Hawkers, not harassers: Need to be sensitive to the plight of street vendors

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October 28, 2021 4:29 AM

Given pandemic realities, the points about overcrowding and sanitation are in right earnest but those are problems that can be addressed through reasonable restrictions and provision of civic facilities.

The Act estimates street vendors/hawkers to reasonably constitute 2.5% of the population of a city; to put that in perspective, the number for Delhi under the Act would be 5 lakh.The Act estimates street vendors/hawkers to reasonably constitute 2.5% of the population of a city; to put that in perspective, the number for Delhi under the Act would be 5 lakh. (Representative image)

Following petitions by shop-owners to bar illegal vending, hawking and squatting in Delhi, unlicensed vendors and hawkers were evicted from the Connaught Place area. The Delhi High Court had rapped the New Delhi Municipal Corporation and Delhi Police for failing to curb unlicensed vending. Now the HC will examine if the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014 interferes with planned urban development by heavily tilting the balance in favour of street vending and whether the Act infringes the fundamental rights of citizens in urban centres.

Prima facie, the court’s observations seem well-argued. The fact that the constitution of Town Vending Committees (TVC) favours street vendors is apparent. There are 12 elected members and a nominated member in the committee of 30 who directly represent street vendors, apart from three nominated members rom NGOs and CBOs, suggesting others that others are likely to be outvoted. Bear in mind that the TVC counts the number of street vendors in a geography and this count is then used to issue licenses. That CBOs and NGOs would be summarily aligned with street vendors, however, is a rather significant leap of assumption. And, the fact is that Delhi’s survey of street vendors reported just over 71,000 of them against varying estimates of 1.25-3lakh. The Act estimates street vendors/hawkers to reasonably constitute 2.5% of the population of a city; to put that in perspective, the number for Delhi under the Act would be 5 lakh.

The Act encodes “promotion of the vocation of street vendors” and debars authorities from declaring an area as a no-vending zone on the basis of overcrowding, as also sanitary concerns if such concerns are not solely attributable to street vendors, and can be resolved through appropriate civic action. This, the HC observed, is tantatmount to the law favouring street vendors.

Given pandemic realities, the points about overcrowding and sanitation are in right earnest but those are problems that can be addressed through reasonable restrictions and provision of civic facilities. As for the “promotion of vocation of street vendors”, no authority, least of all the judiciary, would be oblivious of the pain inflicted by the pandemic on the informal sector, including street vendors. PLFS 2017-18 estimates street-vending constitutes about 2.7% of Delhi’s employment. A study by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing reported 90% of street vendors lost work in the lockdown months.

The vulnerability of this pool, thus, is quite pronounced, and if the Act prods the government to promote their livelihood, there is reasonable ground. More so, with the post-pandemic recovery coming on the back of massive gains for the formal sector—and within this, the e-commerce sector. In any case, there is little support percolating due to various constraints, some of which are systemic—IndiaSpend pointed out in September that credit under the PM SVANidhi scheme, aimed at supporting street vendors, benefited just 11% of vendors who didn’t have the required permits for vending; it is estimated 75% of the vendors in the country fall into this class. This is not to argue that vendors’ interests must trump all others; but a little sensitivity and the right arrangement by authorities to support their livelihood is definitely in order.

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