Justice on streets: need to make space for vendors

Street vendors supply an array of goods and services, including vegetables and household products. They have been providing cheap and reliable options for consumers. They also form an integral part of the city’s urban landscape. However, it is not an uncommon sight to see street vendors sending panic signalsto each other about the arrival of police or the strewn wares on the road after a police raid.This is a common occurrence. Such eviction of street vendors across the country is a reality, despite the law that seeks to protect them.

Not only do street vendors provide affordable goods, they also contribute in making the streets safer by their presence. The Justice Verma Committee on criminal law reforms observes that, “Street vendors should be encouraged to make the bus stops and footpaths safe for communities and pedestrians”. Their contribution to urban poverty alleviation has also been acknowledged by the Standing Committee on Urban Development which cites street vending“as a source of self-employment without major government initiatives.”

More than these instrumental values of street vendors, vending on the streets is primarily a question of fundamental right to live and to carry on the occupation of your choice as guaranteed under our Constitution.

Vendors are often dismissed as encroachers and as illegal. However, this is far from the truth. The 2014 law and the constitution confirm their right and ensure that street vending has a legal basis. While there is a witchhunt on the alleged encroachment by vendors, encroachment by rich and affluent establishments are left unquestioned.

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Protected by the Law

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act came into force in 2014. This Act was a result of many years of activism at the grass-root levels by various street vendor groups across the country. The Act draws from the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009 and the Supreme Court’s decision in Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union vs. Municipal Corporation, Greater Mumbai and seeks to safeguard the rights of street vendors. The Act inter-alia provides for the formation of bodies to protect and regulate street vending. In particular, it provides for the prevention of harassment by police and other authorities against street vendors. Further, it also prohibits eviction of street vendors until a survey is conducted of all existing vendors by the urban local body.

The rules, scheme, plan and byelaws under this Act are in the process of being formulated and would seek to address concerns left unattended in the Act. The formulation of these rules is vital for the realization of the objectives of the street vendors act. Unfortunately, the drafting of these rules are being delayed to the detriment of vendors. Further, there is a lurking fear that these legal instrumentsand the bureaucratic structures that they prescribe would regulate more rather than protecting the rights of street vendors. One could only hope that their rights do not get lost in the bureaucracy. Despite these fears, the law is nevertheless a welcome move.

Persecuted by law-makers

Though the law makes it amply clear that there shall be no evictions until a survey is conducted, it is an unfortunate reality that evictions are continuing on a daily basis. The reasons for eviction range from complaints received by various residents’ welfare associations who have problems with the smell of non-vegetarian food which in turn, they claim, attracts drunken rowdies; traffic concerns, and other unexpressed concerns.

Further, there is increased intolerance toward stationary vendors though the law does not make any distinction between stationary and mobile vendors.

It is an easy option to blame street vendors for mismanagement of traffic by the police or for law and order situations that are not even remotely connected to the vendors. For instance, traffic is peaking as people are not availing public transport and are choosing to use private vehicles. Also, most congested junctions are not even the ones where vendors are vending.But by putting the blame squarely on vendors, the authorities get an opportunity to deflect from the real issues which stay unaddressed.

Street vendors have also faced the ire of the policein the form of prosecution against them under Section 92(g) of the Karnataka Police Act, 1963and Section 283 of the Indian Penal Code both of which pertain to causing obstruction on footpaths and public way. These provisions are not at all intended to prohibit street vending andprosecutions under these provisions are blatantly antithetical to the rights of street vendors and are in contravention to the provisions of the Street Vendors Act.
 Justice on streets: need to make space for vendors-2In addition to the misuse of certain legal provisions against the vendors, they also face the wrath of the police through vulgar abuses and physical violence. At times they are threatenedwith having their goods illegally confiscated by the police.

At the core of arguments against street vending and the harassment faced by vendors is a deep-seated class bias by the state. The project of evicting street vendors is primarily for erasing them from the urban landscape to portray cities as beautiful spaces that are accessible only to a few.

The Tender SURE project is a case in point. Wide and sprawling foot paths have been laid as a part of this project. However, these footpaths do not accommodate vendors. Though it is claimed that street vendors have been allocated space, they are invisible on these roads on which they were once thriving.

Development is the buzz word these days. No doubt development is needed. But the question is:who should benefit from this development and how is it to be attained? The absence of such critical reflection will only result in a lopsided urban growth. The case of street vendors is illustrative of this. A development model that envisages pushing street vendors out of the centre of the city or to put them on top floors of inaccessible malls would be the greatest disservice to them and their customers.

It is important to realize that in the absence of street vendors, we will be at the mercy of giant establishments charging steep prices and will be left with no alternatives.Street vendors must be treated as an integral part of urban economies.The consumers of goods from vendors should realize that it is time for them to act and see that the rights of street vendors are protected.

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