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Hawkers, too, are part of the city

india Updated: Jan 21, 2013 01:32 IST
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After extolling Mahendra Singh Dhoni's contribution in putting Ranchi on the international map, the manager of the hotel where we were staying for the one-day match came up with the big problem his city faces. "It's the traffic and the hawkers," he said.

Déjà vu. The issue that had gripped Mumbai over the last couple of weeks was finding an echo in smaller cities too. As India gets increasingly urbanised, clearly, the concerns of cities are getting homogenised. The battle to reclaim public spaces - pavements, roads, skywalks, parks - is going to get a countrywide footprint.

However, there is an interesting if somewhat oblique connect between the traffic and hawking which was brought out tellingly by a Supreme Court bench a couple of years back when hearing a petition on behalf of the hawkers against the Delhi government.

Justices GS Singhvi and AK Ganguly, who were hearing the case, opined, "There is a section that, owing to its ever-growing wealth, is buying any number of cars and scooters…no restriction has apparently been imposed by law on such purchases.''

The justices said that the fundamental rights of the hawker because they are poor and unorganised "cannot be left in limbo nor can it be left to be decided by varying standards of a scheme which changes from time to time under orders from this court.''

My intention here is not to make a maudlin case for hawkers, rather to see how the issue can be managed. In many cities, the problem is serious and spiralling out of control and needs to be addressed urgently but also astutely.

Let's look at the matter in the context of Mumbai. Across the city from Santacruz (East) to Bandra's Hill Road to Dadar flower market to the CST station, roadside hawkers and vendors are feeling the wrath of the police, the civic authorities and the general public. Not all of it unjustified.

Driving through the Dadar Market on Tulsi Pipe Road can be a nightmare, negotiating between cauliflowers, giant heaps of coriander leaves, marigolds, shoppers, tempos and the liquid from fish trucks. Travelling south, the flyover into the market is a trap from which escape to the next flyover seems like a lifetime away.

Further south, many years ago, the roads and lanes in the Fort area were hot points for pornography and sex toys, strange for a country apparently so obsessed with public morality. All that changed a few years ago but the hawkers in the area decreased but did not go away.

You can walk along the grand, balconied pavements in the Fort and Hutatma Chowk areas, but not without some little shoving and dodging with the hawkers and their clients.

Yet there is little doubt that hawkers and their ilk lend character and service to a city. Part of the fun of walking along Marine Drive is picking up a roasted corn on the cob, generously rubbed with chilli powder and lime juice as the monsoon waves lash the promenade.

It's not the sort of feeling you can recreate at a fancy, but essentially plastic and glass fast food joint that you drive your car through. This is part of the Mumbai experience of which the street-side hawker is an integral part - provided it is not too intrusive..

It is common knowledge that the spurt in illegal hawking has come from a nexus between politicians and the civic authorities. But it is also pertinent to know that many of these vendors are low on skill and financial wherewithal trying to make a living, and cannot be shrugged away to the extreme margins of the food chain.

There is scope for co-existence within the parameters of the law. The answer has to be in finding the happy medium between the rights of hawkers and their customers and for citizens who want a little more discipline and space in their lives.