Sameera Khan on the large scale hawker evictions in the city

I have a serious confession to make. I am middle class, I have a master’s degree, I live in a comfortable 3-BHK, and I regularly patronise hawkers. I frequently buy vegetables, fruits, books, chappals, dangling earrings, vada pav, balloons, kebabs, mogra gajras and other such essentials and frivolities of everyday life from them. These are people now only described as a “menace” and a “nuisance” but whose continued presence on the streets comforts me – especially late evening and night – in familiar and strange parts of the city.

I doubt we are the only middle class family dependent on hawkers in Mumbai – though the way the mainstream media in recent weeks has framed the story of large scale hawker evictions, it seems as if the only relationship between the urban middle-class and hawkers is one of antagonism and intolerance. There’s no mention of the Andheri man upset that his neighbourhood bhajiwala has been evicted, forcing him to buy vegetables from Food Bazaar at Infinity Mall. Or of the harried working woman who prefers the late evening convenience of the hawkers outside Santa Cruz station, reassured by the warm light of their petromax lamps.  And what of the old woman near Pali Hill grateful for the threedecade long presence of the same bhelpuriwala at the end of her lane? Why don’t we hear these middle-class voices supporting the people who provide daily essential services, access to cheap goods, whose existence they depend on and whose non-appearance causes them distress?

Instead, we hear the chorus of zealous “citizen” groups expressing great displeasure at hawkers. Some have put up large banners congratulating the police for their relentless anti-hawker drive. Others no doubt are waiting to download the new Hawker Tracking System, an android phone application planned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation so that concerned citizens can report a hawker’s location for faster eviction.

So much easier to target the hawker as the villain – who messes up the city and stubbornly “encroaches” on its public spaces. So much more difficult to take on your own middle-class comrades who often have more than one car and park on the pavement or the shopkeepers/restaurant owners who unashamedly extend their shopfronts or the builders who deliberately encroach on open spaces.

These are also illegal acts but somehow only the hawkers get seen as “illegal” and of course, most are “illegal” as the BMC has not issued any new hawker licences in Mumbai since 1978; only about 15,500 of the 2.5 to three lakh hawkers in this city are licensed. Hawkers desire legal status – their illegality makes them vulnerable to extortion and harassment.

Unfortunately we see the hawker question as a beautifying pavements issue and not as an employment concern. Hawking provides our urban poor a legitimate livelihood. Since hawkers often sell goods of small-scale or home-based industries, the impact of street vending on employment is even larger. Research reveals that many vendors hawk due to a decline in formal low-skilled jobs such as those in the textile mills. A street vending study by Sharit Bhowmik of Tata Institute of Social Sciences in seven Indian cities showed that around 30 per cent of hawkers in Ahmedabad and Mumbai and 50 per cent in Kolkata were former workers in the formal sector.

Looks like the formal sector has come back to claim its pound of flesh. Just observe who stands to gain once the hawkers are unemployed – big retail malls and supermarket chains like Reliance Fresh, Hypercity, Foodland, and others are all gainers in the process. The losers are the poor: as marketers and also as consumers. Everyone doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to shop at a supermarket and maybe you can drink a R80 coffee at CCD but for your domestics and other poor workers, the chaiwala on the street is a necessity.

Eventually the hawker’s issue is about who has rights to the city – “from whom” are we protecting our public spaces and “for whom” are we protecting them? It exposes our general indifferent attitude towards the working poor. We need policy and regulation but it has to be based on tolerance and acceptance of the others’ right to be there. I too want a clear pavement to walk on but just as I want my rights as a pedestrian respected, I also want to acknowledge the rights of other citizens to public space.