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Prasoon S Majumdar
Editor, Economic Affairs - The Sunday Indian
Dean Academics (All India), The Indian Institute of Planning and Management

Chandni Chowk to China!!!

Indian street vendors deserve a better status...

The street hawkers and vendors are just not an integral part of Indian economy but also a part of the picture perfect incredible India! When it comes to these hawkers and their stalls, they provide the magical glamour that have been attracting foreign tourists and has been inspiring artists since ages. Paradoxically, in spite of these vendors who in myriad forms are deeply entrenched in our daily lives, are still treated with blatant indignity. This, in spite of the fact that this unorganised profession continues to employ not just a large chunk of rural population but also a significant urban population as well. Even the number of women engaged in street hawking is substantially large. India has an estimated 10 million street vendors in its cities, which is around 2-2.5 per cent of an average Indian city’s population. While Mumbai alone has 2.5 lakhs vendors, the capital has another 2 lakhs vendor.

Street vending is a global phenomenon. Be it in the US, Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong, China, Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam - hawkers have been doting the streets of these cities since ages. And interestingly in most of these places, vendors are treated at par with any other small-scale business and are not discriminated because of the sheer nature of the occupation. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia, there are specially designated areas for hawkers. These hawkers or vendors are provided with licenses and hygienic conditions which are operated and maintained by government bodies. Malaysia goes a step further and provides credit schemes and even training programmes to their street vendors. For that matter, in Hong Kong, hawker centres are located in market complexes (near residential areas) in the form of stalls and is managed by Food & Environmental Hygiene Department. Sri Lanka’s street vendors can practice their occupation by paying a daily tax to the municipal council, while in Bangkok there are 287 designated sites in the city, from where vendors can legally operate. In contrast to these international practices, India’s street hawkers live and operate in the most deplorable conditions. Forceful extraction of illegal rent from hawkers is an age-old practice. Around Rs 400-500 crore per city (especially metropolitans) accounts for illegal rent and bribes, which accounts for around 10-20 per cent of vendors’ earnings. There hasn’t been any consideration towards providing them with any kind of social security. So much so that none of the welfare boards across the nation has included street vendors in their list of beneficiaries. If these vendors are issued proper ID cards, it would make it easier for them to conduct and operate their business and to some extent protect them from illegal rent and bribe-seekers. It is so unfortunate that such a treatment is meted to this profession which not only provides daily meals to a land of starving millions but also provide a market to commodities manufactured by numerous small industrial units. Despite street hawkers officially being part of the informal sector; authorities have always tried to marginalise them in the pretext of traffic congestions, modernisation and urban development.

What is the point if in our urge to match our city standards to that of Shanghai and Paris, we largely ignore the contribution made by these people (street vendors) and treat them as dirt? It would be a win-win situation if we adopt and learn from our South-East Asian counterparts and provide these vendors with designated areas to operate instead of victimising them. Time to remember that Paris wouldn't have been same without its roadside painters.


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