the urban population, especially for the economically weaker sections. They sell cooked food, fresh vegetables, household goods, clothes and other articles of consumption. Their rates are usually lower than those charged by shops and stores and hence affordable to the urban poor. Moreover, their services are easily accessible to consumers.

In most Indian cities, the urban poor survive by working in the informal sector. Poverty and lack of gainful employment in the rural areas and smaller towns drives large numbers to the cities for work and livelihood. These people generally possess low skills and lack the education required for betterpaid jobs in the organized sector. Besides, permanent/protected jobs in the organized sector are shrinking; hence even those with the requisite skills are unable to find proper employment. For these people, work in the informal sector is the only avenue for survival. This has led to a rapid growth of the informal sector in most metropolitan cities.

In 1961, for example, 65% of Mumbai’s workforce was employed in the organized sector while 35% in the unorganized/informal sector.2 Thirty years later, in 1991, the proportion had reversed and only 35% of those employed were in the organized sector and the rest in the informal sector.3 For the urban poor, hawking provides a major avenue of earning a livelihood as it requires minor financial inputs and low skills. A large section of the urban hawkers are either illiterate or with only a few years of schooling.4 A study of hawkers in Mumbai showed that onefourth of them were illiterate. The cost of the wares they sold varied between Rs 500 and Rs 2000.5



These factors have led to a growing population of hawkers in the major Indian cities. Mumbai has the largest number, around 200,000; Ahmedabad and Patna 80,000 each and Indore and Bangalore 30,000 hawkers. Calcutta has more than 100,000 hawkers. They in turn provide additional employment to many others who assist them in their work. The total employment provided through hawking is therefore fairly large.

Besides, many of the goods sold by hawkers, such as clothes and hosiery, leather and moulded plastic goods, and household items are manufactured in smallscale or homebased industries. These industries employ a large number of workers. The manufacturers could hardly have marketed the products on their own. Hawkers, therefore, not only provide a market for manufacturers, they also help sustain employment in industry. These aspects are, however, ignored by the urban authorities – the municipality and the police – because more often than not, hawking is considered an illegal activity and hawkers are treated as criminals. Below, we review municipal laws prevalent in some cities.



Let us start with Calcutta. The Left Front government which has ruled the state of West Bengal for 23 years, boasts of propeople and propoor policies. However, for the hawkers it was perhaps the harshest regime. The state government and the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, which too is controlled by constituents of the Left Front, launched the most severe attacks on hawkers. On the night of 2627 November 1996, nearly 100,000 hawkers were forcibly evicted by the police and municipal authorities and their goods, valued at crores of rupees, confiscated. Operation Sunshine was by all accounts the most brutal action against vendors. No other municipality in the country has resorted to such extreme measures to suppress the urban poor.

But matters did not end there. In 1997, the state legislature, through an amendment of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act, declared any form of unauthorised occupation of streets and pavements by hawkers a cognisable and nonbailable offence. Such an offence could lead to imprisonment or imposition of a fine or both.6 What is more appalling is that while offences such as rape and homicide are bailable, a vendor who attempts to eke out an existence by selling goods on the street is considered a dangerous criminal.



The government was unable to enforce this legislation because of resistance from the hawkers. During Operation Sunshine, all unions of hawkers in the city, with the exception of those affiliated to CITU, formed a joint front known as Hawkers’ Sangram Committee. This organization was effective in preventing further eviction of hawkers and in rehabilitating those evicted.

Though municipal and police laws elsewhere are not as severe as those in Calcutta, they too tend to curb hawking. In Patna, hawkers are restricted by the Bihar Police Act (section 34) which states that any person exposing goods for sale on the streets is liable to arrest by the police without a warrant. The magistrate can impose a fine or sentence the guilty to jail. The municipalities in Karnataka are expected to provide licenses for hawkers who sell vegetables and provide suitable spaces for them. However, licenses can be granted only for permanent structures (shops, kiosks, etc.).7 Most hawkers selling vegetables near the municipal markets in Bangalore squat on the pavements and are thus ineligible.

In Mumbai and Ahmedabad hawkers are evicted mainly under sections 102 and 107 of the Bombay Police Act (this act and the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act are applicable to Maharashtra and Gujarat). These sections stipulate that anyone preventing smooth flow of traffic can be arrested. The Bombay Municipal Corporation Act prevents anyone from selling goods or blocking pavements without a license. Incidentally, the BMC issued only 14,000 licenses whereas there were over 200,000 hawkers in the city.



The right to regulate the streets rests with two authorities – the traffic police for motorable roads, and the municipal corporation for use of pavements. The latter is empowered to remove illegal construction or encroachment on the pavements. When hawkers are evicted, their goods are confiscated by the municipal authorities. A fine has to be paid before the confiscated goods are returned. At times, as in the case of handcart sellers in Mumbai, the fine (Rs 5,000) often exceeds the value of confiscated goods.

Most cities have police and municipal laws that help to protect public spaces and allow free flow of traffic on the roads. Hawkers are the victims of these laws because they are viewed as the main obstructers and encroachers. The many other forms of encroachment are overlooked by the municipal authorities and the police. The rapid increase of vehicles on roads creates problems, not only of traffic congestion but also of parking space. Shops often encroach onto pavements by illegal extensions; nor is it uncommon to find residents grabbing public space in front of their houses/buildings for private gardens. Such encroachments are tolerated and in most cases regularised by the municipal authorities. Municipalities rarely pull down illegal extensions by the shop owners; they are content with issuing them notices and at times imposing a fine.



In order to prevent illegal parking, municipalities create parking lots in public spaces. For example, in the upmarket south Mumbai area, the wide roads in Fort and Mahatma Phule market were cordonedoff for parking. In fact, the wide pavement opposite the Municipal Corporation’s office was made into a car park. On several of the city’s pavements the government has set up hundreds of permanent counters for selling food,8 allegedly for the poor. These structures occupy more than half the pavement and obstruct pedestrians more drastically than the hawkers. Moreover, these are permanent constructions which cannot be removed while hawkers can be relocated if necessary. Yet the flak for creating congestion on the roads is borne only by the hawkers.

Who are the hawkers? Our findings are based on a socioeconomic study conducted by NASVI of hawkers in some cities (see fn. 4). The researchers in each of the cities covered around 300 hawkers from different areas selling a variety of items.

It was found that a majority of the hawkers were males. Ahmedabad had a large section of women vendors while Calcutta few women vendors. Imphal on the other hand had only women vendors. In the other cities more than 60% of the hawkers were males. Not surprisingly, the volume of trade of female hawkers was much lower. In Ahmedabad and in Mumbai, women hawkers usually sold vegetables, flowers and fruits in small quantities. The women were poor and needed to hawk in order to supplement the meagre family earnings. In Imphal too, where hawkers were exclusively women, they were from the poorer section of the population.



As mentioned earlier, people with low level skills take to hawking as a form of existence. In Mumbai and Bangalore around 25% of the hawkers were illiterate, the proportion being higher in the other cities. Around 80% of the hawkers in the cities covered by the survey were either illiterate or had read up to middle school (eighth standard). The others had completed high school and a few were graduates. The most common reason for joining this profession was because hawking was considered more respectable than other jobs available in the unorganized sector. Another important reason was the low investment required. They could start by using their own savings or borrowing from friends and relatives. In Mumbai, we found a number of respondents (20% of the sample) who were earlier employed as workers in the organized sector (mainly textile mills) but had lost their jobs due to a closure of the mills.

The daily income of the hawkers ranged from Rs 50 to Rs 1,000. The survey conducted by TISSYUVA in Mumbai (see fn. 5) computed the average income as between Rs 50 to Rs 80 per day. Our study showed that incomes varied but most women earned between Rs 30 and Rs 60 whereas the men earned between Rs 50 and Rs 150. In Patna and Bhubaneshwar the average income of a hawker was Rs 50 a day, i.e., around Rs 1,500 a month and in Bangalore none of the hawkers earned more than Rs 3,000 a month. Hence, across cities the income was more or less similar – ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 100 per day.

The above mentioned income does not include bribes or protection money paid by hawkers to the local authorities (municipal and police) and local gangsters. The NASVI study found that hawkers parted with between 10% to 20% of their earnings to authorities and goons who acted as their ‘protectors’. The situation was more or less the same in other cities covered by this study.



The intensity of extortion varied between cities as also in areas within the city. In areas where unions had resisted police and municipal harassment, the collection of bribes was low. In some areas the local union, usually run by gangsters, undertook regular collections from the hawkers as protection money. A part of the collection was handed over to the police. Besides these collections, hawkers were constantly pressurised by local youth during festivals (Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, Durga Puja and Kali Puja in Calcutta). The total income of a hawker was thus considerably reduced.

In order to earn their meagre livelihood, hawkers needed to put in at least 10 to 14 hours of hard work. Those who sold perishable goods like fruits and vegetables spent an additional couple of hours in the morning to procure these goods from the wholesale markets or through agents. In Imphal, for example, the markets were at their peak from 6.30 to 8.30 am. The women selling fish and vegetables started work at 4 am and returned home at around 12 noon. They came back to the market at 5 pm and got back to their homes only at 8.30 pm. In the other cities hawkers spent at least 12 hours at work. In some cases, as in Patna, where they had to walk long distances from their homes, the time spent was between 14 to 16 hours.



Few hawkers lived near their place of work. Hawkers in the working class areas of central Mumbai (Lal Bagh, Parel, etc.) resided in nearby chawls or hutments, but even there they worked from 10 am till 8.30 pm. Those at other places, especially the business district in south Mumbai, travelled long distances by suburban trains or by bus. For example, we found that a large section of hawkers in the Fort area lived in the suburbs. They closed their business at 10 pm while they left their homes at 7 am.

In Patna, only 21% of the hawkers had workplaces near their homes while 53% travelled 10 to 12 kms. They did so on foot as the other forms of transport (autorickshaw or cyclerickshaw) were too expensive. This added another three hours in commuting time. A large number of hawkers in Calcutta, especially those selling cut fruits and food items in the business district of BBD BaghEsplanade and those selling vegetables near the municipal markets, resided in the neighbouring villages of the city. They left their homes at 4 am to collect goods and boarded suburban trains at 6 or 7 am in order to reach their places of work by 9 or 10 am.

The remuneration for hawkers was poor compared to the effort they had to put in. An overwhelmingly large number of hawkers worked under immense physical strain in order to earn a living. Besides, they were under constant fear of eviction and harassment.

In order to assess the views of those who bought goods from hawkers, the NASVI study interviewed around 150 consumers from each of the cities. We note below some of the main findings.

In general it was found that the economically weaker sections of urban society – the lower middle class and the poor – were the main beneficiaries as they procured their necessities at lower costs from the hawkers. The study found that even those from the betteroff sections of society patronised hawkers. In Mumbai the richer sections bought fruit and vegetable while the youth purchased clothes from them. The garment sellers in Fashion Street and Colaba Causeway, both in south Mumbai, Linking Road in Bandra in the western suburbs, had regular clients from the upper classes. The vegetable markets in Bandra, Ville Parle railway station and Santa Cruz (west) had clients who were economically betteroff. However, a majority of the consumers were from the middle and lower middle classes.



The main beneficiaries of the food hawkers in Mumbai were the poorer sections, especially those working in offices and commercial establishments. It is estimated that around 30% of Mumbai’s workforce ate at least one meal a day buying from hawkers. The food they got was cheap and filling. These people would have spent far more if they ate in restaurants. In Mumbai the average middle class consumer spent around Rs 1,000 a month in purchases from hawkers for household consumption. The expenditure would be higher if it included the purchases of cigarettes, pan etc. Those from the lower middle class and the poor spent between Rs 500 to Rs 800 per month.

The survey in Calcutta showed that 82% of the consumers bought vegetables daily, or more than three times a week, from hawkers. Other items purchased from them included pan and cigarettes, tea and snacks, and newspapers and periodicals while at work. It was found that on average the middle class consumer spent Rs 1,700 a month in purchases from hawkers. Consumers in Bangalore (95%) spent between Rs 5 and Rs 100 on purchases from hawkers each day. In Ahmedabad 68% of the consumers, all of whom belonged to lower middle class or the poor, purchased goods worth Rs 550 to Rs 1,000 a month. For those belonging to the middle class, purchases were around Rs 1,500 a month.



In the other cities too it was found that a middle class consumer purchased goods worth more than Rs 1,000 a month from hawkers while those from the lower middle class bought goods worth Rs 800. While comparing the income of the different groups with the purchases from hawkers, it was found that the proportion of the income spent in buying from hawkers was definitely higher as the income levels decreased. In these cities, besides purchasing the basic necessities from fair price (ration) shops, the lower middle class and the poor bought all their requirements from hawkers.

In Mumbai, consumers preferred hawkers because services were provided at convenient places, saving them time. They felt that hawkers near their homes and near the railway stations were most conveniently placed. This was important as it saved time and energy after a long day’s work.

In Patna 76% of the consumers preferred hawkers because of convenience and saving of time while 44% preferred them because they provided fresh vegetables. In Bangalore 83% of the consumers purchased goods from hawkers who visited their homes (mobile hawkers) or at the local market. They felt that mobile hawkers were convenient and provided fresh and cheap vegetables. Consumers in Ahmedabad too preferred them for the same reasons. Onefourth of those interviewed patronised food hawkers because the food they sold was tasty.

While commenting on the negative aspects of hawking, consumers in all cities stated that they cluttered the pavements and roads and caused inconvenience to pedestrians. They also felt that hawkers contributed to the filth in the city. Other complaints included cheating in weighing; consumers in Patna and Ahmedabad complained about mobile vendors who disturbed them at odd hours.

Hawkers have been a part of the urban scenario for long and are now a feature of the life of our cities. However, this is not the only reason for their continuance. The increasing proportion of the urban informal sector coupled with a shrinking of the organized sector have added to the number of hawkers in two ways.



First, as noted earlier, for the low skilled migrants seeking employment in the city, hawking is a means of earning a livelihood. In this way a section of the urban poor are absorbed into gainful employment. Furthermore, the numbers have increased due to largescale layoffs in organized industry. Many retrenched workers are able to provide for their families by taking to street vending. The study conducted by NASVI shows that around 20% of the hawkers covered in Mumbai were once permanent employees in the organized sector.

In Ahmedabad, around 30% of the male hawkers had previously worked in large factories. In both cities a large number of factories, especially textile mills, had closed down. As a result, the composition of the workforce had significantly changed. It was noted earlier that over 65% of Mumbai’s workforce was in the unorganized sector and in Ahmedabad this sector engaged more than 75% of the city’s workforce. In both cities a decline in the manufacturing sector has led to a sharp increase in the services sector.



The second reason for an increase in hawkers is the growing number of urban poor. These people procure their basic necessities mainly through hawkers, as the goods sold are inexpensive. Had there been no hawkers in the cities, the plight of the urban poor and lower middle class would have been worse. It would have led to greater social problems and unrest. In this way one section of urban poor, namely, hawkers, helps another section to survive. Hence, though hawkers are viewed as a problem for urban governance, they are in fact a solution to the problems of the urban poor. By providing cheaper commodities hawkers are subsidising the urban poor, something which the government ought to do.

A proliferation of hawkers in the urban areas is mainly a result of the two factors discussed above. A ban on hawking will only aggravate the problems of the urban poor. It will not only deprive a section of the urban population from gainful employment but will increase the cost of living for the poor. This, in turn, will lead to an increase in crime affecting public safety. At the same time it cannot be disputed that hawkers do create problems for pedestrians and commuters. However, the solution lies not in banning or curbing hawking but in regulation. This can only be achieved once the municipal authorities stop treating hawkers as antisocial elements. Hawking can be regulated only if it is legalised.

So far we have examined different aspects of hawking. Though hawkers perform an important role in urban life their importance is considerably undermined by the government and local administration because most state legislatures have made hawking an illegal profession and hence hawkers are under constant threat of eviction and victimisation. At the same time it is evident that hawking cannot be done away with, not merely because of the large number of people who are dependent on it for their livelihood, but also because the common urban dweller benefits from their services. Hawkers exist because the consumers want them to exist.



There are no legal reasons for preventing hawking. In 1989 the Supreme Court, in a major judgement, ruled that every individual has a fundamental right to earn a livelihood.9 Hawking is thus a fundamental right provided it does not infringe on the rights of others. The Court directed all state governments to regularise hawking through zones. Despite the Court’s directive, few state governments have moved their municipal authorities to make adequate provisions for hawking. The municipal authorities in Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore have tried to create zones, but in most cases this has led to protests from hawkers as well as residents’ associations.

The unfortunate part of the above efforts is that the problem is looked at in a piecemeal manner. A broad and holistic approach is needed to find solutions. For example, while formulating urban plans it is necessary to take into account the right of hawkers to public spaces. All urban plans demarcate public spaces for specific purposes such as parks and gardens, educational institutions, hospitals and so on. Hawking too needs to be included in this exercise.

Plans must take into account the idea of natural markets in urban areas. These are usually the most convenient spots for consumers. These markets need to be developed and regulated; instead we find that the authorities forcibly try to remove them. For example, our survey of consumers in Mumbai showed that most of them bought goods from hawkers near the railway stations. Instead of developing the area around the stations as natural markets, the municipal corporation is determined to evict hawkers from these places. This will result in people losing their livelihood and the consumers being inconvenienced. Similarly, areas around municipal markets, major bus stops, places of worship, hospitals, public places emerge as natural markets which need to be developed.



The recognition of hawking as a profession would also benefit the municipality as it would be able to officially enforce levies. For example, in Imphal, which is perhaps the only city where hawkers are included in the urban plan, the municipality not only provides space for them but also charges a fee for garbage collection and sweeping, besides collecting licence fees. In a city like Mumbai such fees could amount to several hundred crores of rupees annually. Instead, the hawkers end up paying even more as bribes to prevent harassment.

For the hawkers, legal recognition would mean that they have a right to their profession, which would in turn loosen the stranglehold of corrupt officials, policemen and gangsters. It would enable them to raise loans from public institutions, thus reducing the hold moneylenders have over them.




* The author is the coordinator of the study initiated by NASVI on hawkers.

1. Keith Hart, ‘Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana’, Journal of Modern African Studies 11(1), 1973, pp. 6189.

2. Heather Joshi and Vijay Joshi, Surplus Labour and the City: A Study of Bombay, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1974.

3. Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Draft Plan for 19952005, Mumbai, 1997.

4. This is based on the data collected for a study carried out by the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) in eight cities. The cities are: Mumbai, Calcutta, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Patna, Bhubaneshwar, Imphal and Indore. A researcher was appointed in each of these cities to collect information on various aspects of hawking and street vending. This included municipal and police laws, study of urban plans to assess the use of public space, mapping of hawkers’ organizations, socioeconomic study of hawkers and the perception of consumers. Some of the data collected has been included in this paper.

5. ‘Census Survey of Hawkers on Municipal Lands’ conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) on behalf of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in March 1998.

6. ‘The Calcutta Municipal Corporation (Second Amendment) Bill, 1997’, The Calcutta Gazette, 19 November 1997, Calcutta.

7. Karnataka Municipalities (regulation and inspection of private markets, slaughterhouses and other places of sale of articles intended for human food) Byelaws, 1966.

8. These shops were supposed to provide zunka bhakar, a low cost traditional meal for the poor, and were given to the allegedly unemployed party cadre of the Shiv Sena. This project was discontinued within a couple of years of its inception. The shops were allowed to sell other eatables.

9. Sodhan Singh vs NDMC (1989, 4 SCC 155).