Vendors Rue Life on the Streets

Arnabjit Sur

Chennai : Laying out a fresh pair of jeans for his customer, 35-year old Mohammed Sanaur Khan praises the design and quality of the product, while his helper exhorts pedestrians to halt and take a look at the goods. This is the story of many street vendors like Khan who toil every day at sidewalks across the city in an attempt to make ends meet.

However, it’s not long before he, along with his wares, will have to shift places, says Khan.

“Our business is temporary since the police can come at any time and either threaten us to shut shop or snatch our supplies and throw them in the police booth,” he says, sitting at his shop in NSC Bose Road, adding that in spite of getting hawker identity cards there has been no relief from harassment by the authorities.

“There is some talk of designated vending spaces being demarcated for street vendors but the proposal has been hanging fire without any progress,” Khan rues.

Incidentally, the entire road— situated across the Madras High Court— was declared a no-hawking zone in 1995 with repeated petitions being subsequently filed in the court, highlighting its sorry state.

“I have applied to the corporation for a licensed cart but they have made me run from pillar to post with no solution in sight,” says 40-year-old fruit-seller Amir Basha.

Sprinkling water over a pack of pomegranates and oranges, Basha says that corporation officials came a few months back to verify the identity of hawkers. “They said that they will standardize our trade and provide us shops with better facilities but where are they now?” asks Basha, who hails from Uttar Pradesh.

Flooded with a line of eateries and electronics shops on one side while hawkers and parked vehicles on the other, the congested footpaths become increasingly difficult to walk, say pedestrians.

J  Jayalakshmi, a resident of Chrompet, thinks that the hawkers should be provided with a separate space in order to help them safely run their business. “They constitute an important part of the marketplace so their trade should be regularized and allotted a separate place so that they don’t create a hassle for pedestrians,” she says.

Ranganathan Street in T Nagar, another shopping hub in the city, bears a similar sight with hawkers selling everything from watches to cosmetics crowding the area, many of them setting up shop in the middle of the road inside the market.

“The police come frequently and demand money in order to let us continue our business ,” says 55-year-old Mustafa, adding , “ How will we pay meet their monetary demands when we ourselves earn so little”.

A sidewalk on the NSC Bose Road

Samuel John, who frequently visits the area, says that since the hawkers make a small earning through their products, he doesn’t mind them obstructing the sidewalk. “Most of them live on a hand-to-mouth existence so if we deprive them of their only viable workspace, how will they earn even a meagre income?” he asks.

“It’s also distressing to see the police thrashing the shopkeepers if they fail to pay up the money demanded from them,” Jayalakshmi added.

R K Ramaiah, a resident of Triplicane, says that these vendors should be provided with skill development so that they do not run a temporary business which has no future. “Without any government intervention or incentives, these hawkers keep switching places and inconveniencing pedestrians, “he says.

Meanwhile in Koyambedu Market, corporation workers are assigned to supervise every street in order to ensure that hawkers don’t obstruct the public path. “In addition to these hawkers, a number of bikes are haphazardly parked along the footpath that take up most of the space,” said a worker, requesting anonymity.

“We are simply enforcing the law of the land as the street vendors are illegal encroachers on public property who dirty the footpaths and trouble the public,” said M Muthuswamy, a sub-inspector at Flower Bazaar police station, while patrolling the NSC Bose Road.

Stressing that coordination between the police and government is essential in order to curb illegal street vending , A Natarajan , Assistant Revenue Officer at the Greater Chennai Corporation , says that it is the right of both hawkers and pedestrians to go about their business and with better police-corporation relation , the problem can be addressed.

“Various town vending committees are identifying new vending and non-vending zones as per the Street Vendors Act and providing smart cards with QR readers and new carts to hawkers,” he says.

However, Kashmira Dubash, Communication and Development Manager at the Institute of Transport and Development Policy said that street vendors remain crucial economic link despite being a nuisance to pedestrians. “Constant harassment and unstable earnings are affecting their work with police playing a big role,” she said.

“The National Policy on Urban Street Vendors of 2004 has to be strictly enforced in order to protect the lives of daily hawkers and a city-wide plan should be adopted that provides dignity and independence to them on par with any other shopkeeper,” Dubash concluded.