Calcutta, Nov. 29: You may find walking on them perilous but Calcutta’s pavements are laid with gold.
In order to conduct their business from what is public property for public use and should, therefore, be closed to private business, hawkers make an annual clandestine payment of Rs 265 crore to various authorities.
“Hawkers are exploited by the agents of trade union leaders, politicians, police, civic councillors. They have to pay to earn their bread,” said Shaktiman Ghosh, leader of the Hawker Sangram Committee, an apolitical union.
In the staggering sum of money at stake lies the secret of why hawkers will never be evicted, never mind the enormous inconvenience they cause to citizens.
It also explains why mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya is reinventing Lord Cornwallis’s permanent settlement concept to make sure the city’s sidewalks are forever occupied by peddlers.
He wants to legalise a part of the illegal by collecting a tax and giving hawkers an identity card to protect them from “harassment”.
In a memorandum to the mayor, the hawkers’ committee has said its members pay Rs 265 crore a year as bribe to various agencies.
“They have given me the memorandum, which talks about some numbers,” confirmed Bhattacharyya.
Ghosh explained that at last count, the city had 2.75 lakh hawkers who pay anything between Rs 30 and Rs 150 a day, depending on location. Agents of the claimants to the booty collect the bribe daily from the hawkers.
From candies to cameras and fruits to fashion products, if the hawkers offer a diverse basket, the business they generate is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination — Rs 8,772 crore last year, according to the committee.
While the Rs 265 crore they part with as bribe is just 3 per cent of the business, the hawkers’ association is aware of the influence it can wield — and not on the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) alone.
In meetings of the apex committee, formed by the CMC with hawkers’ leaders to work out the permanent settlement framework, the Rs 265-crore carrot was used to good effect.
“We are willing to pay rent or some other form of tax to the civic body if we get the right to conduct business. Identity cards will protect us from extortion by multiple agencies,” said Ghosh.
The hawkers’ leaders told the CMC that conducting sidewalk business is impossible without the nod of the political godfather of the area, agents of union leaders, local police station, traffic guards and civic councillors.
“In every area, you will find someone controlling pavement rights. Shiraj rules in Burrabazar-Dalhousie-Hare Street, Nayeem in Esplanade, Shahnawaz manages the New Market region and Kanu Ghosh is the king of Sealdah,” agreed a civic official.
Former mayor Subrata Mukherjee said: “To get 10 sq ft on a pavement in Dalhousie, Brabourne Road, Gariahat or Hatibagan, one has to shell out at least Rs 1 lakh as salami to a political godfather.”
He disclosed the little-known fact that since unemployed city youths can’t pay this kind of money, people from neighbouring states — even from Bangladesh — are occupying the pavements.
Mukherjee even questions the logic that bringing the business above board will stop the bribery.
“Police and others will continue collecting their shares. The beneficiaries will be political leaders, who will sell legal footpath space at a higher price,” he said.