EPW Vol – XLIX
No. 10, March 08, 2014 | Nita Mathur Commentary
The Street Vendors Bill, awaiting the presidential assent, may hinder an otherwise informal and fl exible business model. Reducing the level of regulation and rigid bureaucracy could pave the way for a law that takes into account the concerns of the street vendors themselves.
The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2013 (hereafter SVB) was passed by the Lok Sabha on 6 September 2013 and by the Rajya Sabha on 19 February 2014. The bill which is awaiting assent of the president to be an Act,1 is being treated as a milestone in progressive policy response to unemployment and economic displacement of the urban poor. However it appears that in seeking to protect street vendors from mistreatment by the civic agencies and the police, the SVB opens floodgates of a new set of problems. While the need for regulation of street vending is imperative, equally important is the need to view and review it critically with the objective of arriving at the best possible practice. This article examines some of the key features of the SVB with insights provided from interviews with 60 street vendors in Delhi.
Street vendors are too prominent to be ignored in Indian cities. The 55th round of the National Sample Survey Office survey (1999-2000) records the number of street vendors in the range of 17 to 25 lakh. The National Policy
Street Vendors estimates the number of street vendors in a city as 2% of its population (Twenty Third Report, Standing Committee on Urban Development
2012-13). The street vendors routinely carry out petty transactions in cities unmindful of vehicular congestion and pedestrian rush. Public sympathies oscillate between periods of tolerance to anguish and intolerance. The government is seized with the responsibility of providing opportunities of employment and entrepreneurship, ensuring accessibility of goods and services widely; and at the same time, protecting people from various forms of disorder. The ruling of the Supreme Court (SC) in Sodan Singh and Others versus NDMC case in 1989 is pertinent:
If properly regulated according to the exigency of the circumstances, the small traders on the sidewalks can considerably add to the comfort and convenience of the general public, by making available ordinary articles of everyday use for a comparatively lesser price. An ordinary person not very affluent, while hurrying towards his home after a day’s work, can pick up these articles without going out of his way to find a regular market. The right to carry on trade or business mentioned in Article 19 (1) of the Constitution, on street pavements, if properly regulated, cannot be denied on the ground that the streets are meant exclusively for passing or re-passing and no other use (ibid).
The ruling of the SC marked a shift in the perception about street vendors as a nuisance disturbing public order to one in which they are accepted as contributors to the economic situation and as providers of goods and services to the people at their convenience. Selling on the streets is a compulsion for some and choice for others. What irks most of them, however, is the high-handed treatment of the police and civic authorities. The SVB provides a sense of victory to the vendors as it marks a watershed moment in their prolonged struggle to secure dignity and freedom from harassment at the hands of civic authorities and the police. The Congress Party
, which steered the bill, hopes to secure the support of street vendors at this electorally crucial time. All-in-all, it seems to be a win-win situation for both the ruling party and the street vendors.
The SVB is preceded by the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009 which aimed at creating a social and economic environment that is conducive to the pursuance of street vendors’ livelihood. While the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009 handed out the responsibility for its implementation and appropriate legislation to the states, the SVB is a response to a long-felt need for central legislation that would recognise the contribution of street vendors and provide uniformity in legal framework across the country. This was also a demand of street vendors, both at an individual and the collective level through the National Association of Street Vendors in India (NASVI).
The SVB provides for setting up a town vending committee (hereafter TVC) in each local authority.2 The TVC would be chaired by the municipal commissioner or the chief executive officer. Street vendors will comprise at least 40% of the members elected from among themselves.3 The SVB states that the number of other members, as may be prescribed, would be nominated by the government representing the medical officer of the local authority, the local authority, the planning authority, traffic police, association of street vendors, market associations, traders associations, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, resident welfare associations, banks and such other interests as it deems proper.4
The TVC will be entrusted with tasks of (i) maintaining updated records of registered street vendors, publishing street vendors’ charter, and carrying out social audit of its activities; (ii) conducting survey of all street vendors once in five years; and (iii) issuing certificates of vending and identity cards to all street vendors with preference to scheduled castes (SCS)
, scheduled tribes (STS), Other Backward Classes (OBCS)
, women, persons with disabilities, minorities, etc. The certificate of vending would specify the category of vending, vending zone, days and timings allotted to a street vendor
for carrying out his/her vending activities. The number of street vendors accommodated in each vending zone would be 2.5% of the population of the ward, zone, town or city. In case the number of applicants exceeds the holding capacity of a vending zone, the TVC would call for a draw of lots for issue of certificates. Remaining applicants could be accommodated in an adjoining vending zone.
The Other Side
The SVB in its present form is well intended, particularly in its provision of allocating space to street vendors so that they are not asked to move away from a congested area and then await an opportunity to get back. Many of them have had the experience of hastily wrapping up their goods and running away for the fear of being persecuted by the staff of the municipal corporation or the police for selling on busy streets or venturing into zones in which street vending is prohibited. The SVB’s mandate of having at least 40% of the TVC members elected from among the street vendors seems to be a democratic arrangement, yet it is possible that given the low level of organisation among them, only a select few contest elections, come to dominate and are co-opted by the State. There are no provisions to impede capture of the SVBs by vested interests even as concerns of the common vendor on the street are neglected or diluted by the SVBs.
Policies and laws that touch upon the lives of the masses should be obtained, if they are to be successful in improving their conditions, from an understanding derived from close interaction with the very people they target. As Bromley (2000: 17) puts it, “Regulating street vendors, or offering promotion and support, requires interactions between dozens of local officials and thousands of vendors, with enormous potential for misunderstandings, avoidance and deception.” In the absence of such a rigorous exercise, attempts at regulating street vending may not end up benefiting vendors much. The SVB, in fact, may well have put the cart before the horse in pressing for periodical surveys of street vendors after the Act comes into force when surveys and studies on street vendors should have informed the SVB in the first instance; drawing up a baseline for further studies and action. Subsequent surveys and studies would then serve the purpose of assessing the impact of, and the pitfalls in, the SVB.
The heterogeneity of street vendors as an occupational group in terms of scale of operation, and nature and scope of street vending activity hurls a challenge at the twin processes of framing and executing countrywide, monolithic law(s). While for some, street vending is a part-time activity which they pursue only for a few hours in a day, for others it is a day-long activity, and yet others engage with street vending occasionally. While there are street vendors who have been selling at the same place for a long time and in that sense are stationary, there are also those who are on the move most of the time following a single route or changing it occasionally or frequently, as the desire or need to. Additionally, there are a number of them who sell at one place for a few hours in the day and move around colonies in the remaining working hours (they are both stationary and mobile). The interchange between being stationary and mobile by a street vendor is common.
Following the SVB, the issue of certificate of vending under categories of a stationary vendor, a mobile vendor or any other category specified in the scheme laying down the timings and place of vending category is likely to curtail the freedom of street vendors. It will foreclose the opportunity of switching from one way of operating to another and changing place of selling according to one’s own will, situation, circumstances and/or business acumen. These may well create various opportunities for harassment
of street vendors by civic authorities and the police similar to what they face now. There is every possibility that the gains from this much-hyped law will be outweighed by the restrictions in it, hitting street vendors hard in the near future.
Additionally, the restrictions imposed by specifying the holding capacity of vending zone may have two interrelated fallouts. The first is that many street vendors will be forced to abandon their best-suited selling spaces because they could not make it in the draw of lots. Of them, a few might find that business at their newly assigned places limit their earnings, forcing them to look for other, more rewarding, alternatives and thus again opening the door for abuse by civic authorities and the police. This could also render many of them unemployed and create an army of surplus labour, particularly when one keeps in mind that street vending is one of the main absorbers of the urban unemployed – old and young, illiterate and literate.
As Bandopadhyay (2011) mentions in the context of the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in India 2009, the state does not have a ready-made plan to deal with the surplus labour in the country, much less in this sector. He suggests that the National Policy should be linked with a larger employment generation scheme led by the state, failing which the implementation of spatial restrictions and the registration mechanism, will make local lobbies and government functionaries extremely powerful and exploitative. Concerns regarding loss of income and the rise of powerful lobbies that will determine future policies with regard to street vendors are however not addressed in the SVB. The second fallout is the rent-seeking behaviour of interest groups comprising powerful lobbies and local-level regime functionaries. Licences and permits for street vending spaces could, despite legal prohibitions, be lent for a tariff or sold at a premium. Since interest groups tend to control allocation of benefits and resource, they could well invest their will in furthering means of appropriating the rent-generating component of the SVB. This is not surprising since corruption is known to loom large when power is concentrated in the hands of a few elites.
Street markets have given gainful employment to the urban poor with low skill sets and to the displaced (Bhowmik 2010), and in doing so has helped them emerge as important nodes of economic growth. What makes street markets a viable place to carry out transactions is the informality of work and working conditions that broadly allow individual street vendors to sell at places of their own choice and schedules of selling. The SVB tends to overthrow the benefits of informality as it makes street vending a kind of formal enterprise by way of regulating it in ways that are detrimental to the vendor. Cross (2000) mentions that such endeavours entangle informal enterprises in formal rules that they are all-equipped to deal with. This amounts to undermining the very factors that make informal enterprises successful and lucrative for those who are unable to secure a place in the formal sector. More specifically (ibid: 45),
From engaging in a flexible and evolving economic activity focused on family subsistence needs (and often involving the avoidance of control by authorities), they are sucked into a rigid set of rules that they can barely understand and even less likely to be able to challenge or manipulate. While their businesses would be more ‘accountable’ they may in fact be less successful.
This does not make a case for a total rejection of the present regulation of street vending. What it calls for, however, is a revisit of the rules that make corruption a more lucrative enterprise than profitability in the business enterprise and a sense of confidence in the policy/law and the officials handling it. In operational terms, the SVB will benefit largely from loosening the nature and extent of regulation in order to accommodate vendors’ own choice of the means of carrying out business at their own pace.
1 This Act, when promulgated, will be called the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014.
2 The SVB defines “Local Authority” in following words: “ ‘local authority’ means a Municipal Corporation or a Municipal Council or a Nagar Panchayat, by whatever name called, or the Cantonment Board, or as the case may be, a civil area committee appointed under section 47 of the Cantonment Act 2006 or such other body entitled to function as a local authority in any city or town to provide civic services and regulate street vending and includes the ‘planning authority’ which regulates the land use in that city or town”.
3 Of these, one-third would be women street vendors. There would also be representation of street vendors belonging to SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, and persons with disabilities.
4 At least 10% of the members would represent NGOs and the community-based organisations.
Bandopadhyay, Ritajyoti (2011): “A Critique of the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in India, 2009”, available athttps://casi.sas.upenn
. edu/iit/ bandopadhyay, accessed on 7 February 2013.
Bromley, Ray (2000): “Street Vending and Public Policy: A Global Review”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 20(1/2): 1-29.
Bhowmik, Sharit (2010): “Introduction” in Sharit Bhowmik (ed.), Street Vendors in the Global Economy (New Delhi: Routledge).
Cross, John C (2000): “Street Vendors, Modernity and Post Modernity: Conflict and Compromise in the Global Economy”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 20(1/2): 30-52.
The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2013 as passed by Lok Sabha on 6 September 2013, Government of India, New Delhi, available at http://18.104.22.168/Bills
Eng.pdf, accessed on 24 February 2014.