Do not see street vendors as menace

Integrate street vendors in urban development

In this column, a few weeks ago I had opined that as a city Gurugram must make way for cyclists and pedestrians. I received a few frantic calls from readers who felt that the real culprits for road congestion were street vendors as they encroach upon all possible spaces and cause a mess on roads. This reaction nudged me do some research on the national and state policy on vendors, vendors rights and the state of vendor affairs in the city. Here are some findings.

First things first. Our constitution grants all citizens the right to earn their livelihoods. Street vending is a legalised activity as per the Street Vending (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014. Besides, street vendors role in contributing to the growth of our informal economy cannot be denied. In all urban development policies, street vending is considered an integral and legitimate part of urban cities. So, this sector is neither illegal, nor non-beneficial.

Besides, street vendors not only help themselves by earning their livelihoods with dignity, they provide goods and services at a convenient place and affordable price to people. Step into the busy office lanes of Udyog Vihar in Gurugram during lunch hour to see the sea of people who depend for food on street vendors. Besides, street vendors act as the vital “eyes” on the road and help by maintaining a certain vibrancy in public places.  

What is creating a problem, however, is their lack of proper integration and regulation.  Be it zone planning of city, allocation of vending zones, vendors’ monitoring and regulation or providing the vendors the right environment to carry on their businesses is where most of our cities are faltering. In some cities like Gurugram the urban sprawl has been so sudden with such absolute focus on real estate that city planners have planned public spaces well. Due to lack of designated zones, vendors are forced to occupy pavements, green belts and parking lots of markets and residential areas. They undergo a lot of bullying and often pay hefty bribes to continue to function from their spots.

The Street Vending Act 2014 ensures vendors’ rights and provides a regulatory framework to safeguard their interest. The Act mandates the creation of a town vending committee (TVCs) comprising members of municipal corporation, traffic and local police, land owning authority, market and resident welfare associations, along with at least 25 to 40 per cent of representation of street vendors. The TVCs also get surveys conducted to identify vendors, and demarcate vending zones in the city. It has been found that in many cities TVCs are ill-formed or not functioning efficiently. Also, very little attention has been paid to organising vendors so that they could self-regulate themselves. The issues of vendor financing and their social security needs as prescribed by the Act has also been left largely unaddressed. It is actually quite an unpleasant scenario. While on one hand vendors and their associations accuse the police and civic authorities of harassment and ad-hoc evictions, the authorities blame the vendors for creating nuisance.       

Let us see the vendors’ state of affairs in Gurugram. On the lines of the national Act, Haryana implemented the Haryana Municipal Street Vendors Act, 2014. In the same year, Gurugram conducted a survey that identified 14,172 vendors in the city. Under a pilot study, four private agencies (now only three operate) were allocated two sectors each to implement the provisions of the Act. More areas and sectors were added in 2018 and a district-level TVC has also been formed under the chairmanship of the commissioner, Municipal Corporation, Gurugram. In the next survey in 2018, some 18,000 street vendors were identified. Vending zones were identified in pilot areas and a fee of Rs 1,500 is being charged from vendors post registration. As food vendors could not maintain proper hygiene due to dust on roads and open carts, standard vending carts were provided to maintain uniformity. The plan is to roll out the vendor programme in the entire city.

Many observations and learnings have emerged from the pilots. Vested interest groups and lobbies are coming in the way of running the vending function in a smooth manner. In some areas, strong resistance from shopowners’ associations have resulted in even court battles. Some shopowners lose out rents from vendors on regularising the vendors through registration while some see them as veritable competition. Then, some vendor associations have digressed from their role and are proving to be counterproductive to the cause of vendors. The Gurugram TVC itself is ill-formed and does not include all stakeholders. In some zones, cluttering of vendors has led to chaos and congestion. The allocation of carts was a good move but the focus has shifted from rehabilitating vendors to manufacture and sale of carts. There have been cases where carts have been sub-let and it is difficult to find the original allottees.

Summing up, there is an urgent need for a complete reassessment of the current street vending system in Gurugram. Proper demarcation of vending zones and allocation of the right vending spots that are not too intrusive to the city’s landscape is a must. The TVC of Gurugram must have better representation from all stakeholders and perhaps should form ward wise sub-committees. Moving on, organising vendor street food festivals can encourage their cause. Vendors could also be involved to help in city’s street sanitation. But most importantly, there must be an attitudinal shift as to how citizens and various authorities (both civic and police) view them.

What we largely see as nuisance can be converted into a new opportunity. All we need is some empathy and willingness to implement a plan that integrates street vendors in the city’s development agenda. Accepting and recognising them for what they bring to the city will make our cities more inclusive and more vibrant.

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