Monday, June 14, 2010

The Plight of Street Vendors

On Friday night, the Noida authorities knocked down, took away or destroyed the wares of vendors, hawkers and sellers in many markets. One of these was my maid’s husband, a fish seller. More than fifty kilogrammes of fish was taken away from him. The representative of the Noida Authority accepted 500 rupees to let him go with his cart. Then, his senior came and took away the fish anyway. My maid told me that this is despite the fact that he is asked each month, to pay 1000 rupees each, to someone from the Noida Police and the Noida Authority, to sell fish. 

Two months ago, it was not just his fish that was picked up. He was taken to prison, kept in on a trumped-up charge of being drunk and disorderly, and only released at the end of three days after his brother and wife made repeated visits to the police-station, and gave a bail of 2000 Rs and copies of all the bank and other documents they possessed. What is his crime? That he makes the trip to the mandi each morning to get fish to sell to people like you and me? That he tries to make an honest living? That in a country where we cannot provide enough jobs to the educated, he is self-employed and is no drain on the government? 

I heard that ‘the Committee’ came to our local market too. They threw the home-made momos sold in stalls outside, down on to the ground; smashed the earthen handis filled with food; and refused to let the sellers leave quietly with their food, though they begged them to. This is worse than criminal when we know that everyday there are many Indians who starve to death or commit suicide because they cannot fill their stomachs. I have seen the fear that the Committee arouses.

 I was in the local market one day when suddenly everyone – the pavement book-seller who stocks authors ranging from Amartya Sen to Enid Blyton; the tailor who replaces zips, repairs buttons and alters clothes; the watchmaker; the newspaper vendor; – started rushing around, stuffing things into crates, dismantling their wooden stands. It would have been a stampede were it not that their movements were driven equally by fear and practice – a shameful reminder that this was not an unexpected event. This must happen frequently enough for them to react in such a concerted manner; and must be brutal enough to drive them into this controlled frenzy of activity despite being expected. And what for? What after all is illegal in selling books, providing services for repair, stitching clothes? 

My cook’s husband, a rickshaw-puller was beaten up some months ago, along with many others because he constitutes an ‘impediment’ to traffic if he comes across the main road from where he lives into the sectors where he gets his ‘sawaris’. I am no expert on legal provisions with respect to hawkers and street-vendors, and unfortunately neither are my maid or her husband. But I understand that the preamble of our Constitution states that India shall secure to its citizens equality of status and of opportunity and that all Indian citizens have a fundamental right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. This is limited only by the right of the government, to prescribe professional or technical qualifications for certain trades or professions, and to create monopolies in certain trade, business or industry in the interest of the general public. What I do see and understand is that we, the privileged of this country, no longer think of the poor as our people. 

We do not consider rickshaws, cyclists or pedestrians in our traffic plans; do not give any incentives for street-vendors to operate in a dignified manner; repeatedly thwart their attempts at making an honest livelihood – and then are surprised when they turn to crime. If this is what you or I received in return for enterprise, thrift and resourcefulness, what are the odds that we would not? This happened in my neighbourhood, but it is happening all over Delhi and the NCR, and all over India, despite organisations supporting hawkers and street-vendors and legislation in their favour. If there are any of us, who can stop this persecution in Noida or anywhere else – in any way – please help. 

 PostScript: My maid’s husband’s cart has still not been returned, “since it is a week-end”, but the Committee found the time to visit the market again on Sunday on their ‘cleanliness drive’. 

 Anisha Shekhar Mukherji 14 June 2010

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