Selling on the street

By Shiba DesoronApr. 04, 2017in Food and Water

Written specially for the Vikalp Sangam website

All my life, I have depended upon street vendors for various odds and ends; from paanipuri to pineapple juice, from sabzi to small toys. But until very recently I had never fully appreciated the  struggles that they face bringing to us the convenience that we take for granted. This realisation came upon me on my interaction with Janpahal, a group of people (registered as an NGO) working on the rights of street vendors in Delhi, fighting for their right to a peaceful livelihood and a dignified life.

Street vendors serving meals at Mayur Vihar, Phase 3
Street vendors serving meals at Mayur Vihar, Phase 3

There are roughly 2 crore hawkers in India forming 2% of our population. Vending is often a last resort, a desperate survival strategy for many poor. A sample survey by Janpahal showed that 69% of hawkers earn less than Rs. 150 per day, with 83% of hawkers working a minimum of ten hours a day and 91% of hawkers having no other means of livellihood to fall back on[1].

Yet theirs is a precarious existence, fighting corporate takeover on the one hand, and exploition and insecurities at the hand of police and the municipal corporation on the other. They are often treated as encroachers, with little acknowledgment for their identity and role . ‘Authorities act like sarkari gunde (authorised goons). The soch (mindset) of the adhikari (authority) still considers a hawker as a criminal, even if he himself may in the evening be depending on the same vendor for his snack or his sabzi.’ explained Hakim Singh Rawat. Rawat, a leader of the Delhi Hawkers Welfare Association, has been working closely with Janpahal team and has been active in fighting for the rights of street vendors for the past two decades.

The struggle is not a new one either. “Street vendors have always had to struggle for their rights. During the British colonial rule, police forces would come on horses with whips to drive them away.”  Rawat explained. On the same day tensions were high amongst the vendors in Ghazipur who had just heard that the very next day they might be part of a ‘cleaning drive’ since a minister was coming to inaugurate a power-plant.

Policy protection

A part of Janpahal’s activities has been persistent advocacy for central legislation to protect the rights of street vendors. On 20th February, 2014, when the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act was passed by the Parliament, their work was far from over because for the Act to actually live upto its stated intent of protecting vendor rights, it requires an enabling framework of rules and effective implementation. Dharmendra Kumar, chief functionary of Janpahal, explains, ‘In October 2015 when the rules were at last framed, the final draft was compromised because of pulls and pressures from other constituencies. As a result, it laid down many absurd conditions that would turn the Act into an Eviction Act rather than a Protection Act’. So Janpahal went into advocacy mode once more, asking for certain revisions. The revised rules that came out in January 2016 turned out to be a major victory for a positive and enabling framework.

Strengthening Town Vending Committees

An important aspect of recent policies has been the Town Vending Committee (TVC) which provides space for decentralised participatory decision-making on aspects connected to street-vending such as determining natural markets, identifying vending zones, preparing a street vending plan, carrying out surveys, etc. In Delhi, as part of an SC judgment, all municipal bodies were directed to formulate a TVC under National Street Vendors policy 2004. Janpahal had meanwhile been developing a cadre for representing street vendors’ interests in three zones (east, south and north) of Delhi. So when the TVCs were formed, there was good representation by vendor leaders who were adequately in touch with the issues faced by street vendors. 

When the Street Vendors Act (which also provides for a TVC) was passed, the previously existing TVC became defunct. But before it became defunct, it was seen to be an interesting and enabling space.  For instance, it would make note of evictions carried out, with a decision to resolve these, and in East Delhi Municipal Corporation, a circular was issued protecting Street Vendors who fulfilled certain basic criteria of identification.

At present there is no TVC. Delhi government will make the first TVC under the Act, which will then be run by the Municipal corporation. Subsequent TVCs will be elected by municipal bodies.

The Act, with all its potential for protection of rights, is a double-edged sword, and unless a constant check is kept through advocacy , it can be hijacked to increase insecurities of the street vendors.

Janpahal is keeping its eyes and ears open, ensuring representation of people from the hawkers’ network in the official lists for TVCs that are presently being circulated for consideration. It is also giving them training on understanding and using the Act.

Federation for advocacy and action

FDI Watch protest in Delhi
FDI Watch protest in Delhi

It often takes a rallying point to bring things together. In this case, it started with India FDI Watch, a campaign for protecting retail democracy in India during a time of corporate rise in the retail sector, by building awareness and facilitating grassroots action. ‘During these struggles, it was the vendors that formed the mass in the mass-protests. So it made sense to move slowly from resistance to working towards an alternative,’ explained Dharmendra Kumar.

As a part of the campaign, Joint Action Committees were formed across India, and were led by those most affected by corporate retail and foreign direct investment, viz. small businesses, unions, hawker organisations, farmer groups and small scale industries. On 12th December 2012 a Delhi-based non-registered platform called Hawkers Joint Action Committee was formed which had a charter of demands and lobbied for a central act that would be pro-vendors. The role of Janpahal was to take it to the agenda of the Parliament. The Joint Action Committee eventually evolved into the Hawkers federation, the largest federation of street vendor associations, groups, collectives of Delhi, with a membership base of twenty three thousand and Janpahal. In Mayur Vihar phase-3, Badam Singh, one of the local leaders among the vendors felt, ‘the union helps in connecting our struggles and standing with each other. Janpahal connects with politics, policies’.

Vendors have also organised themselves into smaller groups, often area wise, many of which are members of the federation. One such group that we met was registered as Ghazipur Hawkers’Welfare Association. In an area where relationships between police and vendors had at one time been strained, the vendors that we spoke to expressed a clear confidence that the relationship has improved for the better. Zakir Bhai of the Ghazipur association said, ”Vendors are considered as the eyes and ears of any area, and being located in a border region, officers from the government and police are now welcoming a cooperative relationship with this group. It is the only market in which the government has given a special card to the vendors.’

Protest by Hawkers Joint Action Committee against violence on women
Protest by Hawkers Joint Action Committee against violence on women

Having a federation helps in building a common perspective on pressing concerns. Apart from its constant struggles (such as protection against eviction, and retail democracy), the federations also takes up issues like demand for ladies toilet in market spaces (led by the women’s group) , or issues connected to minorities.

Connecting street vendors with the Food Safety Act

Janpahal is also engaging with the food safety authority to help implement the Food Safety Act (2006) amongst the street vendors. This interaction is a strategic engagement with a double target. On one side, it would help improve the level of cleanliness and hygiene for food supplied by street vendors. The second motivation is however more subtle. Under the Act, hawkers needs to register at Authority giving Rs. 100 per year. This is seen as a plus point because it gives them an identity card that is stamped by the government.Such an interaction would provide a stronger basis for affirming their identity and right to vending as a livelihood.

Janpahal (through its sister organisation SMMSSS, supported by ActionAid for this activity) is conducting training about the provisions of the Act and how to implement these, at a pilot level with 200 vendors. The idea is to create a cadre of master trainers that can carry the learning forward in a decentralised manner. The first training happened recently (16 February 2017). During this training, Janpahal brought out available government instructions in the form of pamphlets and posters so that larger discussions could happen. Some of the challenges facing effective implementation of the Act, as identified by them, were- regular follow-up after the trainings, behavioral changes among street vendors required for implementing some of the provisions, need to modify some provisions to fit existing realities, and the need to go beyond cooked food in what is included in its jurisdiction.

Street vendors who had participated in the food safety training organised by Janpahal
Street vendors who had participated in the food safety training organised by Janpahal

Speaking to vendors from Mayur Vihar (Phase 3) who had participated in the training gave a general sense of positive reception of the trainings. Radha Singh expressed, ‘training is considered as good for it will help us in getting more customers  and will also help us learn. They are given aprons, wiping cloths, sanitisers, caps and gloves.  Some things are useful while others, like gloves, are impractical where people have to handle hot food.’

Being part of this training also gives them hope to influence the system (through communicating with such authorities) to respond to local issues. For instance, street markets should have water supply and toilets provided by the municipal corporation. Government is responding in some places. At a local level, they are also campaigning for ladies’ toilets, which exist in the policy framework but not there at the market level. They are also demanding a community tap in the market, which is linked to food safety.

Good food for all

Good food meeting in Jwala Nagar, February 2016
Good food meeting in Jwala Nagar, February 2016

Beyond the Food Safety Act, Janpahal is also looking at various connections in the web of interactions between producers, street vendors and urban low-income consumers, to ensure good food for all. This project, with some support from Misereor, is still at an incipient stage with small steps prodding in this direction. For instance serving millet malt (rather than tea) in their meetings and talking to people about making their rotis multigrain again, holding community cooking events where they talk about nutrition and also remember old recipes from their hometowns and home-gaons. They are also aiming to find ways to connect small farmers growing organic produce with street vendors, and connect those street vendors subsequently with the urban poor consumers, so that good and safe food does not end up being an elitist luxury but is accessible to all sections of the society. The team is dedicating itself with enthusiasm and excitement towards this new challenge of making such connections.

The approach of Janpahal is thus multipronged, engaging at the level of policy comments, grassroots action, and liaisoning with the government wherever possible. The focus, while looking at street vendors’ rights, goes also beyond that, encompassing multiple layers of issues of dignity, access and social justice.

[1] Janpahal and India FDI Watch, 2011, ‘A future of coexistence?-Hawkers and the impact of corporate and chain retail’

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