Death by Breath: And malice towards the non-polluter

Death by Breath: And malice towards the non-polluter

Municipal policies keep street vendors and cycle rickshaws trapped in a web of illegality.

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We are told, given the congestion in Delhi, that there is no space for NMV lanes or hawker zones. But authorities have no difficulty finding space for motorways, even though this has meant that the city is choking. (Source: Express Photo by Ravi Kanojia)

Even before its knee-jerk crackdown on polluting vehicles, the National Green Tribunal passed a far more absurd sultani farman on February 17, banning street vendors and cycle rickshaws from select areas in Delhi on the ground that “such offenders add to the pollution of environment and degrade the air quality to the extent which is very injurious to human health, they should be liable to pay compensation in terms of Section 15 of the NGT Act, 2010.”

By what stretch of imagination can cycle rickshaws and vending carts be accused of causing air pollution? Cycle rickshaws are, in fact, the most eco-friendly mode of short-distance transport. They don’t consume petrol or diesel, nor do they cause sound pollution. A rickshaw charges a fraction of what a taxi would charge for the same commute. Similarly, mobile street vendors use non-motorised carts to carry items of daily necessity, such as fruits and vegetables, to the doorstep of the consumer. They save us the time, money and bother of having to go in motor vehicles to buy daily requirements from crowded markets where parking is a nightmare. Since their overhead costs are low, hawkers sell goods at lower prices than charged in established shops. They use mainly natural light and hence save on power. By contrast, regular stores use fans, coolers and ACs, in addition to numerous lights to ensure better display of goods.

Manushi has battled for nearly two decades to convince authorities that cycle rickshaws and street vendors deserve to be encouraged if we want to control carbon emissions. Unfortunately, municipal policies in all cities and towns have kept street vendors and cycle rickshaws trapped in a web of illegality through restrictive licensing policies. This makes them easy targets for clearance operations and confiscation drives, which are used by the police, municipal authorities and politicians to extort hundreds of crores by way of bribes.

(Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)
(Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

In response to public hearings organised by Manushi, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had announced a new, rational, market-friendly policy for street vendors and cycle rickshaws in August 2001. Vajpayee’s colleagues in the BJP worked to sabotage the implementation of that policy. However, Manushi persisted and managed to wrest from the NDA government a National Policy for Urban Street Vendors in 2004, even though the government made no attempt to actually implement it. It took another 10 years before the UPA enacted the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act in 2014. It has many weaknesses but it mandates that vendors cannot be arbitrarily evicted. Instead, they have to be given secure places in duly designated hawking zones. But since the act has not been implemented on any scale, street vendors are still hostage to extortion rackets.


The cycle rickshaw battle went another route. Frustrated by the resistance of the concerned authorities to dismantle the licence-quota raid raj as envisaged in Vajpayee’s policy, Manushi approached the Delhi High Court in 2007 to challenge the many lawless and unconstitutional provisions governing the operation of cycle rickshaws that enabled the police and municipal employees to confiscate and destroy cycle rickshaws at will. Every year, at least 60,000 rickshaws were being destroyed and many more released after paying hefty fines and bribes.

On February 10, 2010, the Delhi High Court declared the existing rickshaw policy as unconstitutional and struck down unrealistic quotas for licensing. It prohibited confiscation and destruction of rickshaws and ordered the Delhi government to constitute a special task force to decide on a new policy that treats NMVs as an integral part of road traffic by providing “equitable” road space for them. I was a member of that task force headed by then chief secretary Rakesh Mehta, who did a great job of finalising a new policy and legislative framework for NMVs in record time. However, the police and municipal authorities were perverse enough to challenge it in the Supreme Court, which fortunately upheld the high court order.

Since then, it has been an uphill and frustrating battle to get the new policy implemented. It requires the open registration of NMVs as well as dedicated tracks for NMVs and proper footpaths for pedestrians. However, the police and municipal authorities seem bent on preventing this from happening, despite the fact that a special bench of the high court is monitoring progress.

We are told, given the congestion in Delhi, that there is no space for NMV lanes or hawker zones. But authorities have no difficulty finding space for six- to eight-lane motorways, even though this has meant that the city is choking with petrol and diesel fumes. Likewise, the city government can’t find place for hawkers, though it is bending backwards to earmark huge tracts for car parking. Most vendors take less space than what’s needed for a medium-sized car and would gladly pay the authorities three to four times the amount car owners pay to occupy prime locations. The space occupied by a car becomes dead for all others, whereas street vendors create convenience for customers, generate their own livelihood and social wealth by providing low-cost outlets for farm produce and goods produced by small-scale industry.

All first-world cities have pedestrianised city centres and encourage cycling by having safe dedicated NMV tracks to reduce the use of motor vehicles. Asian cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have well-organised hawker zones. They have wide and beautifully maintained footpaths that make walking a pleasurable experience. By contrast, both cycling and walking on Indian roads are a nightmarish experience because our government thinks only of motor vehicles when designing roads. There is an active hostility towards those who follow a non-polluting lifestyle, whether out of choice or compulsion. Is it any surprise then that the very act of breathing in India has become a high risk proposition?

The writer is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi and founder president, Manushi Sangathan

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