While the street vendors control roughly 30 per cent of the businesses, they face the full brunt of the authorities. The municipal officials subject them to all kinds of repressive acts and the police personeel fleece them through their system of hafta (weekly or monthly sum of money), which needs to be given so that the palms of the lower to the higher ranks of the police officials are greased.
The world woke up to the might of the street vendors through the revolution started by one of them in Tunisia, which later became the "Arab Spring', which later on embraced in its bosom a number of countries, including Egypt, Syria.
The story goes like this, that Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, was regularly harassed by local officials and the police and when his weighing scales was confiscated he set himself on fire outside the governor's office. His actions stirred the conscience of the public and the embers of fire that raged from his fleshes spread thick and fast in the Arabian countries, while toppling a number of dictatorships.
Notably, street vendors are an angry lot and have numbers on their sides. But they invariably lack the power to influence the policy makers, which subject them to a state of exploitations. In a bid to give voice to these large numbers of street vendors ekeing out their lives under duress caused by exploitative municipal and police officials, National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) had been mobilizing protests in various parts of the country and had recently even ghearoed the Parliament for which vendors from 15 states had come to Delhi.
The government waking up to the unabated plight of the street vendors appears now determined to regulate their trade and put in place policy to ward off their exploitations. So, the Union Cabinet recently approved a legislation to protect the livelihood of street vendors and provide them more legal vending space in urban areas. The housing and urban poverty alleviation (HUPA) ministry, which has drafted the legislation, has fixed the norms for permissible street vendors or hawkers in any city, zone or ward at 2.5 per cent of the respective population. So, Mumbai will have around 4.6 lakh legal vending space for hawkers, Delhi (4.07 lakh), Kolkata (3.5 lakh) and Chennai (2.17 lakh) once the draft legislation gets the approval of the Parliament.
In a precursor to the government's move to come up with a law for the street vendors, the Supreme Court in 2010 in a verdict had directed the government to convert the National Policy for Urban Street Vendors into a law on the grounds that the policy had not been able to ensure the fundamental right to livelihood of street vendors.
The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2013, which was reworked after recommendations of the Parliamentary standing committee, seeks to take away arbitrary powers of municipal authorities and police personnel. If seeks to vest the power to frame rules and regulate street vending in the hands of town vending committee, which would have majority of members from among street vendors. But the street vendors' groups have been unhappy with several provisions in the legislation, including the one that said it will not apply to land owned or controlled by the railways.
The NASVI, which had been agitating for a Parliamnetary law for a nong time, appears relieved after the Cabinet approved the Bill. "The revised Bill has empowered the town vending committee (TVC) to decide on almost all issues related to determining vending zones. The Bill also has strong grievance redressal mechanisms," said Arbind Singh, national coordinator of NASVI.
In a bid to organize the street vending, the legislation seeks to register them and allow them to work with dignity. Each of the street vendors will need to be registered with the town vending committee, who will be given an identity card. Such committees would include 40% elected representatives of vendor groups, 10per cent NGOs and rest comprising town planners, administrators, police and elected people's representatives.
Furthermore, the local authority will also draw a street vending plan to be reframed every five years. The plan will demarcate vending zones and novending zones. This is intended to cut the scope of the police to exploit the street vendors. Additionally, the bill will help authorities to regulate activities of street vendors in public areas such as pavements and roads. The Bill will require town and zonal vending committees to be formed in every city that will include vendors, administrators, NGOs, police, town planners and elected people's representatives. They will identify spaces that can be used by street vendors, and register and issue licences. The NASVI president Manali Shah is of the view that the government should provide for recording of biometric measurements of street vendors so that only genuine ones are issued identity cards. "Often we have seen politicians manage licences for their people while genuine street vendors are denied," she said.
But the big question is the ability of the town vending committee to operate and reconcile conflicting interests. Interestingly, unorganized traders who had been agitating against the government’s decision to allow the FDI in multi-brand retails trade on grounds that their businesses will be hurt appear to hold a friendly bond with street vendor’s inspite of the fact that they too cut into their business. It could be for the reason that the street vendors do not pose existential threat to the unorganized traders and retailers.
But the challenges lie ahead for the policy makers to reconcile all the stakeholders. While the general public benefits from the street vendors, they can also be inconvenienced by them, including traffic disruptions and impediments along with obvious security risks in countries like India which had been victim of a number of terror attacks.
Additionally, shopkeepers who pay rent, obtain all the requisite permits, pay taxes, and provide employment find the vendors squatting outside their shops selling wares at half the price and thus posing a competition at an unequal term.
On the other hand the critics are wary of the fact that the proposed legislation on the street vendors could undermine the objectives of the Right to Education Act (RTE). The children will be allowed to work on streets under the proposed legislation. The human resource development (HRD) ministry is also worried that the planned law could kill India's goal of universal secondary education.