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Street Vendors

The Kathua administration in the recent days has taken up cudgels against the street vendors in the name of anti encroachment drive. It has suddenly risen from its deep slumber and is acting in a totally arbitrary manner destroying, vandalising the goods of the poor street vendors. These people have been warned of serious consequences if they are found on the areas vacated by the administration. They have also not been provided with an alternative place which is economically viable. The famous Mukhrjee Chowk of Kathua bears a deserted look these days. The highest duty of the State is to dispense justice to its citizens alike, irrespective of any qualifications. Article 14 of the constitution ensures equality before law and equal protection of laws. We will try to understand during the course of this discussion as to how the Deputy Commissioner of Kathua Mr. Jatinder Singh is violating the rights of the poorer sections of the society. Acting as an organ of the state, the Kathua district administration is oblivious of the fact that justice per se is a balancing act. Also, it is to be remembered that justice is reformative and not retributive in India.

In the present case, the district administration of Kathua had a challenge of balancing the Right of Citizens to free movement vis a vis the Right of street vendors to earn their livelihood. Judging from all the actions taken by the administration, it can be construed that it has failed to protect the rights of the poorer sections of the society i.e. the street vendors. The state has failed to provide the required infrastructure and has completely failed in its regulatory responsibilities. The ill planned policies of the administration vetted with unaccountability, tainted with corruption and inefficiency, has led to the present dismal state of affairs. To clothe its failure, the state has chosen an easy prey, the poor street vendors and in a brazen and shameless way, exercising its authority over them. These poor people who are unorganized, socially insecure and who have no voice of theirs, have become a victim of what I am constrained to call “Administrative Terrorism”. Decisions taken unilaterally without involving the stake holders are causing a disservice to the Indian democracy and the Kathua administration epitomises this grave misconduct in office.

The issue of street vendors is to be understood from the decisions of the Apex Court of the land and also the National Policy on Urban street vendors. In Sodhan Singh vs New Delhi Municipal Committee case, the Supreme Court has categorically held ‘Street Vending” as a ‘Fundamental Right’ enshrined in the article 19 (1) g of the constitution of India. Article 19 (1) g talks about the right of an individual to carry trade and business. The Supreme Court in the Sodhan Singh versus NDMC, 1989 case ruled that:

“If properly regulated according to the exigency of the circumstances, the small traders on the sidewalks can considerably add to the comfort and convenience of the general public, by making available ordinary articles of everyday use for a comparatively lesser price. An ordinary person, not very affluent, while hurrying towards his home after a day’s work can pick up these articles without going out of his way to find a regular market. The right to carry on trade or business mentioned in Article 19(1)g of the Constitution, on street pavements, if properly regulated cannot be denied on the ground that the streets are meant exclusively for passing or re-passing and no other use.”

The National Policy on Street Vendors views the issue from the prism of articles 39 (a) and (b) of the constitution of India. Article 39 (a) lays down that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood. Article 39 (b) further says that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to sub serve the common good. It is noteworthy that even after the Apex Court’s ruling that before June 30, 2011 the appropriate government should enact a law so that the hawkers knew the contours of their right, no positive steps have been taken by the state government to legislate this law in the letter and spirit of the court judgement.

According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee Report of 2006, the informal economy provides livelihood to 93 percent of the workforce in India. Street vendors constitute a large section of the informal economy and it is the duty of the State to protect the rights of this segment of the population. The total annual contribution of street vendors contributes significantly to the national economic output. Yet they constitute the poorest and most vulnerable segments of our population. It is the duty of the state to provide them with social and financial security. The lack of recognition on the one hand and the multitude of problems faced by them on the other like obtaining license, insecurity of earnings, insecurity of place of hawking, gratifying others and musclemen, constant eviction threats, fines and harassment by the policemen makes eking out a livelihood, a difficult option. Although there are provisions in the Municipal Act of J&K to provide license to street vendors, the process has been invariable stalled owing to corruption, unaccountability and inefficiency of the system. Even the process involved is also very cumbersome and hence discouraging. It’s a common belief that to get a license, one has to grease the palms of the persons in authority. The unholy mix of people’s representatives and administration has made life and livelihood a difficult choice for vendors. These people are poor and vulnerable because they are unorganized; lack assets controlled and owned by them, lack access to financial services, lack sensitivity of the mainstream institutions and growing anti-poor macro environment.

Unlike other sections of the urban population, they don’t demand that government should create jobs for them, nor do they engage in begging, stealing or extortion. They try to live their life with dignity and self respect through hard work. The average earnings of street vendors are low and a large part of the vendor’s income goes in bribes and protection money. According to a survey, vendors pay between 10 to 20 percent of their earnings as bribes. This is a sorry state of affairs. On top of it, the vendors provide a low cost option of providing goods to the consumer. The poor sections of the city in particular procure a large number of their daily needs from the street vendors.

The Government of India’s National policy on street vendors reflects a landmark change in the perception of the street vendors – moving from ‘Prohibition’ to ‘Regulation’. The national policy on street vendors tries to ensure that this important section of the urban population finds recognition for its contribution to society and is conceived of as a major initiative for urban ‘poverty alleviation’. Protection to their right to livelihood is perhaps one of the most important issues over which struggles are being waged. In addition, the right to have a share of the urban space and not to be viewed as a nuisance, rather a provider of urban services, is another issue with which the author is constrained to write an essay over this issue. But in doing so, nobody is disputing the right of the police under section 34 of the Police Act as far as eviction proceedings are concerned. But it is disheartening to see that the standard Operating Procedure of first notifying, then imposing fines and finally initiate eviction proceedings has been followed more in breach than in observance. In the recent case in Kathua, the government officials destroyed the goods of the poor helpless vendors without providing them an economically viable place to carry out their busines. This act of theirs is highly unprofessional and the conduct of the officers, less than human.

It is evident from the above discussion, that the district administration has condoned the Constitution, Supreme Court guidelines and the provisions of the National Policy on Street Vendors. It has also betrayed the essence of participatory democracy and the Deputy Commissioner seems to be still in a Colonial Hangover. The deputy Commissioner has unilaterally taken the decision of violently displacing the street vendors without consulting the primary stakeholders such as the street vendors, citizens and the shop owners of the respective areas. This dictatorial attitude is a symbol of a larger malaise in the system which is Centralisation of Power in one single institution. The attitude of the deputy Commissioner is a clear vindication of the allegation of the local citizens that he is not equipped to handle the situation amicably. It is his arrogance of power, it is his smugness that he is not ready to listen to the woes of the street vendors. All the steps he has taken to resolve the problem of encroachment, shows his ignorance about the concept of street vendors. We wish that the legislature enacts a law as early as possible so that the curse of India which is Bureaucracy, doesn’t act on its whims and fancies. Even the place that is being contemplated for giving it to the street vendors, is not going to be decided through consensus or foresight. No permanent solution can be found out by imposing arbitrary decisions using force.

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