Defenceless on the streets

More than one crore people earn a livelihood by selling wares on the streets. Yet there is no adequate national policy in place for them, and they are at the mercy of extortionists and rusted rules. With help from organisations like Manushi, street vendors are putting up a fight for their rights. Harvinder Khetal reports on their struggle in Delhi

Park plaza developed by Manushi is part of the Sewa Nagar project.
Park plaza developed by Manushi is part of the Sewa Nagar project.

Fear is what rules the mind of those selling wares on the streets of our bustling metros. Day after day, these street vendors are harassed by the fear of municipal vans that ‘devour’ their merchandise, fear of ‘extortion gangs’ which have to be paid for security against official crackdowns and, above all, the fear of losing their livelihood.

Nearly 10 million people in India earn their livelihood from street vending, according to the Ministry of Urban Development. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi estimates there are more than three lakh street vendors and mobile hawkers in Delhi. But less than 3,000 persons (under 1 per cent) have managed to secure vending licences from the MCD and that too after prolonged court battles. The situation is no different in other urban centres of the country. The illegal status of more than 99 per cent of vendors makes them easy targets for the extortion.

In Delhi alone, vendors have to suffer a loss of at least Rs 500 crore per year by way of bribes and confiscation of goods while being routinely subjected to blackmail, terror and human rights abuse. One argument offered by the municipal agencies and the police for not legalising the status of street vendors is that they cause obstruction to other road users, and spread chaos.

A viable solution

To counter official prejudice against vendors Manushi offered to take responsibility to show by example how:

  • Vendors can be accommodated in the city aesthetically and in an orderly manner.

  • Security of livelihood and avenues for upward mobility can be provided for the self-employed poor by giving them access to space for developing their entrepreneurial skills.

  • The existing system of payoffs and protection rackets being run by the mafia who indulge in human rights abuses to extract bribes can be replaced with fee-based access to the market space, which, in turn, enhances municipal revenue and curbs the growth of criminals.

Each project member voluntarily signed an oath (Shapath Patra) on a Rs-10 stamp paper agreeing to abide by the following disciplines:

  • Pay a monthly rent of Rs 390 to the MCD through Manushi;

  • Contribute towards the salary of the Cleaning Brigade specially hired to maintain cleanliness in the project area;

  • Stay within the agreed-upon Sanyam Rekha, (line of discipline). Hawkers who do not observe this discipline agreed to be fined Rs 100 for each violation of Sanyam Rekha.

  • Promise not to build any extra structures above or outside the stall area;

  • Promise not to sell or rent out the allotted stall.

Moved by the plight of these street vendors in Delhi, Manushi, an NGO, took up their cause and started its policy reform work almost 10 years ago. The aim of Manushi’s intervention was to improve the system of vending licences and ensuring livelihood security to the one crore people in our cities, who survive by vending and hawking on the streets.

Ironically, while it achieved notable success in changing the local and national policy framework, today volunteers and staff of Manushi are as much at risk as the vendors whose rights they sought to secure.

All this because Sewa Nagar was selected as the site of a unique experiment through which Manushi undertook the responsibility of creating a legitimised self-governing market for street vendors.

The aim of the pilot project was to legalise the status of street vendors by having them pay regular rent to the municipality; help transform the Sewa Nagar hawker market into a role model of civic discipline for the rest of the city.

The project is funded by the MPLAD Fund of a senior Congress minister and backed by the local authorities.

The project started in October 2004 amid violence and repeated assaults both from the police and local mafia. The reason for the violence is understandable. Due to the transformation of Sewa Nagar from a slum-like hawker market to a neat and developed area, the market value of each stall and the total value of the entire pilot project area is today worth several crores. Each stall commands a price of Rs 5 to 15 lakh in the black market depending on its location. Earlier, each vending spot would sell for around Rs 1 to 1.5 lakh.

Manushi has executed and administered the Sewa Nagar pilot project for four years without taking any grants from the government or any donor agency.

After a series of attacks by the anti-social elements on Madhu Purnima Kishwar, president of the Manushi Sangathan, and managing trustee of the Manushi Trust, and several Manushi volunteers and staff, Kishwar has been given round-the-clock police security. Since April 30, 2007, she can enter Sewa Nagar and Kotla Mubarakpur areas in the heart of New Delhi only if she is escorted by four to five policemen.

Kishwar has narrowly escaped getting lynched thrice by anti-social elements. She has also been threatened with gang rape, and worse, if she dares to pursue the matter.

The state of affairs is a telling commentary on our law and order machinery. That a project with the backing of the authorities has been taken over by a bunch of ‘criminals’ is indeed sad. The Municipal Commissioner of Delhi, with the sanction of the Supreme Court, undertook the Sewa Nagar project. The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, as well as the Lt-Governor of Delhi, Tejinder Khanna, support it. Interestingly, the attacks and intimidation escalated after the UNDP’s International Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor commissioned a documentary film on the transformation of Sewa Nagar to propagate this pilot project as a role model for other countries.

However, all is not bleak, as Manushi has achieved major breakthroughs at the policy reform level.

In response to the public hearings and advocacy campaign by Manushi in 2001, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced new policy guidelines for street vendors and rickshaw-pullers of Delhi.

In 2001, the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation constituted a national task force for street vendors to draft a new national policy for street vendors. Manushi was a vital member of the task force.

In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh constituted a National Commission for Micro-Enterprises on economic reforms for the self-employed poor. Manushi is on the advisory board of this commission.

Manushi also assited the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation in drafting model legislation for providing security of livelihood to the street vendors, which is likely to be introduced in Parliament soon.

In December 2007, Rakesh Mehta, (Chief Secretary of the Delhi Government) was appointed by the Lt-Governor of Delhi to suggest ways to save the Sewa Nagar project and bring reforms in the licensing procedure for street vendors of Delhi.

In the line of fire

Madhu Kishwar
Madhu Kishwar

What is the status of cases pending against you?

They have managed to register a case of attempt to murder against me. This despite the fact that when we went to file a complaint at the police station after the December 31, 2007, attack on me, as many as 50 members of the Bhagat-Basoya gang threatened to kill me in front of the SHO on duty.

Have other members of Manushi also been affected?

Other active project members of Manushi — Mehboob, Ishwar Lal, Shahid, Yaseen and Raj Kumar — have been brutally beaten up in a series of violent incidents since April 19, 2007. They have been driven out of the market. They are also threatened everyday, roughed up, terrorised, fleeced and forced to sign all kinds of bogus documents and petitions against the project without even being shown the text. What is worse, after each incident of assault, bogus criminal cases are filed against me and other members of Manushi.

How do they manage to do that?

With active support of some unscrupulous elements in the police, the mafia men enact a drama of self-inflicted injuries ‘authenticated’ by unverified medical certificates, thus putting us in the dock. With the registration of fraudulent counter cases, their message is clear: they want Manushi to withdraw from the market so that they can take over the project stalls and other assets.

How are you defending yourself?

Manushi filed a criminal writ in the high court on May 22, 2007, to seek protection for our members and against the forcible takeover of project property through force and fraud. After the December attacks, I have been provided-round-the-clock security and a police picket has been set up in the Sewa Nagar market.

What action have the authorities taken?

The Lt-Governor had ordered that leading members of the Bhagat-Basoya gang be banished from Delhi as even after the registration of some cases against them, they continue to run amok. The police did serve an externment notice to them but no follow-up action has been taken due to political pressure. Gang members can be seen socialising openly with the policemen on duty at the picket. Most worrisome of all, the police has resisted filing FIRs against members of this gang despite complaints by several affected vendors and clear written instructions from the Lt-Governor’s office.

Has this affected Manushi?

All this has virtually bankrupted our organisation and we have been compelled to suspend the publication of Manushi journal, which is widely respected as a pioneering, reader-supported magazine on women and human rights issues.

If Manushi, with so much support from the administration, is not safe, how safe can the common man be?

Yes, definitely. The manner in which the National Policy for Street Vendors has been implemented has implications that go far beyond the right to livelihood of street vendors. When vulnerable citizens see the police and politicians join hands with extortionist mafia, they lose respect for law and law enforcers, leading to greater crime in society. Today all our markets are being controlled by criminals who have political links. They don’t stop at preying on the poor. The growing political clout and money power at the disposal of criminals renders every one unsafe, no matter how many security guards they position outside their homes.

— H.K.