Street Vendors and the ‘Right to the City’

“Ka Shillong,
Ka Meghalaya
Jong Baroh”

These words that appeared on placards by Shillong’s vendors at rally in June 2016. It carried a political message that is at the heart of demands for rights to livelihood and right to the city. In very plain terms the vendors stated that the city of Shillong, and the state of Meghalaya belongs to everyone. This message challenges dominant ideas of belonging in a city that has experienced decades of violence- both state and non-state- whose primary purpose has been to mark difference. These differences between the state and its subjects, between the ruling classes and the poor, between tribals and non-tribals, between different ethnic groups are most apparent in the urban layout of Shillong. Increasingly visible divisions between private and public spaces, and concomitant shrinkage of public spaces only attest to the divisions that mark the city. Streets and public spaces are sites of work and livelihood for street vendors and hawkers. Streets and public spaces are also political spaces. Streets are not only the sites where politics of the urban poor are carried out. Streets give shape and form to those politics. Streets are therefore actively political spaces.

Raids carried out by the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) and the Meghalaya police on busy streets and markets to rid vendors and hawkers were a commonly occurring sight growing up in Shillong. Witnessing the regularity of such raids I wondered about the point of the exercise given that the hawkers would be back there the next day. Money, and bribes were obvious answers. Still, the purpose of chasing vendors down, beating and harassing them made little sense. What real purpose lay in the repetitive actions of removal and displacement, followed by reclaiming of those spaces by vendors?

The SMB led eviction drives that forcibly displace street vendors and hawkers from Shillong’s streets and pavements have intensified in the last two years. This is a result of changes affecting the city in the last two and half decades. The liberal economic reforms in India since the 1990s reinscribed Shillong as an important urban center in north east India. Shillong was the colonial headquarters of the British government from mid 19th onwards. After the formation of India in 1947, Shillong continued to occupy a politically and economically strategic place in the nation’s geography. Government initiatives after 1991 including the Look East Policy, and Development of the North Eastern Region recognize the significance of the region and urban centers like Shillong for accessing markets and economies of South East, and Eastern Asia. Economic policies and political processes in the wake of such recognition have impacted urban governance in Shillong. The changing urban landscape and the attack on vendors and hawkers are conditioned and motivated by the larger politico-economic concerns of the Indian state. The efforts to reimagine the city of Shillong as a city of elite capitalists and savvy politicians, of rock music and football clubs effortlessly ignores the everyday reality of the streets. And why not, since it only enables the invisbilisation and criminalization of work and politics carried out by the urban poor.

In the wake of such changes, laws enacted to protect the livelihoods of street vendors seem crucial. Central and state legislations in the last two years that have attempted to regulate and protect the livelihoods of street vendors- one of the largest forms of informal work in India. These laws seek to regulate vendor’s movement by regulating the city and its public spaces. This essay raises questions about violence against vendors and role of laws and regulations. The recent central and state laws understood within the history of urbanization in Shillong and the north east borderlands, as well as shifts in demography of urban spaces, and state-society relations point towards the limitations of demands placed within the ambit of legal rights.

 The State and Central Legislation

The central government passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act in 2014 after a concerted effort led by the Self Employed Women’s Association, National Association of Street Vendors in India and National Hawker’s Federation. Movements in India such as the one led by SEWA’s women vendors in Delhi or Hawkers of Kolkata organised by NHF for the passage of a central law to decriminalize and regulate vending have articulated the right to the city as a fundamental constitutional right. The resultant Street Vendors Act recognised vending as a legal right to livelihood alongside demarcating where in the city those rights exist and where they don’t.

The Meghalaya government in accordance to the central legislation passed the Meghalaya Street Vendors Act in November 2014. The provisions of the State Act differed from the central legislation. It excluded a definition of natural markets, one of the few provisions in the central act for the protection of vending rights in such places that have historically brought together vendors and buyers. Additionally, it lacked any mechanisms for addressing disputes and grievances. In response to state led eviction of hawkers and vendors in the city of Shillong, the Meghalaya & Greater Shillong Hawkers and Street Vendors Association (MGSHSVA) was formed in 2016 with the initiative of Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR). Together these two organisations have launched a campaign demanding the amendment of the state law to include greater provisions to protect vendor’s rights. The Meghalaya Street Vendors Act in its words is meant to “provide protection of livelihood of urban street vendors and to regulate street vending and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto.” The act is limited to urban areas of Meghalaya and subject to the trading licenses issued by the Autonomous District Councils of Meghalaya.

The Act defines a street vendor as follows:

“ “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 or private area or from a temporary built up structure or by moving from place to place and includes hawker, peddler, squatter and all other synonymous terms which may be local or region specific; and the words “street vending” with their grammatical variations and cognate expression, shall be construed accordingly;”

A city-wide scheme instituted by this legislation would also include the “norms of spatial planning to be adopted by the planning authority for ear marking vending zones for street vendors”. The Act also defines “vending zone” as “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.”

This spatial plan incorporates a development plan, zonal plan, and layout plan. Vending zones will be divided into restriction free zones, restricted vending zones, and no-vending zones. Such divisions can be applied to private spaces as well as public spaces. The renewed planning of the city based on restriction and permission to vend is supplemented by provisions for a digitalized photo census to enhance survey registered vendors within the vending zones. The Act further elaborates that the scheme for street vending would include instructions about the form and manner of registration, granting licenses and identity cards to street vendors, issuing fees, filing appeals, allotment of stalls, fines, renewal of licenses, eviction and relocation.

The Act alongside decriminalizing vending, seeks to achieve spatial reorganization and more effective policing of vendors. Alongside granting the right to livelihood, the Act restricts movement of vendors by defining zones where the constitutional right can be exercised and zones where the same is absent. Classifying vendors as registered, and unregistered intensifies the policing of vendors movement. The basis of issuing licenses leaves many vendors vulnerable. The definition of vendor in the legislation does not account for those employed by or alongside the primary vendor in a particular trade. Ancillary trades remain ignored at best, illegalized at worst.

The understanding of the city, and public spaces within the city is crucial to any effective measures at providing the right to livelihood to street vendors. The incremental modernizing impulse of urbanization that includes regulating and segregating spaces goes against the very nature and spirit of vending and hawking as itinerant, flexible and fluid trades. It is imperative to question how the modern city of Shillong and its streets are imagined, and who constitutes the public? How can this law be understood vis-à-vis the political articulation reflected in the placard that states Meghalaya and Shillong belong to all? Apart from the stated advantages of legalizing the right to vend, what are the disadvantages of registration and licensing? Who and which groups will find it difficult to get licenses? What happens to those who carry out vending as one among several occupations to make ends meet? How is the specter of the illegal Bangladeshi migrant many of whom are itinerant vendors further criminalized through this law?

Questions raised in this essay are posed in solidarity with vendors whose are fighting for legal rights in accordance with the central Street Vendor Act, and whose struggles have a farther reach than the terrain of legal rights. Instead of attempting to answer these questions, it might be more useful to revisit the urban history of Shillong contextualised within the history of development of the north east region. This will help locate contemporary realities within historical processes and lead us to ask more questions if not arrive at definitive answers to the questions above.

Urban History and Development in North East India

Early writing on the north east frontier of the British Empire describe the region as “swathes of jungles” inhabited by communities classified as tribal. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries colonial expansion into the region produced a frontier space transformed through politico-economic reorganization and social transformation. Historians have explored a long history of dynamic trading, religious, and social interactions between communities of the Himalayan borderland region, obfuscated by colonial literature. During the course of expansion into this region the colonial government created and operated from nodal centers such as Rangpur, Cherrapunji, Darjeeling, and Shillong. Shillong was the capital of undivided Assam in post colonial India. Grappling with the political upheaval in the north eastern region the Indian state passed the North Eastern Areas Reorganisation Act 1971 and created new states of Meghalaya, Assam, Manipur, Tripura, and union territories of Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram.

The developmental history of the north eastern region is connected to its geopolitical location and the geographical idea that the region is a frontier or borderland. The nature of urban spaces in the north east such as Shillong must be understood as part of this history of colonial frontier governance with its specific attention on boundaries and borders. The history of the emergence of Shillong as an urban center is tied to its history as a political center of the north east frontier of the British Empire in India. Shillong was carved out of a small portion of the polity of Mylliem. The “vicinity of Shillong” was a preferred site for many reasons.[ii] The colonial government wanted a suitable alternative to Cherrapunji, which was found to be too rainy and marked by missionary indiscretions, and European corruption. The colonial office in Bengal reported to the Home Office in favour of a shift from Cherrapunji to Shillong arguing that it will barely cost the government more than it would to build infrastructure for the growing number of Europeans in Cherrapunji.[iii] Shillong, it was argued was more centrally located than Cherrapunji and therefore more accessible.[iv] Two and a half square miles of land was acquired by signing various deeds and agreements with private individuals who held property in the vicinity and were compensated in cash, as well as with the Syiem or Chief of Mylliem Mellori Singh who was provided land of equal quantity. The sacred hill of Shillong was not held in proprietary capacity by any one person and therefore belonged to the category of Ri Raid land. This portion of Shillong was included as part of colonially administered territory but without any compensation or purchase value.[v]

In mid 19th century a committee consisting of military officers, a police officer, an engineer and the District Commissioner of the Khasi Jaintiah hills prepared an elaborate report. This report discussed aspects including sanitation, administration, military presence, soil and minerals, climate, water, fuel, supplies, building material and labour. This report did not refer to the ways in which the land, water and forests were already being used by the inhabitants. For instance, although it recognised the ‘‘sacred hill of Shillong’’, ritual and social uses of the hill were ignored and due course the hill was stripped of the sacred forest cover.[vi] Major Rowlatt viewed the immense potential of investing capital in the cultivable waste lands in the hills.[vii] The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal sanctioned the transfer of headquarter of the Deputy Commissioner’s establishment from Cherrapoonjee to Shillong on 29th October 1861.[viii] 1626 acres of land was ceded under an agreement and money in payment was made for the purchase of an additional 759 acres from individual proprietors.[ix] The Syiem of Mylliem was compensated with a “token amount” of two hundred rupees. Colonial records stated that the compensation was meant for the colonial Government to be considered as liberal and not taking advantage of a weak state by the neighbouring polities.[x] Shillong became the headquarters of the hill district in 1864.[xi] The polity of Mylliem was split between the jurisdictions of the Syiem and the colonial government like Sorah had been.

Shillong, like its hill station counter part of Darjeeling, was characterized by urban cosmopolitanism brought about by transformation of the city as a political and economic center. Sylhetis from district of Sylhet coopted within the Bengali identity were employed in clerical jobs in the new official seat of power in the north east. Gorkha regiments, Marwari traders, and Europeans occupying various roles including soldiers, missionaries, planters and traders, and colonial government officials formed the demographic of Shillong in addition to Khasi subjects of the Syiem of Mylliem whose jurisdictional status was complicated as inhabitants of British occupied territory. According to the District Commissioner of the Khasi Hills infrastructural developments such as road building, survey operations, and other administrative activities would be more conveniently pursued from Shillong. After the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hill districts were appended to Assam’s jurisdiction in 1875, Shillong’s proximity to Guwahati was also found valuable. Shillong continued to occupy an important position as a political center and economic hub in India after 1947 when the British acceded to transfer power to an independent India. The border with East Pakistan and the contentious relations with political communities in the north east guided a coercive and militaristic approach to Indian state making in present day north east. The region was carved up divided between East Pakistan and different polities that were included in India with the signing of instruments of accession and military occupation. Shillong became the capital of undivided independent Assam.

Nehruvian socialism in post independent India pursued a developmental agenda in the north east with the intention of restructuring the political economy of India. This plan was enabled by a plural legal-administrative structure inherited from the colonial state. Local politicians recorded their fears of refugees from East Pakistan and demographic changes in the region during the Constituent Assembly Debates. East Pakistan was not the sole international border that caused anxiety to local and national leaders. The Indo-China War of 1962 further intensified geopolitical considerations and enhanced military infrastructure in the north east. Various political communities across the region asserted their political aspirations between 1962-1972 culminating in new states. This was accompanied by revised boundaries, and new mechanisms for control. For instance the State Bank of India played a significant role in the economic integration of the new north-eastern states, while a plural legal system combining customary, state, and military law were tools of governance. The 1980s ushered in enhanced public expenditure through a new policy known as the Development Paradigm. This plan was meant to support plural governance and help connect the north eastern communities with the rest of the country. Resistance to efforts to flatten cultural differences and multiple histories and the militarisation of the landscape manifested in political movements that were in turn variously managed or repressed. The effects of 1990s neoliberal economic reform and urbanization in north east India must be understood within a long history of repressive governance through military and plural legal ordering of a borderland or frontier space.

The city of Shillong in the 21st century continues to be a military base, a commercial hub, and a locus of political power. Different political interests, and Shillong’s place in the economic and geopolitical motivations of the Indian state affect the ordering of the city through laws and regulations. India’s Look East Policy envisioned to tap into the northeastern region as the gateway to south east Asian markets was revised under the BJP led government. The newly proposed Act East Policy attempts to strengthen the foci of the previous policy which included security and defense, trade and investment, and engagement with people of north east India. Additionally, it has incorporated China and Australia within its ambit of reachable markets. Shillong as a political locus and urban center occupies a crucial role in the imagination and implementation of Act-East policy. The regulation of space and the regulation of trade are important for Shillong to fit into the new developmental agenda.

Place Based Politics in Shillong

Where does the street vendor fit into the State’s scheme of development and urban planning in Shillong? Shrinking of public spaces that are legally available for vendors, and eviction drives point towards an obvious erasure of their role in urban planning. Despite the integral role played by vendors in sustaining a balanced relationship between rural economy and urban needs both the government and city’s middle class have been shortsighted in baying for the removal of vendors from public spaces. Public opinion has been reduced to an absolutely simplistic notion that clean roads reflect progress which in turn require the removal of vendors. The attack on subsistence rights of the rural and poor in Meghalaya is an attack on fundamental rights as pointed out by the movement towards the central Street Vendor Act 2014.

The central legislation brings into focus issues around the right to public spaces and the efficacy of legislative interventions. In the movement towards a central legislation in New Delhi the street vendor’s demands emerged within spaces created by organisations like National Association of Street Vendors in India (NASVI), Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and NHF. Such demands, mediated by these organisations, and couched in terms of legislative and policy initiatives foreclose the historical claims to public space. The complex political locations of vendors Shillong who belong to various communities and ethnic groups carries with it the possibility of reclaiming the ‘right to the city’ by cutting across divisive and classificatory identities. The radical potential of the vendor’s political mobilisation in Shillong lies in the combined demand for indigenous rights, women’s rights, and workers rights.


[i] Harvey, David. (2008): ‘Right to the city’, New Left Review 53, pp. 23-40

[ii] Foreign Political, September 1863, no 25-36, National Archives of India (NAI)

[iii] Foreign Political, September 1863, no 26, NAI

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] There are several folk tales about this hill and the fate that befell the Syiem who without the consent of the people sold the lands to the British. See Bengt Carlsson, Unruly Hills : A political Ecology of India`s North East (New York and Oxford Berghahn Books 2011):1-2

[vii] Foreign Political, September 1863, no.27, NAI

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Foreign Political, September 1863,no.31, NAI

[x] Foreign Political, September 1863,no. 54, NAI; C U Aitchison, A collection of Treaties Engagements and Sanads Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries Vol. XII (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch 1931), pp.170-171

[xi] BC Allen, District Gazetteer: The Khasi Jaintiah Hills, Vol. X. Allahabad: Pioneer Press, 1906, p. 94



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Reeju Ray Written by:

Reeju Ray teaches history at OP Jindal Global University. Ray’s forthcoming book with Oxford University Press titled Placing the Frontier Hills examines the movement of law and its interface with custom in the north east frontier of the British Empire in India. She is currently working from her hometown Shillong.

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