The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2014, was finally passed by the Rajya Sabha on February 19 and received presidential assent last week. This is to be lauded. Since the late 19th century, the official view has been to treat street vending as a problem, a nuisance, a backward practice that has no place in a modern city. The result has been a century and a half of skirmishes between hawkers and the authorities. This conflict is one we all know well: in most Indian metropolises, street vendors fleeing with bundles of vegetables in advance of the arrival of anti-encroachment trucks are common scenes.
The street vendors act seeks to eliminate this. It orders local governments to survey existing vendors, issue licences and set up hawking zones where hawkers and customers already congregate. The act also forbids evictions until this system is in place. By recognising the public service street vending represents, as well as the employment it provides, the act will play an important role in, to use Arjun Appadurai’s formulation, making “visible” an otherwise “invisible” population.
The passage of the act comes in the aftermath of a decade of activism by the National Association of Street Vendors and the Self Employed Women’s Association, which was preceded by a 30-year legal battle. This history is key to understanding the present. Following violent demolitions in Mumbai in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Bombay Hawkers’ Union filed a case against the Bombay Municipal Corporation (as it was named at the time). In 1985, the Supreme Court decided that street vending is constitutionally protected, but only if it abides by municipal regulations.
The court directed the BMC to develop such regulations. Ten years later, the Citizens’ Forum for the Protection of Public Spaces (later known as Citispace) filed a case against the BMC for its failure to follow the court’s orders. In 2003, the Bombay High Court passed a judgment in Citispace’s favour. It detailed specific rules for hawking: no cooking on the street and no vending within 150 metres of train stations, schools and hospitals. The judgment also called for the creation of a “three member committee” to survey the city and establish hawking and non-hawking zones.
In short, the central elements of this act — surveys, orders to cease evictions until licences are issued and orders to create a new licensing system — have been attempted before. Perhaps we can read the unintended effects of previous regulations as a sign of things to come. Following the 1985 court order, street vendors’ tussles with the police and municipality continued.
In Mumbai, for a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the BMC collected small fines for unauthorised street vending (which affected a majority of vendors), for continued…