A walk along our neighbourhoods in Bengaluru will indicate the vibrancy of some of our streets. Colourful carts of green and other bright colours with a fresh supply of vegetables, fruits and flowers are therapy for the eyes, and also ensure we buy the required vitamins and minerals for our well-being.
The carts of street food that offer a quick snack after shopping, or the much-needed energy after too long a day to cook dinner at home, are such a blessing. More importantly, the little stalls in unexpected corners selling just what you were looking for – such as a jacket for your mobile phone, a much-needed umbrella, the jhumkas that match perfectly with the lehenga for the cousin’s wedding, or even those bling shades you’ve always wanted for the vacation you’ve been planning – are a dream come true. For we can get all of these at a reasonable price with a little bargaining, and the beauty of it is that most often we can negotiate in a language of our choice!
To most of us who have grown up in south India, and particularly in Bengaluru, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam and Hindi are languages we can tick off as ‘working knowledge’. This is a great advantage while shopping on the city’s streets. Many of us buy our veggies regularly from the same vendor, with whom we have a human connection. Or we return to the vendor who had promised to get a different pattern or colour of mobile jacket.
Over time, we know our street vendors as much as the prestigious shops on premier roads of the city. Sometimes, when they are not seen for long periods at particular places, we wonder what happened to them. And soon they become a chronicle we share in random conversations when complimented for jewellery or shades bought on the street.
Further, you cannot imagine walking on certain streets late in the evening if it were not for street vendors. Their presence brings safety and often emergency help to women, children, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Cities across the world have nurtured street vending. Hong Kong, New York, Amsterdam, Dhaka, Bangkok and Kolkata are some examples.
Research has indicated that street vending is taken up by necessity or has been ancestral, and is many a time the rational choice for economic independence/lifestyle maintenance. Studies have also shown that street vending is a large source of employment for women, with ease to enter and exit depending on other responsibilities. It also is a space that embraces those not formally-schooled or not skilled enough for formal jobs.
With increase in mega projects for mining, power generation, industrialisation and infrastructure construction across the country, and the failure of agriculture, thousands are forced to migrate to cities. For many of them, street vending is the preferred livelihood.
Law protects street vendors, but not in Bengaluru
Street vending has increased across the world’s cities, with policies, laws and programmes to make it a dignified and rewarding livelihood. Vendors have come together to build movements and bring in social equity. Street vending has also gained recognition, giving birth to the International Street Vendors Day celebrated on November 14th.
The Constitution of India respects livelihoods as an intrinsic part of Article 21, the Right to Life and Personal Liberty. Besides, Article 14 deals with equality before the law, Article 19 (1) (g) guarantees every citizen the right to practice any occupation, trade or business, subject to reasonable restrictions supporting wider public interest.
And beyond all these, the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, guarantees dignified occupation on the street. As per the Act, street vendors should be identified through surveys, and permitted to work in designated vending zones.
The Act had mandated state governments to frame Rules within a year – that is, by 2015 – so as to enforce the Act. Now, it is almost five years since the Act came into existence, but the Rules have still not been finalised.
The Karnataka High Court has given plenty of directions to the state government to implement the Act, in response to multiple PILs. It has also directed the state to conduct a survey of street vendors and issue ID cards over the last two years.
Most recently, this June 11th, HC directed the Chief Secretary to file an affidavit explaining the delay in implementing the Act. The direction was in response to PILs filed separately by the Federation of Bengaluru Street Vendors Associations, and other individuals/groups.
Many street vendors still constantly fear they will be evicted without notice. A part of their earning goes regularly in paying hafta. Uma (name changed), a flower seller in Padmanabhanagar, pays a hafta every month to a place of worship, so that she is allowed to work nearby. She complains of regular headaches and difficulty breathing. She has to brave the heat, rain and cold, leave home early and reach late; she works 12-13 hours a day.
Uma also shares how work conditions are harsh with no access to water, toilet or a decent meal. She says she has forgotten sleep, and that much of her earnings go into healthcare for her ailing husband. She says “I hope that my work will help get my children some education, so they can lead better lives.”
There are nearly 2-3 lakh street vendors in the city as per newspaper reports. They form a significant part of the informal economy that is not dependent on the state for subsidies, tax holidays, loans or credit. A large portion of them are women.
Street vendors have new battles to fight too other than reclaiming their space. These new battles are to keep their businesses sustainable in the world of e-commerce.
What happened to the draft Rules?
The city has advanced its plans to expand the Metro rail, the multi-crore elevated corridors and other infrastructure projects, and has bigger plans to tackle air pollution. But the small street vendor community continues to be ignored.
The state Urban Development Department (UDD) had submitted the draft Rules for the Street Vendor Act in 2016, and sought public comments on it. But UDD later shifted responsibility to the state government’s Department of Skill Development, Entrepreneurship and Livelihood.
The Skill Development department made further changes to the draft, but has not yet sent it to the Department of Parliamentary Affairs and Legislation (DPAL) for approval. The Rules will come into force only once DPAL approves it. It is unclear why the process is being delayed. Whether the revised draft will be put up for public consultation again or passed directly, is to be seen.
As for the street vendors, all that has happened so far, is BBMP’s tokenistic issual of temporary street vendor IDs. A large section of vendors were excluded from even this process, vendors’ associations have claimed.
Why is the state blind to the needs of this small yet significant community? Why is there a delay in implementing the provisions of Street Vendors Act? What does it take to conduct surveys, identify street vendors, issue ID cards, form Town Vending Committees, allot vending zones and make the city vibrant for these self-sustaining low-carbon-emitting livelihoods? Soon time will tell what the delay is all about. But the resilience, endurance and resolve that drives this section of our city is incredible.