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How we define the street

New street vendors act is welcome. But questions of hawkers’ rights come down to our understanding of city spaces and people.

Updated: March 10, 2014 10:42 am
STREET-VENDOR-MEDIUM Street vendor regulations do not take place in a vacuum; their effects are shaped by existing structures of power. This act, while thoughtfully conceived, still leaves big questions unanswered. (PTI)

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 which they issued pautis, or receipts. Unable to acquire licences, street vendors saw these pautis as a de facto recognition of their claims to the spaces of their livelihood.

In 1998, the Bombay High Court ordered the BMC to stop this practice. Vendors say that their condition deteriorated sharply thereafter. In the meantime, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action produced a survey that exposed the huge extent of extortion (or bribery, depending on who you ask) street vendors encounter. In his account, R.N. Sharma describes the hostility survey-takers experienced from the police and their warm welcome from hawkers. (Far from a neutral knowledge-gathering act, the survey was seen by both parties as a powerful tool for furthering their interests.)

The three-member committee was similarly fraught. Hawker unions and citizen groups tussled over the designation of streets as hawking zones; both sides accused the committee of irregularities, unequal access and failure to abide by the high court’s rules. Street vendors noticed new “no-hawking zone” signs popping up on streets even before the list was  made official.

We can read the unintended effects of previous regulation efforts as a sign of things to come. They show how street vendor regulations, like all urban plans, do not take place in a vacuum; their effects are shaped by existing structures of power, and their impact is determined by existing arrangements of space and imaginaries of the city. This act, while thoughtfully conceived, still leaves big questions unanswered: On what basis will licences be issued?What will happen to street vendors who do not get licences? And how will the “street vendor” category be determined? The chaiwala, certainly, but what about the ancillary population of assistants, cleaners, knife sharpeners and kerosene sellers? Moreover, licensing and bans on demolitions do not preclude state violence.

The street vendor project (SVP) has documented hundreds of incidents of police harassment of licensed vendors in New York City. For small infractions such as the failure to display a licence or standing too far from the curb, notes SVP director Sean Basinski, vendors are required to pay fines far greater than those car owners pay for parking violations.

Certainly, regulation is needed. However, its meaning will lie not only in its content, but in the discourses and imaginaries that swirl around it. The question of street vendors’ rights ultimately comes down to our understanding of the city, the public spaces that constitute it and the people who animate it. It lies in the resolution of a tension between the regulatory impulse to segregate and concretise, on one hand, and the flexibility and fluidity essential to vibrant public spaces on the other. It also lies in the fundamental questions all cities face: How do we define streets — as places to pass through, or spaces of sociality? Whom do we imagine as the legitimate inhabitants of the city? When we invoke public space, as Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade write, who are the “publics” that we imagine it to contain? Street vendors’ rights are shaped by laws, but are ultimately realised by our answers to these questions.

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria  is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, US, is co-editor of the book ‘Urban Navigations: Politics, Space and the City in South Asia’

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