In 2004, India became one of the few developing countries to adopt a policy for urban street vendors. The 2004 policy, for the first time, provided official recognition to the fact that with the stagnation of jobs in the formal sector, and the the growing informalisation of the urban workforce post-liberalisation, street-vending/hawking had emerged as a low capital and low barriers-to-entry form of self-employment and self-sustenance. It would take another decade for this policy to take the form of a legislation, but the following words from the introductory paragraph of the policy signalled a sharp break from the past
The role played by the hawkers in the economy as also in the society needs to be given due credit but they are considered as unlawful entities and are subjected to continuous harassment by Police and civic authorities.
This policy aims to ensure that this important section of the urban population finds recognition for its contribution to society, and is conceived of as a major initiative for urban poverty alleviation.
In cities like Mumbai and Ahmedabad, de-industrialisation on account of large-scale closure of textile mills had pushed a large number of workers towards the informal sector work including street-vending. At the time of the formulation of the 2004 policy, it was estimated that 2.5% of urban population in India was engaged in street vending, accounting for over 1 crore self-employed persons in the economy. The largest number of workers were estimated to be in Mumbai (2.5 lakh) followed by Kolkata (2 lakhs).
The policy itself was an outcome of a long history of organising and mobilising by street vendors towards recognition of their right to the city. Some of the familiar milestones of this journey, as narrated in the popular versions of this history, include: the Bellagio International Declaration of Street Vendors (1995); the formation of national level organisations of street vendors – National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI, 1998) and National Hawkers Federation (NHF, 2000); and the seven city study of urban street vendors by NASVI (2011) highlighting the key issues for advocacy; formation of National Task Force on Street Vendors by the Government (2001) for drafting of the policy which included representatives of the street vendors’ organisations as members; the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) on the policy (2006); adoption of revised National Policy on Urban Street Vendors (2009) based on the recommendations by NCUES; the judgement (2010) of the Supreme Court of India (Gainda Ram vs MCD) directing the government to frame a law on street vending and eventually the enactment of the Street Vendors Act, 2014.
In many ways, this long struggle got a fillip with the judgement (1985) of the Supreme Court in Bombay Hawkers’ Union vs BMC, in which the union had challenged, on the grounds that they violated Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, the constitutional validity of sections of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, which granted discretionary powers to the corporation in granting street vending licences. The case generated considerable media interest and debate. While the apex court rejected the challenge, it held that the powers ‘…to grant licences to hawkers is in the nature of a discretion coupled with a duty. It is, therefore, essential that the said power should be exercised by consulting all concerned interests and guided by considerations of what is in the interests of the general public.’ A scheme of designated hawking and non-hawking zones was formulated based on the guidance of the court, wherein the issuance of licences was to be the norm in hawking zones while issuance of vending licence in non-hawking zones was to be at the discretion of the corporation.
One of the very first studies which attempted to estimate the scale of street vending and the situation of street vendors, was a census-survey of vendors operating on Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) lands carried out in 1997 by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) as an outcome of the judgement in the Bombay Hawkers’ Union case. The survey was carried out during October/November 1997. In addition to the enumeration of all the street vendors operating out of BMC lands, the location of street vending areas were mapped onto ward maps to understand the overall pattern of vending in Greater Mumbai.
The total number of vendors enumerated across the 23 wards surveyed were 1,02,401. While the street vending areas were spread across the whole city, there was concentration in the Fort and Dadar area. In each ward, there was concentration around suburban railway stations. Only 5.5% vendors had a vending licence, while 31% of the vendors had a daily recovery receipt (pauti), a payment recovery system that was introduced by the BMC in the 1980s. The survey-census reported widespread abuse of the system by the BMC staff who engaged in rampant rent-seeking.
Less than one-third of the vendors were part of any unions. Over one-fourth of the vendors reported having faced adverse action from BMC in the last 6 months, indicating the extent of vulnerability attached to the informality of their work. Such action by BMC and in some cases, the police, led to rent payments as well as loss of several days of work. A majority of the vendors (83.2%) were male, and generally in the age group of 25-44 years. While one-fourth of the vendors were illiterate, there were a significant proportion of those who had studied up to high school and a few had attained higher education as well, indicating the function of street vending as a source of employment for the surplus labour of the city.
In terms of policy implications, the study indicated that
“…in the formulation of policy guidelines for the regulation of the activity, the factors which have to be given due consideration are relocation close to existing location, flexibility in sizes of hawking places, fixation of differential rates, making the collection system less cumbersome, and creation of awareness among the hawkers regarding zoning, collection of revenues and other aspects pertaining to their activity.”After the completion of this study, to address the absence of a policy or legislation for street vendors, in 2000 Hawkers Sangram Samiti (Kolkata) and other members and unions launched the National Hawker Federation (NHF), a national platform to collaborate efforts and push for a country-wide policy. YUVA has since continued to work on the issues and challenges faced by the street vendors in the context of the implementation of the Street Vendors Act, 2014.The report on the “Census Survey of Hawkers on BMC Lands (1998)” throws greater light on the history of the evolution of our understanding about issues of street vendors.
The report is available at YUVA’s Urban Resource Centre.