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Ela R. Bhatt, the ‘founder’ of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has for long been an indefatigable votary for the rights and development of the poor in the informal sector. In her various avatars, she has been an activist of the Textile Labour Association, President of SEWA, member of the Rajya Sabha, member Planning Commission, and the moving spirit behind Shramshakti, report of the Commission on the Self-Employed. Her work has spanned from organizational activity at the grassroots to policy interventions at both national and international levels. In this interview, Elaben talks to Mirai Chatterjee.


Elaben, how did you first begin to organize vendors?

While working with the TLA (Textile Labour Association), I moved around a lot in the labour areas. Apart from textile workers, I saw both men and women engaged in a variety of self-employed activities. And so I became more aware of the vulnerability of workers in the self-employed sector. That it is how we started SEWA and organizing self-employed women.

At that time our main strategy was to carry out quick surveys of different groups; vendors were one. Through these surveys, we learnt details of their lives – their socio-economic status, income, trade, and about their children. Once the findings were ready, we would go back to the vendors and hold discussions with them, particularly in areas where we had done the survey.

Since the investigators were also drawn from the same group, not only did the real situation of vendors come out but we were able to identify and work with potential leaders from within the community. A major finding was the widespread harassment of the vendors by the police and the municipal corporation staff. They were not only fined but had to pay daily bribes. Hitting and kicking vendors was common. They were also under pressure from moneylenders, paying upto 10% per day interest on money borrowed for working capital. So, from their small incomes, a big share went to the officials and moneylenders.

When we started organizing the vendors, we first studied the Police Act. The act perceives them to be criminals. Possibly the British government who framed the act wanted to protect itself from strangers on the streets and control the vendors. There was a total denial of any legal status for vendors – that was most jarring. Often there were struggles with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and the police. We would go in a delegation to these authorities, and if there was a sensitive officer, he would agree not to harass them, to let them sit in the market or he would cancel their fines.

At that time our demand was for licences. I remember that only 400 licences were given and all to men because the authorities didn’t accept women as vendors in their own right. This was true in the case of handcart pullers as well. All licences given were to men. We also learned that in the past seven years not a single licence had been issued to any vendor. So demanding a licence was quite a struggle. As for the police officers, they would only listen to us out of respect – we would go to meet them and being women they were courteous to us.

Then, we developed patrikas or fliers listing vendors’ demands for licences and space for selling. We would hold small dharnas all over the city – Mandvi ni Pole, near the railway station, Dariapur Darwaza, Ambawadi, Law Garden. One positive experience was with the then traffic police superintendent, Jaspal Singh, who is now a minister. He offered to provide training on traffic rules to the vendors.

And then there was the struggle for space at Law Garden. Food vendors, they were all men, approached us and we met Jaspal Singh. He helped develop Law Garden into a beautiful market; today it is the centre of night life and shopping in Ahmedabad. But apart from this, not much had changed for the city’s vendors. Sometimes the situation would improve. But as soon as a new police officer or corporation official was appointed, the situation went back to square one or became even worse. Vendors’ struggles also involved the big shopkeepers who resented them and the middle class public who liked their fresh, cheap vegetables but not their sight.

Obtaining identity cards was one important milestone. It happened when some senior TLA leaders and I went to meet Babubhai Jasabhai Patel, then the chief minister. He was very positive and it was agreed that SEWA’s identity cards would be considered as good as licences. He asked the municipal commissioner and others to find a way to legalize the vendors, pending which our identity cards would be treated as licences. So we started a big campaign to issue identity cards.

Since then these identity cards have served multiple uses: for identification of vendors at melas or fairs, even as curfew passes. The card carried the vendor’s photo and the signature of SEWA’s general secretary. It also carried information on the type of trade and place of vending. So it was a good beginning.

This type of cooperative atmosphere continued for a while. Then the government fell and in came a whole new set of corporators. This set the stage for another big conflict at Manek Chowk, one of the oldest and biggest markets in Ahmedabad. The new corporators wanted what they called a ‘disciplined market’, and so the harassment of vendors increased yet again.

There is a bank in the market. A fracas took place near the bank between a cyclist and a scooterist about parking. It soon grew into a brawl and curfew was imposed in the area. The curfew continued for more than 10 days. We met corporation officers and spent the whole day going from place to place as the vendors’ trade had come to a complete halt. We even met the mayor, though nothing came of it. At that time, the chairman of the standing committee of the municipality was close to the TLA. The TLA was unfortunately against vending; so too was the President of SEWA, A.M. Buch, at that time also the President of the TLA.

But we decided to break the curfew and practise civil disobedience. We asked the vendors to bring their goods for sale in the market. The decision was that if the police came, SEWA organizers would face them before the vendors. We arrived in the market at eight in the morning. Four police vans were already in position, as if they feared violence. The police approached and began reasoning with me. We were a bit worried because more than the regular customers, we expected some trouble from goondas. But as soon as the women began selling the whole market started humming with business as before.

The police came to me and said, ‘You don’t seem to be concerned – even when elders like Mr. Buch have advised you, you are still persisting with breaking the curfew. What about your self-respect and status in the city?’ I told them that I didn’t care about such things, about my status and so on.

The police were a bit taken aback by my firm stand. ‘What if there is trouble in Manek Chowk market?’ I said, ‘We’ll see to it that there will be no trouble.’ I don’t know what they discussed on their wireless, but suddenly they withdrew from the scene. All of them. It was noon by then. We continued to sell in Manek Chowk for five days.

For those five days, all of us managed the traffic. Business thrived till late at night. And the vendors were able to enjoy full sales – no cuts to anyone, no police inspectors, no fear of confiscation of goods, no running away from the authorities. Good business without any fear or tension. We then came to an agreement with the authorities and organized a campaign around this incident.


What year was this Elaben?

I think it was January 1979. Then there was the struggle of the watermelon growers. They would arrive in the market at dawn and park in the space normally occupied by women vendors. Finally, the vendors and SEWA organizers decided to remain at the site all night. Eventually an agreement was reached between the vendors and watermelon growers.


Could you tell us about the early policy breakthroughs?

We were invited by the Handicraft Board for a workshop in Delhi. Each one of our members was asked: ‘If you were the police commissioner or municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad, what policies would you make?’ They came out with good policy recommendations. The deputy chairman of the Planning Commission was M.S. Swaminathan. The chairman of the All India Handicrafts Board was Laxmi Jain. Both attended the session and listened carefully to what the women had to say. Laxmibhai meticulously recorded all that he heard.

We converted the women’s testimony into a memorandum and demanded the setting up of a commission for the self-employed, first from to the Gujarat government and then the Centre. The report of the commission on self-employed, ‘Shramshakti’, came out in 1988. Both Dr. Swaminathan and Laxmibhai used their notes to write up a full chapter in the Planning Commission’s report, A Fair Deal to the Self-Employed. This was then subsequently translated into Hindi as Do Tokri Ki Jagah (Two baskets worth of space).



How did the now famous Manek Chowk vendors’ case develop?

The situation for vendors in Ahmedabad worsened around 1981. I received a letter from Justice Bhagwati inviting me to a seminar on legal aid. At that time he was heading the free legal aid programme for the poor. I was rather angry at the seminar. I wrote, ‘If the laws are anti-poor, if there is no space for vendors, what legal aid, what seminar are we talking about?’ My letter gave many examples of laws working against the poor, especially what vendors had to face.

Justice Bhagwati turned the letter into a public interest petition on behalf of the legal aid committee. He suggested that we engage a lawyer. We could not find a lawyer in Ahmedabad who was sympathetic to street vendors and shared our beliefs and perceptions. We had heard of Indira Jaisingh and how she and Olga Tellis had fought a case for the footpath dwellers in Bombay. So we invited them to Ahmedabad. We won the case which Indira Jaisingh fought for free. The petitioners were Kaliben, Shiviben, Laxmiben and myself.

The Supreme Court judgement directed the corporation to issue licences to the Manek Chowk vendors to stay in their place until a new market arrangement was finalised. The Court also ordered an additional floor built on the existing municipal market so that the vendors could be shifted from the road to the upper floor of the market. We had to agree to this provision. At first I remember, Laxmiben laughed: ‘Sell vegetables on the first floor! How will we carry all our goods upstairs in the new market? And what will happen if a woman goes into labour? My own daughter was born right here in the market-place.’ And that’s how we insisted on a lift for the proposed market. Of course, the new market has still to come into existence and till today the vendors ‘enjoy’ their place on the road protected by the stay order of the Supreme Court!

R. Basu was the municipal commissioner at that time. Governor’s rule was in force in Gujarat, so the governor asked him to settle this issue quickly. We had several discussions with him and he helped us formulate a proper plan for the new market building. We had shot a videotape of the vendors’ situation which was shown to the governor and the plans were revised according to the vendors’ needs. However, nothing came of that proposed new market at Manek Chowk, and the status quo remains. But, whenever a new police or corporation officer is appointed at Manek Chowk, the harassment starts again till they learn of the Supreme Court order.


Could you tell us about the history of the SEWA Bank and the vendors’ role in it?

The vendors were bound to wholesalers for credit and advances. But the terms were almost inhuman. A woman would borrow Rs 50 in the morning, go to the wholesale market, purchase the vegetables, sell them, spend for food, bidi, children, pay ‘hafta’ to the police and others, and finally repay Rs 55 to the wholesalers at the end of the day. The entire cycle would repeat the next day. The smaller vendors weren’t even considered creditworthy. They had to borrow from relatives or neighbours at a still higher rate. All of this emerged from our surveys of the vendors. We then realised the pressing need to release them from the hold of moneylenders and wholesalers.

When we started the bank, it was the vendors – vegetable vendors, old clothes sellers and other market women – who contributed the maximum share capital. The bank’s promoters and directors too were mainly vendors. We assiduously promoted the idea of vendors as business people. Just as producers are part of industry, vendors too are part of the commerce of the city.

Chandaben, founder-member of SEWA and SEWA Bank played an important role in promoting this image. She didn’t bother with what the vendors sold. She just said that vendors were business people. Under her leadership, we persuaded large numbers of vendors to be active in SEWA Bank. She was on the bank’s Board of Directors for many years.

Most of the loanees were vendors. Many took loans of Rs 400-500; gradually this increased to Rs 5000 as their business expanded. Though private money lenders have all but vanished from vendors’ lives, we still need to free them from the hold of big wholesalers.

During the early days, many women were helped to recover their ornaments and jewellery from the pawnbrokers. In rural areas, the focus was on mortgaged land. The vendors have lovely silver bangles and anklets which are invariably all pawned. And unfortunately whenever there is a crisis in the family, it is these ornaments which are pawned first. They were all highly indebted, so reclaiming their pawned jewellery was the most effective programme in those days.


And were the women good with repayment?

Yes, they were. Upto the point when Indira Gandhi announced loan waivers the women were good ‘re-payers’. Then with the loan waivers we had some difficulties.


What about your contribution to vendors’ issues while in the Rajya Sabha and the Planning Commission?

I have already mentioned how vendors’ concerns became a full chapter in the Planning Commission’s report. I raised the issues of the informal sector when I was in Parliament. There was the home-based workers’ bill and then the case of the vendors of Imphal, Manipur. For two years the women were on strike, keeping night vigil – living and sleeping in mosquito net tents, trying to protect their vending space from the proposed acquisition by HUDCO. Since I had visited them earlier, I was aware of this as well as the women’s collective strength. On one visit as a MP, I met the chief minister and others in support of the women vendors’ cause.

When I spoke about these women, Rajiv Gandhi gave an assurance on the floor of the House that the vendors’ interests would be protected and that they could return to their homes. That was the end of the struggle and the vendors reclaimed their original space after two years.

When I was in the Planning Commission in-charge of labour and employment, I had experts calculate how much employment could be generated in the informal sector and what protection policies we need. But it was not easy to even convince my own colleagues on the Planning Commission that vending was a legitimate activity.

Vendors’ issues are part of the mainstream; the media should print articles on their struggles – not just stray pieces here and there, or photos that make them look like ‘museum pieces’. Sure, the print media supported SEWA’s Supreme Court case. Similarly, Sodhan Singh’s case and the court’s judgement upholding vending as a legitimate form of livelihood. I remember the jubilation with which we celebrated the verdict. That was in 1998, I think. But generally speaking, vending issues are not on the agenda of the mass media.


What is the situation of vendors in other countries?

Whichever city of the world I have been to, I have made a point to visit its downtown vegetable market. Everywhere, the situation of vendors was the same. To make their issue visible, I organized a meeting of vendors at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio. We invited vendors from different metropolitan cities through their organizations. We invited one male and one female vendor with one organizer cum lawyer. The participants came from Accra, Ahmedabad, Durban, Milan, Manila, Nairobi, New York, Rio, Santa Cruz, Bolivia and Mexico City. All cities experience urban expansion, forced migration and unemployment; the issues of vendors are common across countries.

Earlier, vegetable growers were themselves vendors but over a period of time vendors stopped growing vegetables. Now vending is by itself a major occupation. In cities like Ahmedabad, with the closure of industries, where can the workers go? Naturally they enter the informal sector which is already crowded.

In no city do vendors have a legal status. At the Bellagio meeting it emerged that all our vendor participants had suffered jail mainly because they did not have legal status. We are, therefore, demanding legal status and policies, licences, space, no harassment. We have also suggested setting up multi-party local bodies to resolve conflicts.

If nothing is done, mafia rule will prevail on the streets. It is high time our planners realise that vendors are an integral part of city planning. They must have space, licences and access to credit. And their own organizations for representation and to be able to participate in the planning process. At the end of this international meeting, we issued the Bellagio declaration. The various participants are also involved in setting up their own national alliance of street vendors as we have done in India.

Basically what we need is a change of perception, so that business and planners see vendors as entrepreneurs and vending as legitimate employment. After all, neither industry nor government is able to provide jobs to the citizens.

Finally, as a member of the Global Commission on Urban Future, I am struggling to assert the rights of street vendors, for their experience to be documented in the commission’s report. This report is under preparation for the world conference called Urban 21 to be held in Berlin in July. Mayors of the top 21 cities will participate in special sessions on city plans and policies. I plan to concentrate my efforts on this group.


So the ‘mindset’ and perceptions vis-à-vis vendors exist at the international level too?

Yes, they do. Of course, one always finds some supporters. For example, the minister from Singapore, himself an economist and urban planner, is supportive of vendors. But the Rio mayor is just outright against them. Richard Roger’s Partnership Institute in London is supportive. So it is a mixed picture in the commission.

What we need is the political strength to change mindsets and direct more resources in our favour. This is yet to happen; I am also not encouraged by the current environment mainly because vendors are not sufficiently organized. To be effective they need to come together and develop a proper strategy. Whether they are members of a political party or not, they need to look after and articulate their own interests instead of merely offering themselves as ‘vote banks’. That is why under the National Alliance of Street Vendors (NASVI), we have approached the Planning Commission to facilitate a policy dialogue with relevant ministries at the national level. I hope this will happen soon.

I am glad that many cities are represented through their organisations in the NASVI. We must ensure that women don’t get left out of the Alliance. They are still the poorest of vendors – they remain the head-loaders and squat on the street. Many are the sole supporters of their families. We also need to effectively influence planners, maybe right from the education in schools of planning. We also need to develop live links with urban planners and their organisations, and with the Planning Commission.

If we are able to increase our organized strength, make strategic alliances and link up with other groups like planners and academicians, we will be in a better position to dialogue with the political structures. We must make politicians see us not just as vote banks, but as contributors to a new India, as ‘vyaparis’, and as business people. We are part of the world of commerce and collectively we must find a place in the chambers of commerce to contribute further to the country’s economy. We’ll have to work hard for this. Just being strident and attacking local politicians and touts is not enough; we have to be sober, prudent and strategic. That’s where I’d like to see our national alliance going.


How did the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) come about?

We already had basic figures of vendors in Ahmedabad city. The successful Supreme Court order inspired organizations in other cities. I think Shramshakti also played a role for recognition of women vendors. Shramshakti presented vendors as a major segment of the informal economy. We had commissioned special studies and their conclusions were included in the final recommendations. The report was translated into many languages and that’s how it reached different cities and states. Now many organisations are working with vendors. Recently we carried out a census – a head count of vendors in 14 cities, classified them into mobile and non-mobile segments. So we now have a general estimate of the numbers of vendors and their problems. It is a constituency of at least ten million workers.

At present it is crucial that vendors act collectively for policy dialogue. Their problems are increasing, their numbers growing fast. Both the Bellagio and later the Bangalore declarations provide a solid agenda based on comprehensive contributions from planners, lawyers, police and the vendors themselves. The declarations ask for a national policy on street vendors.


What are the changes you’ve seen in vendors’ status and issues over the past 30 years? Are there any changes in the perceptions of the middle class and policy-makers today?

On a positive note, I think vendors are ‘visible’ today. But the basic issues have hardly changed. Vendors, though visible, have not gained politically; nor have they acquired sufficient bargaining power. Earlier they were dominated by government; now they are dominated by private interests. They are still considered an ‘eyesore’ by those who want to ‘beautify’ our cities. There’s no difference there either. Unless the vendors’ political action becomes strong enough to reclaim their rights in the city, and their organizations behave responsibly, the present perceptions will hold or even worsen.

Vendors have still to learn to be effective participants in the planning process of their cities. I don’t think it is impossible. Small openings do exist. When plans are being updated we can intervene collectively or when there are public hearings we can represent our interests, or we can develop alternative plans. And it is we who must raise the issue of urban space. The vendors’ organisations will have to develop capacities to read urban development plans and understand future implications. But in many cities, with the withdrawal of government from economic affairs, their situation is worsening. Private interests are becoming stronger and are often hand in glove with government structures.


Any thoughts on future directions?

I think urban land is the main issue. Rural land has got some attention but urban land is considered to be a matter of the open market. I think we have to find an answer to the question of distribution and ownership of urban land. Everyone believes that by 2025 the entire world will be urban, that only a few people will remain in agriculture, while the rest will be in non-farming activities. If that is the future, then it is high time that the urban land issue be resolved.

The other issue involves a balance between formal and informal sector workers. The present divide is artificial and unreal. Like in the case of vegetable selling, there is a link between urban vendors and rural growers. So also between formal and informal economic activities. The divide has to be done away with. In formulating employment policies government will have to give special attention to those who are self-employed, those who are ‘casual’, informal sector workers. They have to be considered part of the working population. I don’t think there is much of a future for the formal sector labour or for the formal sector to generate more employment. The informal sector, including vendors, are here to stay. We have to create an environment which promotes and strengthens this sector and works towards the ultimate goal of employment and sufficient work for all.