The whole debate regarding the right of hawkers is actually a fight for space in Shillong with the driving question being: to whom does the city belong? This raises the question of legitimacy of claims on the part of the hawkers and tries to contrast it with those of the pedestrians, putting them in conflict with no hope of a consensus. But I feel that this is a false dichotomy meant to blind the people from real issues. However, first let us tackle the issue of legitimacy of hawkers’ claim to public spaces like the footpaths. This can be done by analyzing the two specific terms, that of “street vendors” and “vending zone” and understand their implications on the claims of street vendors/hawkers.
Even in the highly flawed Meghalaya Street Vendors Act, 2014 a street vendor “means a person engaged in vending of articles, goods, waters, food items or merchandise of everyday use or offering services to general public, in a street, lane, side walk, footpath, pavement, public park or any other public place”. What this definition implies is that street vendors are recognized as such because of their occupation of public spaces such as footpaths unlike the regular shop owners who have their business establishments on private plots. So questioning hawkers occupying public spaces like footpaths is in fact, doubting the very veracity of the definition itself. One may raise the objection on the ground that the definition of hawkers maybe based on the present reality but their occupation of footpaths has to be assessed on the basis of probable future uses. They may be defined as those who occupy the footpaths presently but should they be allowed to continue to do so? It is here the definition of vending zone becomes important. Vending zones are “an area or place or a location designated as such by the planning authority for the specific use by street vendors for street vending and includes footpath, sidewalk, pavement, embankment, portions of a street, waiting area for public or any such place considered suitable for vending activities and providing services to the general public”. As such even the Act that the state government has passed clearly states that street vendors/hawkers have a claim to footpaths since in a vending zone these are the spaces that they would naturally occupy. So the street vendors/hawkers’ claim to footpaths is legitimate and is backed by appropriate law as well.
But even after all this a complaint can still be made against the street vendors/hawkers, that is, although they may have legitimate claim to the footpaths, their claim should be curtailed because it disturbs the general public environment, i.e., congestion and traffic jams. The point in question here is—are the street vendors/hawkers the real culprits behind the congestion in Shillong? And will removing them free the roads and make life easier for pedestrians? There are many reasons regarding congestion of roads in Shillong and primary among them is the tremendous increase in private vehicles without adequate provisions being made for parking space and infrastructure. Mothphran is quite notorious for this with the road going to Jeep Stand totally overwhelmed by parking of private vehicles. An important thing to remember is that street vendors/hawkers occupy a very small space on the footpath, around a couple of feet or so. On the other hand, a vehicle parked, even a two wheeler, occupies more than double this space. So why is it that the street vendors/hawkers are being targeted when they not responsible for hindering the smooth flow of traffic? Furthermore, new buildings should only be allowed if they provide for adequate parking space. But is it being followed? What about buildings that are encroaching on footpaths? Are the owners of these units being taken to task? So it can be seen that the real culprits are never chastised or discussed even, but the softest targets are being punished. Is this fair?
So if someone believes that removing hawkers will reduce congestion and lead to free flow of uninterrupted traffic then they will be hugely disappointed. The real solution could be a substantial improvement in the public transport which will reduce the number of vehicles plying on the road while also providing a wide range of choices for inner-city mobility to the general public. This will not only improve business for public cabs (contributing to their livelihood) but also make use of the various buses that were purchased under JNNURM which are currently lying unused. Is the misuse or the non-use of public buses purchased under a public scheme not an issue of corruption? That’s food for thought.
A further and more important aspect to the above arguments are the questions as to whether the hawkers/street vendors can be a part of the solution and, finally, can they contribute to the economy in some way which justifies supporting them? Regarding the first question, I submit that street vendors/hawkers in fact make the roads safer for pedestrians. If one were to walk along the GS road they would realize that because of the iron railings the footpaths have become very narrow making two way traffic very difficult. When there is a rush pedestrians inevitably will be forced to spill on the road. If the logic of removing street vendors/hawkers on the assumption of their safety is accepted then this would mean that the pedestrians are also in danger. The solutions may lie in increasing the width of the footpath or allow pedestrians to use the road. Street vendors/hawkers by virtue of selling on the edges of the road would force the speed of the vehicle to be reduced making it safe for the pedestrians to walk. In this way they can be a part of the solution.
Lastly, there is the issue of the contribution street vendors/hawkers make to the economy of the state. Many studies in different parts of India have shown that the business generated by the street vendors/hawkers is highly significant. In this piece I would like to go more into the hypothetical issues (an empirical study will be attempted in the future). One of the common complaints that the Meghalaya Government has is that they have very limited financial resources. They may have public money to go on foreign tours for educational purposes and raise the MLA scheme from one to two crore rupees but there is no money for the public! Increasing revenue generation is therefore always touted as a very important concern. The street vendors/hawkers play a very important role in this.
The street vendors/hawkers come from the very poor and marginalized section of the society, whose consumption is very low, i.e., they have low demand. This section constitutes almost half of the state’s population. Therefore, an increase in demand among this section will increase revenue significantly. Demand will increase once the purchasing capacity increases which has to follow an improvement in their socio-economic status. This again can happen when the livelihood in which they are engaged is supported. Unlike the upper class whose consumption transcends state boundaries, the consumption of this section is restricted to the local economy. Also many of them have links with the rural economy which also gets boosted because rural products find a wider market. This again boosts rural demand. All of these will eventually enhance revenue generation and make the state financially healthier. This does not ensure total self-sufficiency for the state, but with stronger local demand the economy can be expected to do much better. With improving socio-economic status, the street vendors/hawkers can improve their business and become future investors into the state economy. Unlike investors from outside the state, the benefits of investment will remain within the state.
With economic benefits available by supporting street vendors/hawkers why does the government want to follow the opposite route, i.e., depending on central grants and private investment from outside the state? The reasons are very simple: by following a model of growth driven from outside the state, it keeps the common people dependent on the political class who by giving freebies during elections can garner their support. And secondly, by courting private investment from outside kickbacks are guaranteed, i.e., crony capitalism.
Therefore, the street vendors/hawkers are not the problem, they are in fact the solution in many ways than one can possibly imagine. But right now they are being used as a punching bag by those who have a stake in keeping the real issue hidden and the state economically backward. There are close links between the right of street vendors/hawkers and that of the general public on the city’s spaces while imagining a more humane city and a just development for all. Is it then wrong to stand for the right of the street vendors/hawkers?