Street vendors have always been an integral and indispensable part of Delhi, the capital city of India. They can be found outside schools, colleges, government buildings, historical monuments, subways, bus stops and even malls. They provide a wide range of items at low prices.
According to the Indian government, there are three basic categories of street vendors: stationary, peripatetic and mobile. Stationary vendors are those who carry out vending on a regular basis at a specific location, with implicit or explicit consent of the authorities. Peripatetic vendors are those who carry out vending on foot. Mobile street vendors are those who move from place to place vending their goods or services on bicycles or motorized vehicles.
Government policy asserts the importance of all these vendors, stating: “Street vendors form a very important segment of the unorganized sector in the country. It is estimated that in several cities street vendors count for about 2 per cent of the population. Women constitute a large segment of these street vendors in almost every city. Street vending is not only a source of self-employment to the poor in cities and towns but also a means to provide ‘affordable’ as well as ‘convenient’ services to a majority of the urban population.”
In Delhi, there is a cruel irony for street vendors. While the capital city is home to the corridors of power that have established national policies recognizing the importance of street vendors, in reality, Delhi’s vendors bear the brunt of police harassment and mistreatment at the hands of various government authorities. This article will detail the struggles and the successful organizing strategies of Delhi’s street vendors.
A brief sampling of Delhi’s markets shows the range of products that street vendors provide. Thousands of people throng to Janpath Market in the heart of the city to buy a variety of apparel and footwear items. Janpath is a favorite market for young people looking for the latest styles and fashions. Similarly, the Sarojini Nagar Market is a favorite destination for fashion-conscious young women.
Meanwhile, the Sunday book market in the Daryaganj neighborhood is a favorite for book-lovers in the city, from high-profile university professors to high school students. This market is not only famous for its hard-to-find books but also for the high-quality, affordable stationery. Further south, the Nehru Place market – famous for its electronic items – is a testament to the crucial role street vendors play in providing cutting-edge technology to the city. This market is not only famous among Delhi’s residents, but also attracts flocks of shoppers from neighboring states.
Besides these famous markets, there are numerous special weekly markets (Monday Markets, Tuesday Markets, and so on), which are organized by the street vendors throughout the city. These markets are visited by the residents of surrounding areas to buy goods for daily use. For example, the Sunday Market in the Jama Masjid area is especially well-known for its wide-ranging, affordable goods for everyday use.
The Struggles of Delhi’s Street Vendors
Though the street vendors’ markets present myriad colors, underneath the shimmer is discontent and anguish. These vendors contribute significantly to the urban distribution system, but in return face humiliation, harassment and confiscation threats from police officers and inspectors from local governing bodies such as the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). Municipal authorities frequently demand bribes from vendors. A study conducted in seven cities by Sharit Bhowmik found the working conditions of street vendors to be abysmal, with their average working days at least ten to twelve hours long.
Street vendors face different types of livelihood risks because of the legal, physical, and socio-cultural environment in Delhi. The “Report on the Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods” by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector states that, ‘‘The lack of recognition of the role of street vendors culminates in a multitude of problems faced by them such as obtaining licenses, insecurity of earnings, insecurity of place of hawking, gratifying officers and muscle-men, constant eviction threats, fines and harassment by traffic policemen.”
The most pressing and ongoing risk for many street vendors is the possibility that the local government authorities in Delhi, such as the MCD or NDMC, will forcibly evict them from the streets or confiscate their merchandise. This risk of displacement often increases in the context of elections, mega-events or efforts to beautify city centers; the eviction and displacement of street vendors during the 2010 Commonwealth Games is a testament to this harsh reality. Female street vendors face heightened risks, as they are more likely to operate in insecure or illegal spaces, trade in less lucrative goods, generate a lower volume of trade, and work as commission agents or employees of other vendors. As a result, they tend to earn less than male vendors in Delhi.
The problems of street vendors in Delhi are further compounded by the fact that vendors have very little access to social welfare schemes run by the Delhi government. Since street vendors spend the majority of their working time on open roads, they are vulnerable to different types of diseases like migraines, hyper-acidity, hypertension and high blood pressure due to pollution. The lack of toilets has an adverse effect on women’s health and many suffer from urinary tract infections and kidney ailments. Mobile female street vendors also face security issues.
Street vendors are increasingly regarded as a public nuisance by middle- and upper-middle-class people who aggressively demand restoration of pavements as public space when street vendors ‘encroach’ on them. Government officials and urban vehicle owners also consider street vendors to be a hindrance, claiming that they clutter the urban space and prevent the smooth flow of traffic. Vendors are accused of depriving pedestrians of their space, causing traffic jams and having links with criminal activities.
Organizations Working for the Rights of Street Vendors
There are many organizations of varying size and influence that have been working for the rights of the street vendors in Delhi. Considering the hostile environment in which vendors operate, the efforts of these organizations have provided much-needed respite and comfort.
Manushi Sangathan (“Manushi” is derived from a Sanskrit term for “human being”; “Sangathan” means organization) is one such group. Manushi has been involved in the process of reforming the system of vending licenses and providing a measure of livelihood security for street vendors in various areas of Delhi. Manushi Sangathan is famous for its “Sewa Nagar Project,” which was launched by the MCD and Manushi Sangathan in 2004 to accommodate street vendors in a organized, aesthetically-pleasing manner, without causing inconvenience to other road users. Through this project, 159 vendors in the neighborhood of Sewa Nagar signed a voluntary agreement to establish modes of self-regulation, stay within allotted space, maintain cleanliness, pay a monthly fee to the MCD through Manushi, , and pay for all other civic services without selling or renting out their stalls. This has been a unique project as it has been able to prove that vendors can be accommodated in an aesthetic and orderly manner, and the existing system of bribes and payoffs can be replaced by a fee-based access to market space.
Another prominent organization working for street vendors is the Shree Saibaba Tehbazari Welfare Association (Shree Saibaba is a beloved Indian holy man, and “Tehbazari” refers to street vending). This association is based in east Delhi and has been involved in advocacy for the rights of street vendors. It tries to lobby the vendors to put pressure on the government to bring much-needed amendments to existing pieces of legislation for hawkers.
NASVI (National Association of Street Vendors of India) is an organization whose inception, growth and work are closely interlinked with the movement for the rights of street vendors in India. NASVI, a coalition of trade unions, Community Based Organizations (CBOs), Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and professionals, was formed in 1988. It not only pressurizes the government by organizing the people and staging demonstrations, but also publishes many research papers and studies to highlight the plight of street vendors in the major urban centers of India.
NASVI has been particularly engaged in working for the rights of street vendors in Delhi, fighting against illegal eviction and confiscation of their properties. A case in point is the work of NASVI to defend street vendors who work on a portion of the pavement in Delhi’s Prabhu Market near central Delhi’s Sewa Nagar railway crossing. This market has operated since the 1960s, and most vendors in this market were granted licenses to set up booths following a Supreme Court directive in 2001. Yet in 2010, citing security concerns for the Commonwealth Games, the vendors were asked to temporarily shut down stalls. A year later, the MCD demolished the market, offering them another site on the city’s outskirts. NASVI helped the Prabhu Market’s vendors put up an effective resistance. It organized them into a registered body called
Footpath Vikreta Ekta Manch (Footpath Vendors’ Solidarity Platform) in 2011 and introduced the vendors to lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan who, along with NASVI’s lawyer, presented their case in the Delhi high court pro bono. In May 2011, the court gave much-needed reprieve to the street vendors by ordering that vendors could not be removed from the Sewa Nagar crossing till the disposal of their petitions. NASVI representatives organize and mobilize the vendors against the atrocities of police and local authorities and help them become aware of their rights.
Sarojini Nagar market in South Delhi is one of the many markets where NASVI’s efforts to organize and mobilize the street vendors have been very successful. Till recently the police used to be a big threat for struggling vendors, especially women vendors. Children of vendors used to run away when they spotted a police van in the market, since the police treated them as criminals. Harassment, misbehavior, beating and confiscation of goods were the order of the day. In the past, a few of them summoned their courage and reached the police station to lodge their complaints, but instead of taking up written complaints, the police officers there used to threaten them.
Hafta wasooli (weekly taking of bribes from vendors) was the common practice of police constables. Now the situation has improved a lot due to the sustained efforts of NASVI. NASVI representatives organized the vendors, helped them become aware about their rights and persuaded them to hold the meetings every month.
A group called Sarojini Nagar Rehri Patri Sangathan (Sarojini Nagar Street Vendors’ Organization) was also formed. Now meetings take place every month, and women vendors play an active role. Recently, hundreds of vendors staged a protest at the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), South, New Delhi and demanded action against an NDMC area inspector and five constables who misbehaved with women street vendors, beat them and threatened to torture them if they did not provide weekly bribes. Following up on this complaint, the DCP ordered an investigation into the matter and finally the vendors have got much-needed relief.
Besides these efforts, NASVI also has a prominent role in organizing international, national and state-level conferences in order to bring the attention of policymakers, planners and administrators to the issues of street vendors.
Legislation and Legal Environment
Since the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court in 1989 in Sodan Singh & Others vs. New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), which ruled that the “right to carry on trade or business...on street pavements, if properly regulated, could not be denied on the ground that the street pavements were meant exclusively for pedestrians and could not be put to any other use,” numerous organizations – including NASVI, Manushi Sangathan and others – worked painstakingly to collectivize the street vendors to pressurize the government to formulate a fair policy for street vendors at the national level. These efforts ultimately led to the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2004. This policy was reviewed by National Commission for Employment in Unorganized Sector, whose report led to a healthy dialogue in the country, which ultimately led to the formulation of a new National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in 2009.
Not satisfied with the 2009 National Policy, the various street vendor organizations intensified their agitation and advocacy efforts to get an effective and comprehensive national law to protect the rights to livelihood, social security and human rights of the street vendors. Their constant efforts ultimately led to the introduction of the “Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill” in the Lower House of Parliament by the Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. The bill seeks to protect street vendors against harassment and regulate their activities in public areas.
But the federal structure of the Indian government requires individual states to formulate their own policies and local urban bodies to come up with their own legislation, rules, and guidelines in the context of their local conditions. In this regard, it is disappointing to note that, though some states have been able to put effective laws in place, Delhi – a city with one of the highest numbers of street vendors in the country – is yet to enact a law for the regularization and legalization of street vendors. The need to enact a law for street vendors at the state level in Delhi can hardly be exaggerated, considering the harsh and inhuman treatment that is meted out to thousands of street vendors every day in the absence of such regulations. At best, one can hope that the policymakers and planners will take heed of the national bill, and expedite the process of consultation, formulation, introduction and passage of an appropriate bill to ensure the livelihood rights of the thousands of street vendors in Delhi.