Cheques and Balances THE FIGHT FOR VENDORs' RIGHTS ON THE STREETS OF MUMBAI

Whether you're in a tourist hotspot or local neighbourhood in Mumbai, street vendors are never far from sight. From fresh fruits and vegetables to newspapers and cigarettes, street food, flowers and electronics, vendors sell an array of products in almost every corner of the city.

Life for these men and women can be challenging, with long hours, poor conditions and a competitive marketplace. But for many, these are the least of their worries.

Ramdhani Yadav

Ramdhani Yadav lives with his son, Anand, in a cramped two-room slum dwelling in the Mumbai district of Andheri. His kitchen, bedroom and wardrobe all crowd into a space of less than ten square metres.

“People today have cutting-edge smartphones, expensive cars and other things. But for me all this is only a dream. I use a cheap phone that costs 100 rupees only. I don’t have a car to drive. I don’t have a nice comfortable home, I live in this small hut. All the nice expensive things more well-off people have are but a dream for people like myself,” he said.

“Everything in my home, it may be polished and well-kept, but half of it is empty.”

The 46-year-old left school when he was 14 to help work in his father's stall. Now more than thirty years later he’s running the store himself — in the very same place as his father and grandfather before him.

Ramdhani is the third generation in his family to run the stall.

Under the shelter of a tarpaulin, Ramdhani earns to support himself and his family. He sells goods from early morning till late at night, usually working till 11pm.

Ramdhani selling decorations for upcoming festivities — the 9-day Hindu festival, Navaratri.

Ramdhani’s wife lives back in his home village near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, where she runs a small business farming. He sends money back and visits when he can. The village is over a thousand kilometres away and a full day's train ride away.

“I’d like to go home twice a year but I usually only end up going once because I don't have the money. As of now, I go once a year,” he said.

A Daily Struggle

Ramdhani is one of an estimated 250,000 vendors in Mumbai and 10 million nationwide.

Debdulal Saha is an Associate Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' (TISS) Centre for Labour Studies and Social Protection whose research explores informal markets and the conditions of street vendors in India. He said while some vendors — around 10 per cent — could make a comfortable living for themselves, the poorest live in extreme poverty.

“Especially at the bottom of the pyramid — around 15 to 20 per cent of the total street vendors — their condition is miserable, whose income is even less than 100 rupees [a day] which is really a matter of concern considering their number of dependents in the family,” Associate Professor Saha said.

Prof Saha said it was common for vendors — and especially female vendors — to have several dependents, with 40 per cent of their families living on less than 25 rupees per person each day.

“Calculating all the people depending on the street vendors, it is around 5 to 6 people on average depending on a single vendor. So considering their earning level and number of dependents, their per capita income is very low,” he said.

According to Prof Saha, two-thirds of Mumbai's vendors had migrated to the city, with the most recent arrivals often those worst off. Even Ramdhani, who is well established in the city, said he earned only enough to support his family's needs.

“I may want a lot of things for myself but I cannot have them because I'm not in the financial position,” Ramdhani said.

There are seven main categories of vending: cooked food, vegetables and flowers, fruit, garments, electronics, household utensils and leather items. Prof Saha said female vendors, often more disadvantaged and with less to invest, were much more likely to sell vegetables and flowers. He said their earnings after 8 to 10 hours of labour could be meagre, even before hafta.

“It is hardly 200 to 300 rupees per day that they earn. But they also need to pay around 10 to 20 per cent of their income as bribes,” he said.

“Especially women — the condition of women vendors is very bad,” Prof Saha said.

Hafta

Hafta is slang for informal fines or bribes, most often paid by vendors to police officers and municipal authorities. While the word, which translates to ‘week’, refers to routine unofficial payments it is also used to describe bribes more generally.

Dayashankar Singh, president of the Azad Hawkers Union in Andheri, said while there was a high demand for street vendors in Mumbai, they were often targeted by the police and BMC, now formally known as the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM).

“There are many types of items that cannot be sold in malls and shops. Many residents are totally depending on street vendors,” Mr Singh said.

“Everyone wants to get something from the street vendors, because they are not authorised,” Mr Singh said.

Prof Saha said that alongside the pressure to earn a livelihood, many vendors live with a constant fear of intimidation, raids and having their goods taken or confiscated by police.

“[Poor working conditions] are not only in terms of working hours, but in terms of abuse, harassment. In fact [stress] is not only monetary, it is in terms of many things, psychological also. Always the tension of when the raid will come and they will have to run away from the police. All the time this kind of anxiety and fear — the fear of losing their products,” he said.

The exploitation of vendors is deep-rooted and complex, according to Prof Saha, whose research identifies a wide range of actors in the "nexus" of bribe extraction. These range from some vendors who act as intermediaries in facilitating the transactions, to police and local ward and municipal authorities. He said bribes were collected on both a daily and weekly basis and could be in cash and kind.

“An average street vendor, they pay to 43 different actors. They pay bribes to 43 different actors involved in street vending activities, directly or indirectly,” he said.

As for vendors who refuse to pay bribes, Prof Saha said they could face harassment, fines and the confiscation of their goods for illegally occupying the public space.

Mr Singh said vendors had a right to earn their livelihood without being exploited.

“Corruption is the main rule for street vendors. Until the corruption is finished, the welfare of the street vendors cannot be possible," he said.

A Fight for Rights

Ramdhani said he had always refused to give hafta.

“Most people are more practical in these matters and they may prefer to pay rather than face the inconvenience of fighting, or even being booked and sent to the lockup. I am sure that there are vendors who do this, but I have never come to know of any such thing,” he said.

Closely affiliated with the union, Ramdhani unofficially presides as a representative of the vendors on his road. He has also attended local demonstrations for vendors’ rights on many occasions.

A demonstration outside Borivali Railway Station, Mumbai. Photo supplied: Salma Sheikh.

“The situation of street vendors is so profane that even the duration of an epic will prove insufficient to explain it fully,” Ramdhani said.

Female vendors protest for better rights. Photo supplied: Salma Sheikh.

As a consequence of his protesting, Ramdhani has been arrested on several occasions and spent time in police custody and lock-up.

“Living even for one night in jail or lock-up is a learning experience, as in it teaches us about the atrocities in human nature,” he said.

Pride and humility: Ramdhani shows a photo of himself at a demonstration for hawker's rights.

Debt-traps

While bribery is a serious problem for vendors, Prof Saha said they were also subject to other forms of exploitation.

”Street vendors are exploited not only in the hands of government — municipal officials, police, civic authorities. They are also exploited by other informal groups of people,” he said.

As part of the informal economy, vendors often lack access to credit through formal financial institutions and are therefore prone to exploitation by moneylenders.

“[Street vendors] need day-to-day transaction which needs really a lot of investment and most of the vendors — especially women — say that once you are in the street vending activity, from day one you are in a trap,” Prof Saha said.

Prof Saha said it was common for vendors to become ensnared in a chronic debt trap, paying high rates of interest, sometimes on a monthly basis, and having to take out multiple loans to support themselves. This could also become a generational debt trap, where children were forced to pay off the loans of their deceased parents.

“You are in trap because you have to start and you can’t think of upward mobility because you have to depend on moneylenders as you don’t have savings first of all. And if people have savings they won’t do the street vending,” he said.

“You don't need to go to moneylenders, moneylenders will come to you,” Prof Saha said.

Street Vendors Act

In 2014, the national Street Vendors Act (SVA) was passed to 'protect the rights of urban street vendors and to regulate street vending activities'. The legislation was hailed by the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), a national federation with almost 300,000 members.

The legislation aims to regulate the trade by providing licences to vendors and creating legal hawking zones, making them less prone to bribery and corruption. The licence would also give them access to more formal credit sources.

“I think unless or until [vendors] get a licence from the local authorities they will be prone to eviction and harassment,” Prof Saha said.

Prof Saha said while the legislation was very comprehensive, he was not convinced it would be properly implemented.

“If local government and the state follow [the act] properly and implement [it] properly then really street vendors will be, their conditions will be uplifted,” he said.

“On one hand I’m hopeful that there will be some betterment [under the Street Vendors Act], but on the other hand I’m also reluctant at how this restructuring will take place.”

Salma Sheikh, general secretary of the Azad Hawkers Union, said vendors would rather pay through formal channels instead of bribes.

"We are ready to pay licences fees, as a revenue for the government. But they are not regulating industries. If this illegal amount can be converted into [a] legal [amount], so the government can make roads under the fees of hawkers," Ms Sheikh said.

Mr Singh said the act was not being implemented.

“They want to increase their bribes, they don’t want to regulate the hawkers,” Mr Singh said.

Narendra Modi

As an open supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently holds national parliament under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ramdhani believes the government will improve vendors rights. The BJP has been in office since May 2014, only weeks after the Street Vendors Act came into force.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag behind Ramdhani's stall.
"I am an ardent follower and supporter of Modi," Ramdhani said.

On Prime Minister Modi’s official website it says “his father sold tea at the tea stall he set up in the local railway station. In his early years, Narendra Modi too lent a hand to his father at the tea stall.” Ramdhani said he is encouraged Modi's background could make him more sympathetic to vendors’ rights.

Tea seller: excerpt from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's official website.

Prof Saha said while the government has been relatively neutral on the issue, they are promoting self-employment.

“It is difficult to say, but self-employment is being promoted. And street vendors are considered as self-employed,” Prof Saha said.

"I think they will be in favour of street vendors because on the one hand you can’t say that you're supporting self-employment while on the other you don’t support street vendors," he said.

Mr Singh said he hopes Prime Minister Modi can make positive changes, and is encouraged by the government program paying cooked food vendors to undertake training courses.

“We were very hopeful after this Modi government,” Mr Singh said.

“[Modi] still is thinking about hawkers also. They are paying 300 rupees per [cooked food] street vendor to take them training,“ he said.

But Mr Singh said he remained critical of the government and whether they can achieve change, noting corruption as the main reason for a lack of progress.

“Corruption money is from top to bottom, therefore they are not taking interest to solve this problem,” Mr Singh said.

Prof Saha said the two things vendors need most are licenses and access to proper loans from the bank, but agreed this will not come easily.

“First, the markets should be identified. Second, licences should be provided very properly. And third, based on the licence [vendors] should be getting proper financial credit,” Prof Saha said.

“I’m sceptical in a sense seeing the nature of moneylenders, seeing the nature of civic authorities. I don’t think they will allow [the Street Vendors Act] to be easily implemented,” he said.

A Brighter Future

For Ramdhani, the stall is a way to make ends meet. He says he would leave it to someone else if it meant a better future for his son.

"I don’t hold any particular sentimentality towards [the stall] and it isn’t much more than a means of livelihood for me and my family," he said.

“I want my son to study and do whatever it is that he wants with his life. I want him to move forward in life and do better for himself than I ever could.”

Anand Yadav

Anand is 17 years old and attends a nearby school in Andheri East. After graduating from high school, he wants to complete a Bachelor of Commerce before taking the highly competitive Indian Police Services (IPS) examination.

“I want to move forward and prove my mettle,” Anand said.

“My dad supports me fully. He says that I should pursue whatever field I want to be in. He works so that he can support my education,” he said.

The exam requires three years of preparation and qualifies successful applicants to the role of Assistant Superintendent of the Indian Police Service. Anand said he would like to serve the people and tackle the corruption affecting street vendors today.

“I want to absolutely finish this problem.”

By Maxwell Rowley, with special thanks to Saunak Mukherjee.

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The Mumbai Police have been contacted for comment.

Ramdhani and Anand Yadav's speech has been translated from Hindi to English.

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