Komal Bansode’s stall, on the pavement of Mathuradas Road in Kandivli (West), is a colourful heap of plastic bric-a-brac — buckets, dustbins, hangers, brushes, brooms, even mousetraps.
It’s a hot Thursday afternoon and, as she haggles with a customer over a set of clothes pegs, her eyes dart up and down the road.
Like the rest of the 400 unlicensed hawkers on Mathuradas Road, she has been looking over her shoulder all day ever since the police began the recent crackdown on street vendors.
“We have to be ready to run at all times,” she says. “And yet we always come back. What can we do? We have families to feed.” Nearby, Bansode’s two children, aged ten and five, are sitting on stools, doing their homework.
Bansode’s husband is an office peon, earning Rs. 4,000 a month. For a year after her marriage, she resisted taking over her parents’ unlicensed fruit stall, but the only other job that the Class 10 dropout could find was as a maid in a municipal school — and that paid Rs. 500 a month.
“It just wasn’t enough to support our family,” she says.
Desperate, she took over her parents’ spot in Kandivli, where she now earns about Rs. 500 a day and is able to save about Rs. 7,500 a month for her children’s English-medium school fees and further education.
Though she knows that her work is not legally recognised, Bansode is proud of what she does. “I believe I provide an important service,” she says.
Across Mumbai, lakhs of hawkers, both licensed and unlicensed, face a similar struggle, locked in a lose-lose situation with no new licences being issued by the BMC since 1978 and no hawking policy framed since then to resolve the situation. (See box: Street hawkers)
“It is important for a hawking policy to come into effect soon,” admits Sharad Bande, superintendent of the BMC licences department. “Until then, the BMC can only remove unauthorised hawkers and confiscate their goods.”
Since 1978, the hawking industry — currently employing an estimated 3 lakh Mumbaiites, according to NGO Yuva — has been running largely via bribes paid by street vendors to police and civic officials.
These bribes are colloquially called hafta, the Hindi word for week, because they are usually collected on a weekly basis.
“Haftas are not official, but everybody knows that the system exists,” says Sharit Bhowmik, professor at the Centre for Labour Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “Typically, hafta rates are increased after every police raid.”
For most hawkers, balancing the economics of this complex system is a daily struggle. Take Feroz Nafees Khan, who sells children’s garments outside Santacruz (West) station.
Working 15 hours a day, seven days a week, Khan makes about Rs. 10,000 a month, of which he takes home barely Rs. 3,000.
The rest is drained through a range of channels — Rs. 1,500-2,000 goes in hafta, Rs. 400 goes to a local shopkeeper who provides Khan with a power cord and connection for his lightbulb, and Rs. 5,500 is paid as ‘rent’ to two different local goons who are the self-proclaimed lessors of the 18-sq-ft space in front of the pavement occupied by stall.
“If I didn’t live in a joint family with two working brothers, my family would never survive,” says Khan, 43.
This livelihood was not his first choice. Khan speaks fluent English and almost completed a graduate degree course in science but had to drop out to help support his family.
“Jobs are hard to find,” he says. Like most of the 700 hawkers at Santacruz station, Khan wants to be legally recognised and given a legitimate space in an organised hawking zone.
In 1993, the local hawkers’ union, the Lohiya Vichar Manch, had proposed a mapped plan for the Santacuz (West) station area in which hawkers were separated from traffic and pedestrian areas by a railing. The plan was approved by the police but never implemented.
Bansode, in Kandivli, would also rather be in a legal slot.
“If I was given a proper place, I’d gladly stay within those limits,” she says. “We know that the public is inconvenienced when we spread out our wares, but if hawkers are so unwanted, why do so many people still buy from us?”