INDIA. Mumbai: The street vendors, a marginal population that supplies India with essential products from day to day, face repeated evacuations by local merchants that “feel their presence as a nuisance and a threat to their business.” The sellers in Andheri in North West Mumbai narrated their situation.
While conducting an interview with the National Association of Disabled’s Enterprises, a few street vendors reached out to the Transcontinental Times team to inform us about the struggles they have to endure to earn some money during Diwali. Here is what we have learned.
Street trading: the facts
The largest supplier of materials to do diyas in North Central Mumbai, Dharavi sells relatively high. The cost of transport between Mumbai and other regions is also prohibitive. This forces street vendors to carry their stock on foot from the location in which they live.
Street vendors living in marginal conditions walk long distances from Maharashtra to make a small profit in Mumbai. They make their lamps unsupported and when it comes time for special occasions, they set up makeshift booths on the side of Mumbai roads. As economic capital is needed to access the informal business sector, most families sacrifice nutrition to buy materials with the hope of providing for tomorrow.
Diwali is one of the few times that empowered artisans can earn something to help their families fight hunger. These street vendors have a very limited time to generate income as they have to quickly return to their place of origin and it is also very risky for them to remain in Mumbai. Therefore, they sell earthen lamps, ornate rangoli, gunpowder, and other materials at cheaper prices.
Street trading: an essential economic resource
While many of the so-called “hawkers” in India approached us, we have collected the testimonies of two women, as they have to endure more challenges to face the physical and psychological stress street vendors are put through.
Sheetal Shirke told us that she came to Mumbai on foot from Shirdi in Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra. She bore the burden of her merchandise throughout this terrible distance. Sheetal’s family did not have a penny during the long confinements, yet they continued the work of making clay lamps throughout the year.
Shirke added: “We have come to Mumbai to earn something to support our families. But we don’t have a place to sit and they force us to move from one place to another. We bring the lamps from Shirdi because we cannot pay to buy them at wholesale stores in Mumbai.“
Another supplier, Laxmi Patil, said that they are moved from one place to another with “such an urgency” that the lamps break in the process, and this is a loss they have to suffer. While it is unclear if the lamps break due to misfortune or not, Laxmi confirmed that they sell at prices cheaper than the stores so people can buy from them and they may return to their families. Doing so does not leave them a large margin, but allows them to provide bread. Patil added: “As such, the authorities should be lenient with us, as this is a very short-term seasonal job.”
The truth is that those street vendors sell as low as half the prices in stores and allow other middle-class and low-class Indians to pay Diwali’s decorations, otherwise, they could not buy in stores.
That said, if the authorities make an exception on “holiday-related hawker sales,” they would bring social good to at least two sides: marginalized sellers and impoverished communities living in Mumbai.
Street trading: dependent on the whims of others
Street trading has played an existential role in India’s urbane economies since the 1990s at the least. Despite the 2014 Street Vendors Act, authorizing Hawking Zones through regularisation, informal street trading is still criminalized by the authorities in Mumbai.
Of some 300,000 workers at the center of the conflicts, 95% have not been licensed since the 1998 ban of the pauti (daily receipts) system as no new licenses were issued to “street vendors” after that.
The previous pauti system gave way to corrupt practices of the so-called “space rent,” but the respective receipts from then are still a way for sellers to prove their legitimacy to authorities and other street vendors.
As a consequence of “bourgeois environmentalism” and the “neoliberalization of urban policies” since the 2010s, street vendors are coerced and attacked by corrupt actors in the forces of order, clientelistic oppressors, and criminals who, all together, exercise informal control over “street space.”
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution
In 1985, the Bombay Hawkers’ Union opened a case against the Municipality on fundamental constitutional rights, in particular the “Right to subsistence.” The regularization of hawkers’ activities was not achieved until 2014, but the change came from the bottom up due to the constant effort of people.
“Article 21: Protection of life and personal liberty” of the 1950 Indian constitution extends to “natural persons” and has a fundamental importance in a democratic society.
While Article 21 can only be claimed when a person is deprived of his “life or ‘personal liberty’ by the ‘State'” (excluding violation by private individuals), it has a much larger application enforced by the Tribunals.
Article 21 secures two essential rights: the Right to life, and the Right to personal liberty. Enforced by Tribunals, Article 21 also covers the Right to dignity, repose, health, tradition, culture, heritage, decency, reputation, a minimal wage, ownership, equality, gender parity, pollution-free water and air, privacy, to know, against sexual harassment, assault, rape, illegal detention, solitary confinement, etc.
The right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India includes the right to livelihood. The Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation case, popularly known as the Pavement Dwellers Case implied that the right to livelihood is born out of the right to life. The Court further observed: “If the right to livelihood is not treated as part and parcel of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation.”
Emphasizing upon the close relationship of life and livelihood, the Court stated: “Article 21 does not place an absolute embargo on the deprivation of life or personal liberty and, for that matter, on the right to livelihood. What Article 21 insists is that such lack ought to be according to procedure established by law which must be fair, just and reasonable. Therefore, anyone deprived of the right to livelihood without a just and fair procedure set by law can challenge such deprivation as being against Article 21 and get it declared void.”
Diwali: the triumph of light over darkness
Do you remember “The Little Match Girl” by H. C. Andersen? If you don’t remember it, you can watch it here and read it here. The story, about a dying child’s dreams and hope, was first published in 1845.
“The Little Match Girl” is all about the poverty, hunger, and helplessness of people who sell on the streets instead of staying at home or school. Whenever you cross a saleswoman, a hawker, remember the above image as in the so-called civilized society we don’t have the eyes to see through the plight of thousands of such hungry faces in our cities and towns even today.
The national network of street hawkers
- NASVI: National Alliance of Street Vendors of India, Facebook
- NHF: National Hawkers Federation, Facebook
Are you a Street vendor willing to submit materials? Reach out to the Transcontinental Times and share your story.