It’s been more than five decades since Rambabu Gupta, 65, started peddling wares on the streets. After selling vegetables for years, he now runs a book stall in Santacruz.
He is also the general secretary of the Lohia Vichar Manch, a smaller hawkers’ union. He led a six-day hunger strike in New Delhi 15 years ago to draw the authorities’ attention to their woes.
But a lifetime in the profession hasn’t spared Gupta the terror of facing eviction every day.
If a horde of officials from the civic body come calling on one day, the local police show up on another and a local hawking lord on the third. Sometimes it’s all of them, working together.
To be able to work, he must pay them.
Inflation hit bribes too
“You cannot survive without feeding these people. They will show you respect, but demand bribes all the same,” Gupta says while returning a wave from two policemen driving by.
Gupta refuses to name a daily or monthly figure, but explains that payments are made at different stages.
“There are four departments — the local ward office, the removal of encroachments department, the special squad and the deputy municipal commissioner’s local staff. Among the police, anyone who comes asking has to be paid,” he says.
A 1998 report on the city’s hawking business by YUVA, a not-for-profit, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) pegged bribes hawkers paid at more than Rs.300 crore a year.
Considering there are currently about 2.5 lakh hawkers in the city, even at 1998 rates, the payoffs would amount to nearly Rs.800 crore. And today, hawkers say they pay up to ten times what they did back then.
“We used to pay each cop Rs.10; now we pay at least Rs.50. The average amount a BMC officer would take in 1996 was around Rs.20, today it is around Rs.300,” says a hawker from Santacruz.
Few options, small income
A 55-year-old hawker, who did not wish to be named, lives and trundles his handcart of fresh vegetables around the up-market Juhu area (his bachelor’s degree lies forgotten).
He rents his cart from a “seth” for Rs.300 a month. Beyond this lies uncertainty — he shells out money every time he is “caught” hawking. “First they threaten me with a fine, then settle for an amount — maybe Rs.200 or Rs. 400,” he says.
On eviction drive days, his goods are officially seized and he is charged a fine of Rs.1,200. “Even after I pay up, they throw my vegetables around as if they were garbage. It’s an additional loss.”
Sharma makes between Rs.8,000 and Rs.10,000 a month. Of this, he gives away roughly Rs.2000 — as rent, to cops, civic officials and sometimes petty local thugs.
“Hawkers, with the limited means they have, would never willingly pay a bribe. But, a crushing collusion between authorities and brokers mean they are left with the option of risking their livelihood or giving in quietly,” says Sandeep Yeole, of the Pheriwala Vikas Mahasangh.
Crippled by a nexus
Yeole says the city’s hawking business is controlled by various syndicates. “The hawker’s money ends up in the hands of a few who are in cahoots with each other,” he says.
This is particularly true of eviction raids, where, hawkers say, the business gets murkier after their goods and handcarts are seized.
“Most of the time, there is no panchnama of the goods and handcarts seized. The officials are supposed to hold auctions of the goods, but only a handful of regular brokers are told of these,” says Haider Imam, general secretary of the All Indian Trade Union Congress.
“The brokers buy these goods at throwaway prices, then sell them to hawkers at inflated rates.”
Consumers have to bear a major part of the system’s pitfalls, as hawkers are forced to pass these illicit costs on to them.
DM Sukhtankar, former BMC chief, who dealt with the issue during his tenure, said fresh ideas were needed to avoid this loss of what could have been municipal revenue.
“There is an urgent need to demarcate areas for hawking so that fresh permits can be issued and situations like these can be avoided.”