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Commuters versus hawkers? Make it commuters and hawkers in Mumbai

When state agencies refrain from addressing the issue head-on, it allows partisan politicians to speak for one side or the other

mumbai Updated: Nov 01, 2017 23:37 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times

Since the terrible Elphinstone Road foot overbridge tragedy on September 29 which took the lives of 23 people and left nearly 40 injured, the popular narrative has come to rest on the legitimacy — or otherwise — of street vendors. It would seem as if the tragedy was the making of street vendors or hawkers who dot Mumbai’s suburban railway stations.

They began to be evicted by the railway authorities two days after the tragedy. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and railway authorities jointly decided to demarcate the land under their jurisdictions so that hawkers could not use one authority against the other. But the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), looking for issues to resuscitate itself, upped the ante on October 21. Its members dealt with hawkers in their “typical style” which meant vandalising the hawkers’ properties and bashing them up.

After a few rounds of this at half a dozen stations, hawkers hit back. Egged on by the city Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam, they returned the compliments landing a MNS leader in hospital, organised morchas and approached the Bombay high court for relief against “illegal eviction”. The police registered an FIR against Nirupam. About 25-30 hawkers and MNS members have been arrested so far. The battle lines are firmly drawn, the issue perilously politicised.

Do hawkers — legal or illegal — throng entry and exit points of stations? Yes. Do they crowd foot overbridges and hamper pedestrian movement? Yes. Do they occupy staircases, bridges, pavements and impede commuters? Yes, indeed.

But to imagine that evicting them would resolve grave lacunae in railway infrastructure and offer commuter convenience is to display a special naiveté about urban economy, informal markets, and the quiet collaborations that happen between commuters and hawkers.

The planners and others with sterile notions of city’s appearance see hawkers, in fact anyone who uses public place to make a living, as trespassers and eyesores. Despite having licences, and paying off civic and police officials to do their day’s work, hawkers are projected as lawless and illegitimate people, hardly acknowledged as citizens, much less as productive citizens whose work offers large and floating populations with a variety of goods and services.

In the urban plans and vision documents drawn up, hawkers do not find a place. Tossed between authorities, their legitimacy is always suspected. Their “highly variegated activity and occupation of thousands who depend on them are characterised pejoratively as ‘encroachments’…The poverty of our language indicates how little we understand, and how brutally we exclude,” wrote architect-planner Hussain Indorewala recently.

What then is the way out? An obvious measure is to regulate them as international cities do but with the understanding that their informal economy is a central thread running through the city.

In fact, street vending is as old as cities themselves. They do not have to — in fact, should not — crowd railway stations, block bridges and entry-exit points given the crush load that the railway infrastructure bears. But there can be well-planned hawking zones near railway stations.

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act passed in 2014 would have helped to regulate but it is not ready for implementation yet. In fact, there is a discrepancy even in base numbers. The BMC says there are less than a lakh licenced hawkers across Mumbai; hawkers’ unions say there are around 2.5 lakh.

When state agencies, in this case the BMC and railways, refrain from addressing the issue head-on, dither from bringing sanity and balance between the needs of commuters and hawkers, it allows partisan politicians such as Raj Thackeray and Nirupam to speak for one side or the other, politicise an urban policy issue, and vitiate the atmosphere to a degree that dialogue becomes difficult.

Cool down the temperature, discuss solutions, implement the law.

Above all, do not turn it into a commuter versus hawker battle.

First Published: Nov 01, 2017 23:37 IST