Street Vendors During The Lockdown
Street vending and hawkers are crucial parts of the informal economy which not only provide millions of people employment opportunities but also effectively promotes a form of entrepreneurship within the underprivileged classes.
July 14, 2020
The nationwide lockdown was accompanied by brutal evictions carried out by the police of poor street vendors all across the nation. Videos of vegetable and fruit carts being overturned by wandering cops, while the migrant labourer crisis was in full swing, paints a terrible picture of the Indian administration’s mismanagement of essential resources. A human centric approach to the nationwide lockdown was nowhere to be found, and this case was nowhere more starkly apparent than in the case of India’s street vendors.
There are an estimated 10 million street vendors in India, according to a study authored in 2005 by Sharit Bhowmik, a professor at Tata Institute for Social Sciences. In the past three months, this sector has been adversely affected due to COVID -19. All street vendors are daily wage earners and the COVID 19 pandemic has acutely affected their livelihood and access to resources. Their daily transactions involve busy markets and hand to hand transactions which have been completely decimated due to the current pandemic situation. The closure of wholesale markets is also creating a huge problem for street vendors. Weekly markets which were the main source of income for thousands of street vendors all over cities have been shut down and vendors are not being allowed to set up their shops/carts even with social distancing measures. The unprecedented situation aside, the response of all forms of government- union, state and local has left much to be desired regarding street vendors even now during the Unlock Phase in terms of accuracy of data, and long term coherence of plans.
The recent access to credit measures announced by the Finance Minister — commercial loans of Rs 10,000 for 50 lakh vendors — will reach fewer than half of street vendors, according to Saktiman Ghosh of the National Hawkers Federation (NHF). The data that the FM cited is not correct according to the NHF, which has a presence in 28 states since 1970. Ghosh argues that there are more than 20 million vendors (including roadside hawkers, mobile vendors, railway vendors), of which only 10-20% have been surveyed.
In a recent letter to the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, the NHF critiqued the amount of the initial working capital loans and the medium through which they are being extended, saying that commercial loans with cumulative interest rates being added over time will mean the hawkers will have to pay almost 20-25% over and above the original amount if they cannot repay the loans before the 31st of March 2021. This, says Ghosh, will be a drag on the financial assets of the banks and on the lives of the street vendors. A better alternative would be to include street vendors in the MUDRA loan scheme with an initial cash grant. Ghosh says: “Hawkers have had to break their reserve capital during the lockdown and therefore need cash grants, not loans to restart their businesses.” Individual states also released many orders regarding urban spaces and especially for street vendors who were facing dire situations. Orders specifically targeting street vendors were studied in an IGSSS report which analysed the first 3 phases of the lockdown.
States like Maharashtra, West Bengal and Assam did not announce any relief measures for street vendors even though together they comprise more than 10 lakh (25% by the FM’s estimates) street vendors in the country. National Secretary of National Hawker Federation, Asit Saha, said nearly 80 per cent of the population in states like Maharashtra and West Bengal depends on street markets for their purchases, while only 20 per cent visits shopping complexes.
Only 11 out of 30 states and UT specifically announced cash transfers for street vendors along with other vulnerable groups to facilitate survival during the lockdown. These cash transfers range from 3,000 (Odisha and Bihar) to 1,000 (Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan) for one month with varying dispersal times. They are mostly to be done through direct bank transfers (DBT).
One common thread between all of the cash transfer announcements is that these will only be done to ‘registered’ street vendors, which is where the serious lacunae lies. Registration depends on 2-5-year-old surveys conducted by local authorities which have gross underestimations, incomplete procedures, unverified bank account numbers, no linkages between IDs and bank details etc., all of which proceed to create massive problems for vulnerable street vendors who are already suffering from hunger and neglect. Even though there is inadequate registration or formalisation of vendors at this stage, states such as Rajasthan (where vulnerable vendor families were being provided sums of 1,000) have been showing signs of progressive and effective measures.
For street vendors, announcements of cash transfers specifically meant for registered vendors are insufficient as a majority of street vendors are not registered, are migrant workers with fluctuating addresses in this scenario. They also face unlikely futures in terms of repayment of any loan granted as weekly markets and hawkers bazaars will not be operational for the foreseeable future. It is doubtful if street vendors can fully rebuild their livelihoods after the lockdown without focused government facilitation.
NEED FOR OPERATIONAL GUIDELINES IN THE MIDST OF LOAN SCHEME
Government notifications ordering the closure of weekly markets in March have still not been taken back, moreover, street vendors are not being allowed to vend as there are no clear guidelines regarding this, from the states or the union government. Even the guidelines released on the 30th of June, which are to be followed during the UNLOCK 2 phase, do not mention street vendors. The Central Government has released operating procedures for offices, malls, public transport, factories and many other establishments but has not even mentioned operational guidelines for street vendors in any recent document.
In the month of June, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation released official circulars that signalled the commencement of the Street Vendor’s Survey process through an external company. The Jaipur Municipal Corporation has also undertaken a survey to identify vendors and give them identity cards so that they can avail the PM SVANidhi program.
If state governments are saying that they want to conduct the comprehensive street vendor survey in the midst of the fight against a dangerous pandemic, then how will the survey consider all the vendors who are not being allowed to open their shops because of the pandemic? Regular markets all over the country wear a deserted look with a few vendors and even fewer customers. The comprehensive street vendor survey should only be done after there are clear operational guidelines for street vendors released from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs which should be clearly communicated to (MHA) Ministry of Home Affairs.
Thousands of street vendors will be labelled as defaulters if they are unable to pay back their loans in the one-year period allotted for this scheme to run. Seeing the COVID situation in the country as of now, the situation for markets and street vendors and their customers does not seem like it will improve till next year. In that case, the repayment of the loans granted so early and demanded back so early as well will create an even worse situation for street vendors.
Even now during the UNLOCK phase, a large majority of street vendors are not operating as they are not ‘fruit, vegetable or grocery vendors’. In many parts of the country, thousands of street vendors are being harassed, evicted and harmed by police personnel because the state governments and Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs itself has not come out with clear guidelines and a mandate for street vendors to start their operation. If street vendors (not just essential ones) are not allowed to do their jobs how can they be expected to pay back an INR 10,000 loan especially since they have exhausted their savings in their effort to survive during the lockdown.
Street vending and hawkers are crucial parts of the low circuit or informal economy. Not only does this sector provide millions of people employment opportunities, it also effectively promotes a form of entrepreneurship within the underprivileged classes. Famous culture and city defining foods all started off as street food for the locals. The Covid 19 pandemic is truly a challenge for policymakers, politicians, CSOs and especially for vendors as they try to re-evaluate their profession in a situation where crowds are not welcome. As for the government response, there are clear steps to be taken that will help in protecting thousands of street vendors from oblivion.
1. Reimagining of weekly/daily large markets for health safety – In light of the Covid 19 pandemic, there may be many practices in world economies that will have to change or adapt to varying degrees of social distancing. The National Urban Livelihood Mission programmes like training exercises, capacity building exercises and must be re-planned. Weekly wholesale markets, which until now have always been close knit, informal affairs involving interactions with large groups of people, vegetables, vehicles and animals will have to be reconfigured into neat vending zones for each city, with the presence of licensed vendors operating in spaced out and well designed markets. Designated land for well planned markets should become first priority in all upcoming urban master plans to be implemented over the coming decade.
2. Inclusion of hawkers and street vendor unions in planning processes to facilitate widespread inclusive practices – Many grassroots organisations have fought for the rights and inclusion of street vendors, their registration and other help in the recognition of street vendors. They should be included by local authorities, especially in urban areas, in plans to further the registration of vendors and to convey orders or relief measures to them. Their expertise and far reaching networks can help build more inclusive plans for future and current emergencies.
3. Guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for street vending – Public guidelines, detailing the rules and guidelines to be maintained in marketplaces and how to deal with street vendors and related purchases during the COVID 19, should be drafted, printed and circulated widely so that every street vendor can display it on their stalls/carts. These public guidelines can relate to health and sanitary guidelines issued to the general public while interacting in a market area, such as cleanliness of the hands, cleanliness of surroundings, immediate responses in the event of disasters or lockdowns, general rules of engagement with street vendors in the context of a pandemic.
4. Emergency cash relief of INR 10,000 to be provided to all street vendors, not just registered ones – A minimum of INR 10,000/- cash should be transferred directly to each street vendor in order for them and their families to survive for one month, to begin with. To be clear, this cash relief should not be viewed as a one-time payment. If this pandemic and the ensuing lockdown continues, this essential cash relief should continue correspondingly.
5. Usage of vendors apps: In a scenario where food, grocery and other delivery apps have become centre stage to most industries, the government should help incubate digital practices and apps in the market that connect street vendors to wholesale markets or farmers collectives. Local street vendors can then in turn take orders from the apps and deliver. There are some apps like HAWKERS BAZAAR in the market as of now but they need more government support.
Adrian Dcruz is working as a Programme Officer at Indo Global Social Service Society, closely working on issues of street vendors and urban housing. He is also associated as an urban researcher with the National Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanisation, a nationwide collective of urban practitioners.