In 1983, a group of hawkers from the city marched to the Supreme Court, asking that their right to livelihood be recognised. Two years later, the court came out with comprehensive guidelines that would allow them to work, with some conditions. The civic body was directed to implement these.
It’s been 28 years since then, but every week, teams of two or three hawkers from various city unions travel to New Delhi, hoping the court will get the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Maharashtra government to remember that the order exists and to do something about it.
The forgotten guidelines
Today, citizens and activists are crying themselves hoarse over the burgeoning number of hawkers and, consequently, the rapidly-shrinking pavements. The solution, however, lies in the same 16 recommendations the Apex Court had provided in 1985 while hearing the petition filed by the Bombay Hawkers Union. The order struck a balance between the needs of two groups — the lakhs of people directly or indirectly dependent on street vending, and citizens decrying hawkers as an obstacle to urban planning.
The BMC was directed to create hawking and non-hawking zones, specifying the exact area hawking pitches could occupy, create committees in charge of regulating hawkers and even fix the time of day when street-vending would be permitted.
Both hawkers and activists found merit in the guidelines. “These orders could have given the city relief from unregulated hawkers. Instead, to ensure that the nexus of officials, hawker unions and politicians continued to benefit, the BMC and state have consistently refused to take any concrete steps,” said Atul Vora, Kandivli resident and member of Citispace, a citizens’ forum. Citispace approached the Bombay high court in November 1998 asking it to direct the civic body to implement the SC order.
Haider Imam, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, which has nearly 15,000 hawkers as members, agreed. “We were hoping that the BMC would implement these as it would give us a sense of security and legitimacy. We wanted society to approach us with greater sensitivity, and the guidelines were a step towards that.”
But apart from feeble attempts at implementing the order in bits and parts, nothing concrete has emerged. For instance, the BMC has only designated 191 roads in the city as legitimate hawking zones.
The consequences of this inaction have been far-reaching, for each stakeholder. The city’s hawking class has grown manifold. A study in 1998 found there to be at least 1.02 lakh of them, while unofficial estimates now peg the number at three times this.
But if there’s safety in numbers, it isn’t for the hawkers — they face harassment from different authorities every day, coupled with the constant fear of being evicted. And over on the other side, citizens and activists remain dissatisfied with the city’s walking spaces endlessly threatened by unfettered vendors.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Sharit Bhowmik, an academician from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), who has been working on issues of street vending and livelihoods, said the civic body had taken the wrong approach towards hawking. “This is not about urban development and urban form; it is about the livelihoods of lakhs of people involved. Unless there is some amount of regulation, the conflict will continue to affect hawkers,” he said.
The BMC, meanwhile, admits to not having done enough. “We have tried to implement each of the guidelines, but more should have been done,” said Mohan Adtani, additional municipal commissioner. “We are now looking at a fresh study to find space for more hawkers, in addition to the 191 hawking zones we already have.”