Stories of Changes – Shehnaz

In the year 2016 there was much talk about the plight of the Onion Farmer; with prices plummeting the farmers claimed that they were earning barely a rupee on every kilogram that they produced. And while ministries and policy makers contemplated what should be done to offer the farming community a better livelihood, a very different story presents itself on the streets of Sanpada.


Meet Shehnaz.

She has been selling onions and potatoes on the pavements of Sanpada, a locality in Navi Mumbai, since 2009. While her earnings are minimal, so far they have helped her to support her family of five. But the sudden surge in the number of onions reaching the city forced her and her fellow sellers into an extremely competitive market. “The onions had flooded the market, so much so that onion sellers were sometimes coming here themselves to sell their produce. So while the customers had a good time bargaining, we were struggling to make any profits”, she said.

With chaos reigning in the market, it remains just one of the hurdles that Shehnaz Sayyed faces. Her primary concern continues to be the struggle for a regular space for vending; a space from where she is not chased away by the authorities. And while she had always dreamed of her own space to sell her wares, it was not until she met Vinita Tai, a member of the YUVA staff, that she believed this was possible.

Through many interactions, workshops and community meetings, Shehnaz learned that there was in fact a law that asked for the very same thing that she was asking for. In 2014, the Government of India enacted the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, which among other things states that each locality is to allot a fair amount of space to the vendors, who amount to 2.5% of the population. Following a survey of all the vendors, they will be given vending licenses and allotted a designated space in the “vending zone” decided upon by the Town Vending Committee.

But Shehnaz laments, “The survey in Sanpada is yet to be conducted, and until that day the vendors continue to sell in undesignated areas”; in the meanwhile, they are constantly harassed by police and municipal authorities. And while the Act clearly states, “No street vendor shall be evicted or, as the case may be, relocated till the survey is completed and the certificate of vending is issued to all street vendors”, Shehnaz says that the municipal vehicle comes often and seizes the goods of the street vendors. What’s more, she claims that, in this right too, they do not follow the protocol; she says, “I sell onions and potatoes, which fall under the category of ‘perishable goods’, so according to the law they have to return the goods in one day. But this never happens and so I have to incur the losses on those goods.”

In this context, it wasn’t long before it dawned upon Shehnaz and her companions that a fight for justice would involve a struggle to ensure the implementation of the Act. Since 2014, they have joined hands with YUVA and the Hawkers Federation to rally for their rights. This coming together to join the larger movement stems from her belief, “Ekta nahi to Sanghatana nahi” (Without unity there will be no organisation), which she wears on her sleeve.

Shehnaz says that their struggle has taken them from the streets of Navi Mumbai to the streets of Delhi, where they had united with approximately 15,000 street vendors to collectively demand for the immediate implementation of the Act. For Shehnaz the exposure that YUVA offers to conferences and conventions has allowed her to meet with vendors from all across the nation and it is from their struggles that she has included new strategies into her own, as well as renewed her strength to continue onward.

Shehnaz’s vision for the street vendors in her area is not an air-conditioned market where she can sit comfortably with customers coming to buy their vegetables from her. Instead she aspires towards a regularisation of the traditional market, when she says “for me a natural market is one where we continue to sit down, beside the schools, colleges and stations, and sell my goods. After all these are the locations that are most convenient for the public.”

To read about YUVA’s work with street vendors and other workers occupied in the informal economy visit our livelihood page .