By the way: Vendors on the ‘smart’ street

  • Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Dec 06, 2015 09:54 IST

He’s been at that same spot for three decades and more. He does not bother who’s in the waiting line; be it a judge or a peon or a cop, or a journalist who’s here to interview him and probably make him famous. “I know enough fame,” he frowns, with the arrogance of an artist. First come, first serve.

His name is Devi Chand. He trims beards near a roundabout in a southern sector. And he means business. But his enterprise is as much business as it is culture, particularly for a city that has allegedly been beautiful for years — it is soon going to be smart and all that too — but has struggled to define its culture, per se.

The whole thing, by the way, is also illegal.

Devi and his son, who works as his apprentice and heir apparent, are among thousands of such barbers, tea-sellers, cobblers, and other vendors — or, in modern corporate lingo, ‘service providers’ — all of whom remain at the mercy of the municipal staff who have a dual task of, personally, getting their beards trimmed from The Great Devi, and, officially, removing That Bloody Barber from his place at least once a month. Both duties are carried out religiously.

It’s not that no one talks about them. The previous, much-panned UPA government had passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, in its last few days in power.

But, as is the pace of our great and ancient system — we obviously produced the world’s first airplane, saw the first-ever plastic surgery, and also deserve credit for the first-ever head transplant, that too of the godly kind — the central government, which governs UTs such as Chandigarh, took until July this year to put the required rules in place.

The Chandigarh municipal commissioner, Bhawna Garg, reportedly confirmed in September that she had indeed received the notification for those rules from the government. “The Act would be implemented in six months after constituting a Town Vending Committee, forming bylaws and involving the city-based NGOs,” she had told the media.

Now, however, Garg says the task is held up because of some complications in the constitution of the Town Vending Committee. That is actually the starting point of the Act’s implementation as the committee has to carry out the key tasks, including identification of eligible vendors.

This committee has to have 12 members, covering officials, non-officials and street vendors. The official members are already defined in the rules. For instance, the municipal commissioner is the chairperson of the committee, and others are to be from the police, health and urban planning departments. Then there are to be one nominated member each from an NGO and a resident welfare association. Seven sorted.

The remaining five members have to be street vendors. Of these, one-third have to be women and also there needs to be “due representation of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, minorities and persons with disabilities”, say the rules.

Sounds complicated? There’s more.

The five vendors have to actually be elected, from among all street vendors of the area. “There is no reliable database as yet of street vendors,” acknowledges Garg. In the absence of “any electoral rolls” thus, Garg says she has proposed that even the vendors be “nominated, and not be elected, for six months or a year for now”. After that, when the committee conducts a survey and finally there is a database, “we can have elections,” she says. There were surveys in the mid-nineties and the noughties as well, but “the number keeps changing as many trades are seasonal”.

This proposal of nominating the vendors, however, means amendment in the rules, which again is a government function. Garg mentions “another issue” pending with the central government, though she does not immediately specify what it is. And that is that for now. The routine removal of vendors — estimated between 15,000 and 25,000 — goes on. The circle keeps on moving.

Mindful or perhaps unmindful of this, meanwhile, there is a humungous drive on to turn Chandigarh into a smart city, whatever that may mean to different people at different times. A major part of the drive appears to be the removal of such vendors. Officers tout this as an achievement of gigantic proportions, even as many of these officers are fond of shopping at flea markets in Europe, or reading books on the romance of street-vending in Paris, and many also patronise the lip-smacking chai that can only be available at that certain vend in Sector 17.

Ask Devi Chand to comment on the matter and his reply is as curt as his upturned moustache: “We know what the MC wants. That ‘system’ works. Why get into another Act?” Ever wondered how corruption makes things work better than rules?

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