The politics of urban space



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I still retain vivid memories of the vegetable vendor who visited our village. He offered valuable service to the villagers by bringing vegetables, and occasionally fruits, to our doorstep. He was an inseparable part of the subsistence economy of the village. In fact, vending in western Uttar Pradesh was an exclusive occupation of Kachhi castemen who grew vegetables as sharecroppers on farmer’s lands.

In the small towns too, one would see vendors selling inexpensive goods closer to the busy market place and other strategic locations like a railway station, bus stand, cinema hall or tehsil office. There might have been a relationship between a policeman and vendors in the form of a small occasional consideration, but the activity itself rarely invited their wrath. Though they worked for a subsistence there was no fierce competition visible among them for occupying a small space closer to the footpath or open public places. Vending thus, for decades, remained a part of the bazaar economy in the old towns and cities. There were occasional tussles between them and the law and order agencies, but nothing like the collective violence and cruelty by policemen and municipal officials as is common in today’s large cities.

Rapid urbanisation, an offshoot of industrial and commercial activity, has changed the urban scene drastically such that the conflict for urban space has become a long drawn struggle for the urban poor who may constitute even half of the population of a large city.



In fast growing cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta, vending (and hawking) no more remains an unnoticed activity. It is a major source, both of survival and conflict between city managers and planners on one hand and the large number of vendors and hawkers on the other. This conflict for space has to be understood in the context of the political economy of the city – to be discussed in subsequent sections of this essay. Presently, a few examples from the real functioning of vending and hawking in a city like Mumbai may help us understand the context within which the activity occurs and the conflict for urban space arises.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) along with YUVA (a Mumbai based NGO) carried out a census enumeration of hawkers (and vendors) operating on the lands of BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation). The survey was sponsored by BMC for identifying the number of hawkers conducting business on BMC lands in terms of their years of activity. This was expected to help segregate the new arrivals from those with longer settled activity, and thus provide the latter (on a priority basis) pitches for hawking in the proposed ‘hawking zones’, to be identified and developed throughout the city.

The survey enumerated some 1,04,000 hawkers on BMC lands. Their area of operation, nature of activity, interest groups involved and conflict for survival were mind boggling. In fact, we are now convinced that even years of intensive research may not suffice to understand the complexity associated with hawking activity in a city like Mumbai. A few examples would illustrate the multi-faceted dimensions of this activity and the context in which one has to understand the politics of urban space in large Indian cities.

While conducting the survey we came across a category of ‘concealed’ hawkers. These were new entrants to the trade who were patronised by police and concerned municipal staff (mainly the recovery inspectors). They were permitted to hawk on BMC lands by paying ‘hafta’ (weekly graft) to the former. In lieu, no redemption charges or recovery receipts (penalty/fine) were imposed on the new hawkers. This way, they remained unidentified in BMC records and were the soft target of unlawful activities of the concerned police/BMC staff. Many of them, particularly in the early stages, were employed (and thus exploited) by the senior hawkers, or were forced to sell low price goods. These were among the poorest hawkers in the city.



In suburban areas (like Ghatkopar), the mafia owned several handcarts which were rented out to the hawkers on a daily payment for selling specific goods (for instance, bananas sold on around 250 handcarts in the Ghatkopar area). The owners were influential goons of the area who made a sizeable profit by renting out the carts (and supplying the goods). These handcarts carried a distinct identification mark known to the police and BMC staff. Hawkers using such carts were not harassed by government staff since a part of the profits appropriated by local goons was transferred as hafta.

While conducting the survey, one of our research staff approached a hawker for enumeration. In turn, the hawker requested the investigator to wait till the ‘real’ hawker was summoned (through telephone) since, he claimed, he was only an ‘employee’. The real hawker came in a car and filled up the form. He even offered to drop our investigator to the nearby railway station. Such rich hawkers are a part of the Mumbai scene – our survey reveals that nearly 10% of the 1,04,000 hawkers earned more than Rs 500 a day. There are several strategic locations in Mumbai city where a hawking pitch may fetch a price of Rs 500,000 or more. They stand in sharp contrast to those one-third of the hawkers whose earnings are lower than the prescribed minimum wages in urban areas.



The above instances reveal the level and complexity of hawking activity. In no way is hawking today a part of the subsistence or bazaar economy as might have been the case in the past. Operation Sunshine in Calcutta, the hide and seek between Mumbai hawkers and law enforcement agencies, the ‘zunkha bhakar’ scheme for creating hawking stalls for its volunteers by the then Shiv Sena government in Mumbai, the many agitations by hawkers’ unions and NGOs demanding a national policy for the vendors/hawkers – all these raise the legitimate issue of the sharing of urban space by the survival sector.

As Saunders explains (1981: 12), ‘The central concern of all classical thinkers was with the social, political and economic implications of the development of capitalism in the West at the time when they were writing. The rapid growth of cities was among the most obvious and potentially disruptive of all social changes at that timeÉ. However, Marx, Weber or Durkheim did not consider it useful or necessary to develop a specifically urban theory in order to explain serious "problems" associated with the evolution of city.’ ‘For them, the city in contemporary capitalism was no longer the basis for human association (Weber), the locus of the division of labour (Durkheim) or the expression of a specific mode of production (Marx), in which case it is neither fruitful nor appropriate to study it in its own right’ (ibid.: 13).



In contrast to the views of these classical thinkers on the evolution of the ‘modern’ city, the popular school of ‘human ecology’, developed mainly under the auspices of the University of Chicago in the years following World War I, focused on the spatial dimension of social relationships. Scholars like Park, Redfield and Wirth represented this school of thought. They traced the shortage of dwellings, lack of amenities and unhealthy conditions of human settlements to a sudden increase in urban concentration as a result of industrialisation. The proper distribution of urban space, for these thinkers, was the responsibility of urban managers and planners.

The human ecology approach was severely criticised by Marxist thinkers (Castells, 1977; Harvey, 1978; Saunders, 1981) who declared that ‘there was no theory of space that was not an integral part of a general social theory, even an implicit one’ (Castells, 1977: 115). ‘The sociological problematic of housing (or for that reason, of public spaces) must set out from a reversal of the usual psycho-social themes and centre itself on the analysis of the process of production of a certain durable commodity, in the diversity of its qualities, forms, status and in relation to the economic market and, consequently, its social context’ (Castells, 1977: 149).

Rex and Moore (1967: 9) observed: ‘The basic social processes within the city relate to the allocation of space, both through the market and by bureaucratic means, and to the resulting struggle over the urban space by different groups located at different points in the hierarchy of entitlements.’ For them, this struggle over city space could be analysed as a class struggle over the distribution of life chances in the city.

Pahl (1970: 53) suggested that similar to wage distribution in a capitalistic organization of production, allocation of public resources by the state was critical in distributing life chances. He defined the city as ‘a given context or configuration of reward distributing systems which have space as a significant component’ (ibid.: 117). For Pahl, both capitalist and socialist societies are confronted with the operation of this spatial logic, and both may therefore encounter similar problems with regard to the distribution of urban facilities.



It becomes necessary to reflect on the role of the state in the above urban processes. The classical ‘pluralist theory of state’, as envisaged by Weber, conceived the state as a forum to accommodate and resolve the political demands of different groups with varying interests. Not all agreed. For instance, Hill argued that the increased intervention of the state had done nothing to change underlying class relations based upon the appropriation of surplus value (quoted in Saunders, op cit.: 132).

Such an extreme view about the role of state is, however, challenged by other urban thinkers. According to Winkler (quoted in Saunders: 127): ‘What appears to be happening is a formalisation of interest group politics, an institutionalisation of pluralism. And, indeed, within cooperative institutions, the state will have to bargain and make compromises.’

Saunders summarised the above debate on urban space: ‘In ideal typical terms, then, we may suggest that different types of economic policies correspond to different types of political arrangements. While social investment tends to be associated with corporate policy-making at national or regional levels of government, social consumption tends to be associated with competitive political struggles waged at the local level.É urban struggles develop around questions of social consumption; the corollary of this is that they are typically isolated from the labour movement and strategically limited in their objectives’ (ibid.: 276). A similar view was expressed by Eisenstadt and Shacher (1987: 57): ‘A strong emphasis is put on conflicts in the urban area revolving around new issues of consumption of collective goods such as education, health, public transportation and other services provided by the state and local authorities. This provision of collective goods by the state and its agencies opens up the eventuality of new inequalities and new class struggle.’



A few simplified observations can be drawn from the above perspectives on ‘urban space’ and its relationship to human activities when discussing the status of hawkers/vendors in the political economy of the city.

* The ecological school, which related human relationships in the evolution of a ‘modern’ city to its spatial structure, provides no insight into the differential life chances and entitlements of its inhabitants.

* The classical Marxist interpretation of ‘city’ as merely an instrument of capitalistic formation, with the role of state seen as facilitating such a productive system, is of little help in interpreting the growing civil movements which are fragmented and not necessarily the offshoot of capital and labour relationships.

* Given that inequality in the distribution of urban resources is inevitable, it follows that spatial constraints on life chances will always operate somewhat independently of the mode of economic and political organization in society.

* Though the state at the regional and national level may work in the interest of monopoly capital, at the local level it often leans toward ‘interest group’ politics which involves bargaining and compromise on issues related to consumption of public goods and services.



The growing role of the informal sector in Mumbai can be understood from the fact that about two-thirds of its working population is engaged in the unorganized sector today – be it domestic work units, unregistered production units or a plethora of activities related to self-employment, services and wage employment. Shoeshine boys, rag pickers, house servants, ‘mathadi’ workers, taxi and auto rickshaw drivers, waiters in tea stalls, security men in house buildings, construction workers, self-employed producing goods in domestic units, and hawker/vendors are some of many such persons belonging to this ever-growing survival sector. Hawking/vending is one of the most lucrative activity of all the above – if it clicks.

Mumbai annually consumes vegetables and fruits worth Rs 750 crore in the wholesale market. The retail price is 25 to 40% higher than the wholesale price. Most of these are sold to the customer by hawkers and vendors. There are about 100,000 taxi and auto rickshaw drivers, a majority of whom stop for a cup of tea or light lunch at food stalls operated by hawkers on the footpath. They are joined by thousands of mobile persons – the poor and the lower middle class – who also need such services.

The next most popular category of hawking stalls sell readymade garments, cheap cosmetics and electronic goods. Telephone booths, xeroxing centres, milk booths, newspaper stalls and other such activities add to the above list. Of late, hawking stalls have become important outlets for selling various items produced in domestic and organized production units – extending to the clothes produced by powerlooms at Bhiwandi and Surat.

This large area of operation attracts thousands of persons, migrants or otherwise. The hawking sector also absorbs the shocks and upheavals in the formal sector. Thousands of redundant textile workers took to hawking after the closure of mills in the city. The numbers continue to multiply with the increasing closure of industrial units resulting from ‘liberalisation’.



To understand the politics of hawking space one must look at the process whereby a new hawker enters the trade. The idea is initiated by a contact person (in the city) already engaged in a job – usually in the unorganized sector. He invites his kin or friend from the village to try his luck in the city. Then starts the bargain with the local policeman, the municipal recovery inspector, the influential (known) hawker-cum-leader and even the local goon for permission to engage in hawking activity at a particular location. Other than small payments in the beginning what is demanded is a categorical assurance through the contact person that the new hawker would pay hafta, to be shared by the above stakeholders. A similar negotiation takes place for erecting a hut in a slum locality, the difference being that a lump sum payment has to be made to the slumlord (a volunteer of some political party). The new resident is also expected to be a part of the vote bank of the concerned political party.

The action hots up once the hawker’s trade stabilizes and he aspires to ‘own’ a pitch. Till then he sells goods either on a cart or from a basket. Getting a pitch for erecting a stall involves tough bargaining with the established stakeholders; the amount to be paid depends on the strategic location of the pitch, the area involved and the claimant’s record of success in hawking. It could vary from a small sum of Rs 20,000 to a hefty amount of Rs 100,000 or more, depending on the potential of the ‘allotted’ pitch. Subsequent hafta payments continue unless the hawker becomes politically active, or joins the local mafia.



The collection of hafta, like allotting a pitch to a new hawker, is a well-planned activity and involves multiple actors – the police, concerned municipal officials, hawkers’ unions, local politicians and goons. Given the scale of hawking activity, it is estimated that while the official collection of Mumbai Municipal Corporation from hawkers in the form of penalty for using a public place, redemption charges or license fee is between Rs 11 to 12 crore annually, the collection of hafta (illegal money) from them amounts to a staggering Rs 120 crore. Thus, the allocation of public space to hawkers in the city by the above actors is a localised activity carried out by local politicians, concerned officials and local goons, and does not form a part of capitalist formations as discussed in the previous section on perspectives on the urban space.

The control and direction of land use in Mumbai, or any other economically strategic city in the country, vests with the capitalist class with the state pitching in as a facilitator. However, it is also true that local political power operates with its own logic. This is well illustrated by the ‘zunka-bhakar’ politics of hawking space in Mumbai city. The Shiv Sena has for years played the ‘sons of the soil’ card to mobilise the local population as its support base. It has openly advocated a policy of restricting jobs and other economic opportunities in Maharashtra to the ‘local’ population. This paid dividends when poor Maharashtrians seeking relief from deprivations, as also middle class Maharashtrians in search of better prospects, voted the Shiv Sena to power. Since then, the party has consolidated its hold in Mumbai by openly discriminating against non-Maharashtrians.



Given the limited scope of jobs in the organized sector and the decline of industry in the Mumbai region, the Shiv Sena concentrated on politically mobilising the poor in the unorganized sector. A few years back, as a part of this localised politics, it decided to set up ‘regularised’ food stalls on the footpaths of BMC lands, ostensibly to provide cheap food to the city poor. Regular pucca shops – measuring 60 to 80 sq ft or more – were constructed on the footpaths. This involved removing those already using the space, and not unexpectedly, many were non-Maharashtrian hawkers. The structures were constructed by the government and sold via tenders to the hawkers, on condition that they not be re-sold.

Though the scheme was theoretically ‘open’ to all, the stalls were allotted primarily to the volunteers/party workers of Shiv Sena. Several representations by union leaders against such discrimination were made to government and though the issue also featured in the media, nothing happened. Over time these stalls meant for selling ‘zunka bhakar’ (cheap meal), have become like any other (small) restaurant. This selling of public space (the footpath) by government for consolidating its power base is a glaring example of localised politics operating independently of monopoly capital. In fact, this act invited severe criticism from all sections of the city, including the rich.

The proposal of the BMC to create ‘hawking zones’ is another example which illustrates the contradictions faced by the state in allocating space for social consumption vis-a-vis its role in serving monopoly capital. Be it the collection of illegal money (hafta) by local politicians and concerned public officials (including the police), or the occasional ‘eviction’ operations against hawkers from public lands – both actions can be explained by the same logic, of the state catering to multiple interest groups in the city. In such a situation, who supports the cause of hawkers and who doesn’t often become irrelevant.



Way back in 1985, in response to several court litigations filed by hawkers’ unions against ‘actions’ of the municipal administration and police, the Supreme Court directed the BMC to work out a scheme for granting licenses to hawkers by creating ‘no-hawking’ and ‘hawking’ zones. The Supreme Court was of the view that ‘if the hawkers were rendering services to the general public by supplying certain goods, commodities and thus earning their livelihood, the said fact could not be ignored.’ The court also issued directives like creating a hawking zone for every two contiguous wards; zones to be marked by the municipal commissioner in consultation with BMC; in areas other than ‘no-hawking’ zones, licenses to be granted on payment of fee and without prejudice; ‘right not to issue license’ to be exercised by the municipal commissioner reasonably and in public interest; and that for implementing the scheme, BMC should take public interest, including of the hawkers, into account.



An advisory committee under the chairmanship of D.M. Sukhtankar was set up by the government. As per the guidelines of the Supreme Court, each ward officer was asked to prepare a draft scheme demarcating hawking and no-hawking zones after consultations, not only with the local councillors but MLAs, NGOs and others. Also prepared was a pilot scheme for ward A (one of the crucial wards of Mumbai city). A public notice in local newspapers invited suggestions to the draft scheme.

Meanwhile it became necessary to identify ‘genuine’ hawkers, as the BMC’s target for accommodating them in the prescribed ‘zones’ did not exceed 45,000. The unions, however, insisted that nearly half a million hawkers were operating in the city and that a majority of them should be accommodated. The official estimate of the number of hawkers operating on BMC lands was much lower, about 68,000. This created grounds for confrontation between the BMC and the hawkers unions.

The BMC invited TISS and YUVA to enumerate every hawker on their lands. The survey helped us understand the politics of public space in Mumbai. One ward officer, openly prejudiced against non-Maharashtrian hawkers, charged us of inflating the number of hawkers from U.P. and Bihar. In the Dadar area, it was alleged that YUVA research staff demanded money from the hawkers for filling forms, or that because of prior knowledge about the survey, people from Bihar and U.P. took the lead in being enumerated as hawkers.

The hawkers and some unions too added to our woes. One union duplicated our identification cards and distributed them to its ‘members’ for getting enumerated. Some hawkers filled up more than one form under fictious names. Some municipal councillors, not ‘in favour’ of licensing the hawkers (since that might reduce their ‘hold’ on them), also objected to the survey. In some areas goons threatened that either our staff ‘fill as many forms as desired by them’ or face the consequences.



Once the survey data was sent to the various wards, and the BMC started ‘clearing’ certain areas for shifting hawkers to ‘hawking zones’, the clash of interests intensified. The residents of housing societies, who till then had considered the proposal as a mere eyewash, suddenly became active. The idea that ‘their’ localities in the vicinity of ‘hawking zones’ might be flooded with hawkers evidently ‘frightened’ them. They approached the court for a stay order. The hawkers with lucrative businesses close to the entry lanes/roads to railway stations – the main locations for attracting thousands of commuters – pressurised their unions and ‘sympathetic’ municipal councillors to stop the scheme. Many filed cases in the court.

During the shuffle, hawkers from certain areas were removed. Many were non-Maharashtrian, who then complained against the alleged connivance of police and BMC officials in favour of the ‘locals’. After being surveyed, several hawkers refused to pay hafta since ‘they were now identified as (legitimate) hawkers.’ The Mayor who had earlier supported the proposal for creating hawking zones, under pressure, became indifferent. The state government, realising the sensitivity of the issue, more so at the time of forthcoming assembly elections, developed cold feet and the operation for ‘hawking and no-hawking zones’ was shelved.

The above observations once again underscore the fact that local issues force the state to enter into ‘compromise politics’ which tends to serve the interests of various groups staking claims to social consumption and services. Though the politics of space as manifested in the hawking issue did not weaken the hold of the capitalist class on city resources, it did restrict the state from resorting to an operation like the one against Calcutta hawkers, ironically initiated by a Left government.

Another important observation relates to the ethnically divisive role played by the Shiv Sena. This does not imply that the hawkers are otherwise a homogeneous category. Their fortunes in the trade vary depending on their access to a pitch for conducting their activity, its location and daily turnover. As evident from our survey data, some 10% hawkers earned more than the wages of a skilled worker in the organized sector. In contrast, there were recent entrants employed by other hawkers or the mafia for a pittance. However, the ‘sons of the soil’ politics of the Shiv Sena divided them on ethnic lines. They became more vulnerable to outside forces which ruthlessly exploited them. There is evidence that a ‘plural state’, rather than forging consensus among various competing interest groups for social goods and services may, in fact, enhance conflict over scarce resources.



The present paper focuses on the politics of urban space in the context of hawkers of Mumbai city. The traditional role of hawking/vending in the subsistence economy of rural India or the ‘bazaar’ economy of old towns and cities has undergone structural changes. Today, hawking in high growth cities like Mumbai is no more confined to a struggle for survival by the ‘lumpen proletariat’ but involves multiple actors, including bureaucrats, local politicians and muscleman. Their struggle for a share of urban space has to be understood in a proper perspective.



The paper presents an overview of relevant theories explaining the evolution of a city. The ecological theory is recalled for its emphasis on human relationships. The Marxist perspective, that the city has no other role except being instrumental in capital formation, also does not pass scrutiny. Instead, political power, under localised political compulsions, may extend its role to social distribution of public goods and services which may not necessarily lie within the production relationships as conceived in the class struggle paradigm. The struggle of hawkers in Mumbai (and for that matter in other large Indian cities) for urban space and the role of the state and bureaucracy in balancing (or manipulating) the needs of various interest groups for their own (local) political or monetary gains, amply proves it.




M. Castells, The Urban Question, Edward-Arnold, London, 1977.

S.N. Eisenstadt and A. Shachar, Society, Culture and Urbanisation, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1987.

D. Harvey, ‘Government Policies, Financial Institutions and Neighbourhood Change in United States Cities’, in M. Harloe (ed), Captive Cities, John Wiley, London, 1978.

R.E. Pahl, Patterns of Urban Life, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1970.

J. Rex and R. Moore, Race, Community and Conflict, Oxford University Press, London, 1967.

Peter Saunders, Social Theory and the Urban Question, Hutchinson, London, 1981.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences and YUVA, Census Survey of Hawkers on BMC Lands, 1998.