Organizing street vendors

Arbind Singh

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Urbanisation is the most significant all India phenomena of our times. The city has today become an engine of growth, the main job provider. Twenty nine per cent of the people of the country generate 60% of the GDP. However, our cities remain ill-prepared to address the problems of poverty. Planning and governance continues to be the preserve of the politician-mafia-bureaucrat nexus. Whatever policy that does exist is poorly implemented.

There is unabated official and social hostility towards the informal sector, even though the formal sector has ceased to grow, having reached saturation point. As the cost of creating jobs in the informal sector is very low, it needs to be integrated into the context of the overall macro-economy. However, we must first remove the obstacles in the way of the informal sector’s functioning.

Every social system must cater to the needs of its members to enable them to survive; it must have effective means of allocating and distributing resources. The 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. A survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Health and Hygiene counted 300 types of eatables sold by the hawkers of Calcutta. It would be hard to find an urban Indian who doesn’t purchase something from a vendor. 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. Shopping and marketing, in a traditional Indian sense, has primarily been informal. Social interaction is integral to Indian markets in contrast to the mechanized and sterile concept of shopping favoured by modern market and super market structures.

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 labour. 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.

Indian social institutions show an uncanny ability to adjust and adapt to changing societal conditions. Our agriculture is organized around the family mode of production, with the entire family engaged in various stages of agricultural production, i.e., sowing, harvesting and so on. The same system has crept into urban areas; it is not uncommon to find the entire family involved in the micro-enterprise. Thus, on a roadside tea stall, while the husband looks after customers, the wife prepares tea and snacks, and children wash utensils. The same is true for vegetable and fish vendors where the husband purchases commodities while the wife sells.



Nevertheless, our planners remain oblivious to the role of vendors who are victimised, 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 Lucknow, 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 licences 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 plays 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.

The most frightening experience for the vendors is, however, the regular eviction carried out by the district or municipal administration. They fear the very sight of the eviction team which is known locally by different names. For example, in Patna, the vehicle in which an eviction party arrives is called ‘hallagari’. Eviction takes a heavy toll on their business since they have to restart the cycle of building up working capital.



The extortion racket also involves the local goons and dadas. Cases of ‘rangdari tax’ and ‘hafta’ are common. 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 citizen’s 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 and mafia, 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 licences, 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.



There have broadly been five types of attempts to organize vendors:

1) Where exploitation crosses the maximum tolerance limit and informal leaders take the initiative, resulting in protests, dharnas, etc. Such collective actions have fostered solidarity and helped mould organizations. Where the struggle results in fostering a long term perspective, some organizations are registered. However, most remain unregistered and gradually fizzle out. They can be revived if the situation so demands.

2) Where a spokesman type of organization takes the initiative to organize vendors. The organizing could either be accidental or a conscious decision. These organizations act as catalysts in the formation of vendors’ organizations. While proceeding systematically with the struggle, they place emphasis on capacity building of the vendors themselves. These organizations also successfully demonstrate methods of negotiating with the administration.

3) Through central trade unions, which either organize unions or affiliate independent ones. Such unions exist in most cities. In large cities there are several small unions affiliated to a central trade union.

4) Where the vendor is protected by political parties. Such organizations are generally amorphous with no regular membership and elected leaders, with leaders of political parties liasing between government, party and members. In many such situations, political parties have advocated the cause of vendors. Unfortunately, we often see a change in the perspective of political parties and leaders, once in power.

5) Where organizations are transient, particularly in the main business centres. These organizational attempts could be initiated by individual leaders or established organizations. Vendors join if they perceive these outsiders to be powerful. However, such organizations tend to depend far too much on individual leaders.



Attempts have also been made to form a federation of unions at the city and state level. Such federations have succeeded in elevating the issue to a higher level and pitch. For example, in Mumbai, 40 different unions came together to form the Pheriwala Action Committee. This committee has representatives elected from its constituent unions. It chalks outs common programmes and lobbies on various issues effecting street vendors. The Self Employed Vendors Association of Karnataka (SEVAK) is another example of a body that functions at the state level and provides a platform for vendors of Karnataka to struggle for their rights.

Vendors belong to the business community; every customer is critical and each day is important. This deters the formation of effective and strong organizations as vendors participate only when threatened with eviction. Otherwise they prefer to handle localised problems by shifting the stall a metre or two or by bribing the police and other authorities. Given half a chance, they would rather negotiate and settle the matter individually. Only when it is a problem faced by many do the unions intercede as it is cheaper and less time consuming.

However, it is only during eviction that the anger, frustration and resentment comes to the fore. Many unions try to reason with the traffic police to stop fining vendors who are not really creating traffic problems. At the same time vendors are encouraged to stop bribing the police and to resist police brutality. An important setback to organization building for vendors is the corruption in distribution of space and stalls. After years of struggle some vendors may succeed in pressurising officials to construct a market. But others use their contacts and money to get the shops allotted to them if the unions are not strong and vigilant. No wonder, only a few vendors are rehabilitated while the status of the roadside vendors remains unchanged.



Cooperatives can also be a powerful mechanism for organizing the street vendors. As cooperatives are profit-oriented organizations, they suit the needs of vendors who are instinctively entrepreneurial. However, capacity building is needed to manage the organization properly and meet statutory requirements. Cooperatives would enable vendors to pull in resources, avoid duplication of effort and rid themselves of exploitative forces relating to their trade. SEWA has successfully set up many such cooperatives while Nidan in Patna is in the process of establishing similar cooperatives.

Being busy, vendors find little time for organization. Their daily routine is torturous. A lack of time is just one factor. The conflict for space among vendors is another. Getting vendors to attend meetings has been difficult. Vendors are also on the lookout for customers, so if a meeting is held near their stall, the mere appearance of a potential buyer distracts them. There are other obstacles as well. Street vendors are not a homogenous lot and deep rooted social and cultural divisions exist. Previous experiences of foul play are common. Unscrupulous street-smart organizations have looted money through false promises. Sometimes their leaders have misappropriated funds or indulged in corrupt practices.



Times have become harder. In Patna, for example, the High Court has authorised the officer in-charge of the local police station to ensure that no person returns after eviction. This gives another lever to the police who are one of the main agencies of exploitation. Many court judgements against encroachments have resulted in the removal of the poor, leaving the rich untouched.

The forces working against the vendors are very strong. Alarm bells ring whenever there is the slightest attempt to protest against exploitation. The nexus initially tries to thwart the attempt. If this is not successful then brutal force is used against vendors. Leaders are threatened, tortured and even murdered. Since earning for the family is primary, the struggle takes a back-seat.

Most markets are dominated by men and few women have access to even the so-called unauthorised markets. They are either scattered along the roadside or are mobile, which makes them more vulnerable. In such situations, organizing women vendors is difficult, unless it is at their residence.

Another powerful route to organizing vendors is through self-help groups. This idea, which began in the last decade, is now gaining momentum. The entire face of the struggle could change by strengthening this movement because of its participatory nature. A group of 10-20 person can be organized and also linked to banks for meeting working capital needs of vendors.

Self-help groups initiate the process of organizing, facilitate discussion, inculcate the habit of savings and linking up with banks for credit. Though the right to sell is a top priority, another focal point for organizing the vendors could be through micro credit. The exploitation through informal money lending systems is well known. A common practise is taking Rs 100 in the morning from the money-lender and returning Rs 120 in the evening. In Bangalore, vendors take Rs 80 and return Rs 100 in the evening. In Patna, the system is almost institutionalised and money lenders even issue pass books. Against a loan of Rs 500, Rs 10 is to be returned daily for 60 consecutive days. The interest, if calculated on a reducing balance basis, is abominably high. Lack of sales, pressures of daily life, eviction and extortion create a breakdown of working capital. They easily fall into the trap of moneylenders and find it difficult to extricate themselves.



The size of unions determines the level of participation. It is common to find small unions ranging from 100 to 200 members. These are small, effective and member-driven. Participation keeps alive the interest and enthusiasm of vendors; otherwise membership boils down to the payment of a fee. The vendors then feel that having paid a fee their duty is done, and place all responsibility on unions leaders.

Capacity building of vendors and their organizers must be woven into organization building tasks. Many organizations have initiated worker education classes aimed at leadership development, awareness of legal rights, municipal corporation procedures, sharpening negotiating skills, dealing with police, managing their organization better, learning accounting procedures and so on. Many organizations have also begun imparting training in the identification of friends and enemies, on the working of multiple authorities. It is important to register the organization and train people to manage it, for organizations functioning at an informal level lack legitimacy to negotiate. Exposure and exchange not only fosters professional solidarity, it helps in learning about the various mechanisms to strengthen their livelihood. Knowledge of what happens elsewhere develops self-confidence. Most organizations neglect this aspect. Without incorporating these processes, struggles will lack the capability of bringing about structural change.



Equally important is the struggle for acquiring identity cards. Since they carry an image, they facilitate mobilisation while promoting a feeling of belonging. They have also been useful in deterring exploitative authorities from harassing vendors.

Problems differ according to the type of commodities vendors trade in, the working capital required, the extent and nature of extortion, the space needed to sell and so on. Efforts at organization should take into account the dynamics of the trade involved. Only then will the organization be strong and the solutions lasting. For example, organizing vegetable vendors requires an understanding of their trade, i.e., perishable goods, low but timely credit support and the seasonality of the commodities.

Efforts at organizing should simultaneously be accompanied by positive image-building of the vendors. The point to remember is that they have been forced by circumstance to be vendors; that they are there not only to make ends meet, but also to distribute commodities to the consumers. A documentation of live stories, the hardship and physical labour involved, dependence on informal credit, fluctuations in the market and above all the harassment and extortion need to be disseminated to the larger society. The print and electronic media too need to be sensitised. Only then will society understand their issues as also not blame them for price increases.

Many unions have approached the courts who have conferred favourable judgements. The Supreme Court gave a landmark judgement in Sodhan Singh vs NDMC, declaring hawking and trading on pavements a fundamental right, subject to ‘reasonable restrictions’. Similarly SEWA was successful in securing space for vegetable vendors of Manek Chowk, Ahmedabad. In a writ petition, the Supreme Court ordered the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to accommodate 218 women vegetable vendors on the terrace of the existing vegetable market and to issue them licences. It also directed the formation of a Topla Bazar Committee, consisting of representatives from the corporation and vendors for managing the vegetable market.



In 1985, the Supreme Court in the Bombay Hawkers Unions vs Bombay Municipal Corporation directed that each city should formulate schemes which would include hawking and no-hawking zones. Unfortunately, the municipal corporations either shy away from initiating action or further complicate the matter. Mumbai provides a classic case of the latter as a result of which the Supreme Court directions have remained unimplemented. Similarly, even though many High Courts have pronounced favourable judgements, they have been ignored by the corporations and municipalities.

Though years of struggle have yielded positive results, the problems mentioned at the outset persist in most of India’s cities. Also no attempt has been made to place the struggle in a broader perspective and few sustained efforts have been undertaken for structural change. Consequently, most struggles still depend on the goodwill of a handful of people in government. There is no institutionalisation of a process to enable vendors to sell their commodities peacefully. A holistic approach targeting all the stakeholders demands changes in anti-vendor laws, a pro-vendor policy, creation of institutions to enable participation of vendors in urban governance, changing the mindset of the planners, the police and the society at large, and building the capacity of the vendors.



Vendors have in the main concentrated on the local level and negotiated with local officials for space. In the process they often end up bribing the local officials, either in cash or kind or both. This leads to uncertainty and a dependence on the officials. Gradually, vendors begin to accept that their fate is dependent on the officials. The local administration remains insensitive and at times brutal. Only rarely are positive steps taken. In such a situation, networking among organizations involved in organizing street vendors assumes significance.

Networking not only gives strength to each organization but also through an exchange of information helps provide a larger perspective to the struggle. Above all, it helps identify spaces for intervention in policy-making. Networking between organizations – local, city, state, regional and national – can easily facilitate multi-pronged intervention. Thus, the level of intervention, along with the pitch of struggle, has to be raised.

A major recent development was the formation of the National Alliance of Street Vendors, India in September 1998. The national alliance is a coalition of various trade unions and voluntary organizations, working to protect the rights and improving living conditions of hawkers and vendors. Over 225 organizations from 49 cities in 22 states of the country are today part of the national alliance.



The alliance urges the government to formulate a national policy keeping in view the following:

* Give vendors legal status by issuing licences and providing appropriate hawking zones.

* Protect and expand vendors’ existing livelihood.

* Promote and develop the natural market system.

* Make street vendors a special component of the plans for urban development by treating them as an integral part of the urban distribution system.

* Include vendors in town and city master plans.

* Issue guidelines for supportive services and social security at local levels.

* Set up a social security fund for street vendors.

* Promote self-governance among hawkers.

* Set up appropriate, participative, non-formal mechanisms like triparte or multipartite committees with representation from street vendors and hawkers, NGOs, local authorities, the police and others.

* Provide street vendors with relief in situations of disasters and natural calamities.

The formation of the alliance has given a boost to subaltern struggles everywhere. One of its first acts was to organize a series of meetings in important cities. Planners, administrators, police officials, corporation officials, vendors and representative of local organizations were invited to these meetings. The dialogue has now started yielding results in some cities. The Bangalore Municipal Corporation is now in the process of issuing licences and allotting space. The School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi has undertaken a study to include vendors in the new master plan of Delhi. A dialogue with the Planning Commission in underway. There is an effort to start such a dialogue in every city.



Information gathering forms an important aspect of any movement. A study has been conducted in nine cities of India covering various aspects like municipal laws, policies and their implementation, planning for the cities, perception of consumers, socio-economic aspects of vending and its linkage with other sectors. The study is almost complete and any future strategy shall be based on its findings. Many partners of the alliance are also gathering information on their own. Simultaneously, attempts at increasing the visibility of vendors through the print and electronic media, and a quarterly newsletter, Footpath Ki Aawaz, have been initiated. FKA has emerged as a strong medium of communication and source of information about others activities/organizations. Many vendors have written articles and poems about their experiences. The newsletter is also circulated among other sections of society.

The National Alliance has adopted a multipronged approach which, among others, involves supporting localised struggles while taking up issues at the regional and national levels. Alongside scrutiny of anti-vendor laws, dialogues have been initiated to reduce hostility, and to publicise the contribution of vendors in economic growth as well as employment generation. Given the steady deterioration in the situation, however, what is most needed is the formulation of a national policy. It is towards this end that NASVI efforts are presently focused.