Street vendors are an integral part of urban economies around the world, offering easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public spaces. They sell everything from fresh vegetables to prepared foods, usually with a stall or van or with their goods laid out on the sidewalk.
Vendors provide a wide array of goods and commodities to the urban populace at reasonable prices and convenient locations. The type of goods they sell makes an interesting study – from daily needs like vegetables, fruits, fish, meat and snacks to occasional needs like flowers and readymade garments. The middle and lower class consumer specifically prefers to purchase from them, though even well-off citizens purchase many commodities given reasonable prices. Vending has been a profession since time immemorial, with street vendors an integral part of our urban history and culture. Low barriers to entry, limited start- up cost, and flexible hours are some of the factors that draw street vendors to the occupation. Many people enter street vending because they cannot find a job in the formal economy. Every one of us knows that education is expensive and in order for some to earn money some of them engage themselves in street vending. But surviving as a street vendor requires a certain amount of skill competition among vendors for space in the streets and access to costumers is strong in many cities and vendors must be able to negotiate effectively with wholesalers and costumers.
Vendors exhibit remarkable entrepreneurial skills. Purchasing of commodities is no easy task with constant market fluctuations. Besides, middlemen have a major say in the wholesale markets. Commodities have to be in sync with both consumer tastes and paying capacity. As most vendors deal in perishables, the goods have to be sold at the right time.
Studies show that the largest concentration of vendors is in the age group 16-35 years. It indicates that vending involves enormous physical labor. A vendor starts early in the morning with the day’s purchase. The marketing place is invariably far from his residence. Bringing large sacks of vegetables and fruits and loading them in a rickshaw cart is a tedious job. Arranging, cleaning, sorting, weighing and dealing with customers is not easy. Hawkers are on the move from one lane to another irrespective of the heat, wind, rain and cold. Calling out loud to attract buyers, consumes time and energy.
It is really hard to sell in the streets, but the vendors has no choice but to stay in the scorching heat of the sun just to have money for the needs of their family.
Nevertheless, our planners remain oblivious to the role of vendors who are victimized, harassed, marginalized and pushed from one area to another. Rolling stones gather no moss; so it is with the hawkers. Pushed to the city in search of employment, they take to vending as self-employment for it is an easier option, perhaps the most promising avenue for the poor. Many vendors were erstwhile workers, who after the closure of mills and factories took to vending. Some are victims of displacement caused by developmental projects. Sometimes they are survivors of natural disasters. Often they are simply looking for work.
Vendors are regularly subjected to mental and physical pressures by city officials. At times this has led to riotous situations, loss of property, or monetary loss. A major problem is that master plans prepared for our cities do not allocate space to vendors/hawkers, as planners blindly imitate the western concept of marketing, ignoring Indian traditions. No wonder, weekly markets struggle to survive and natural markets are ignored. The policy statements of the regional development authorities talk of making provision for trading and commercial activities, which unfortunately is interpreted as making provision for rich traders and big business.
The vendors have to deal with multiple authorities – the Municipal Corporation, police (thana as well as traffic), regional development authorities, district administration, local panchayats and so on. This leads to exploitation and extortion. In many cases the positive steps taken by one authority are nullified by the actions of others.
The municipal corporation laws, based as they are on 19th century British practice, are outdated and detrimental to the peaceful conduct of business by vendors. Harassment stems from an absence of official recognition of the rights of street selling and vendors’ lack of political and economic power. Instead of regulating vendors, municipal corporations treat them as a nuisance and an irritant; their policies and actions are aimed more at removing and harassing them rather than at regulation. For example, in cities like Patna and Luck now, the contract for collecting municipal tax is auctioned off to contractors who exploit the vendors to the hilt, such that despite payment of tax they have no security of selling. Given the cap on the number of licenses permitted, corruption becomes endemic. Besides, the government also loses massive revenue since even a nominal daily tax would raise crores.
In their work, vendors have to confront the many arms of the police: railway, traffic and thana, and in the case of those commuting from forest areas, the forest police. The police also play a major role in evictions. As such, vendors are forced to dance to the tune of the police, paying bribes in cash and/or as goods.
In many cities vendors have to part with substantial money in order to ply their trade. Many cities have launched ‘beautification’ drives to attract foreign capital, which have intensified the eviction process. Many citizens groups too have joined the campaign against vendors, believing falsely that cities without vendors would be clean. As a result, a large portion of vendor’s income is drained away and he/she is not able to carry on the business with dignity and peace.
Voices have been raised against harassment, torture and exploitation by the police/municipal authorities with every city witnessing protests by vendors. Some organizations have even established links with political parties, whose intervention have temporarily helped resolve matters. Most, however, prefer to independently negotiate with the officials. Agitations and demonstrations have helped build solidarity and generate pressure on the officials.
These protests have helped the unions in gaining relief – stopping of evictions, extortion by police and anti-social elements, issuing of licenses, allotment of space and construction of markets, declaration of hawking zones and so on. In most cases, the administration only responds by making cosmetic changes. A holistic approach and a genuine desire to settle matter amicably between all stakeholders has, however, remained elusive.
Street vending is not an easy thing to do there are so many hardships that they are encountering every day just to earn money for their family’s needs. We should never underestimate them because street vending is a noble job.