To legalize the indomitable is not a bad idea. Hawkers, or street vendors, have shown a resilience in India that speaks more of their political power than about anything else. Both the current and the previous governments in West Bengal, for instance, have seen them as a vital vote-bank although each has opposed the other’s stand on hawkers for the sake, again, of political contrariness. So, with the Union cabinet approving the street vendors (protection and promotion of livelihood) bill, this strangely ‘paralegal’ situation is now on its way to becoming a part of official civic and public life. In a city like Calcutta, the most significant implication of such a development is the endorsement of the power that hawkers already wield in urban public life, overriding every civic principle of safety or civility in the use of public spaces in establishing the rule of numbers. The other, more welfare-related, benefits of legalization — easier loans, healthcare, insurance — are of less importance in popular, and populist, perceptions than this ‘democratic’ aspect of the situation.
Yet, this bill is also about regulation. So, what is at stake here is not only the rights of the hawkers, but also those of ordinary citizens who share the streets with the vendors. To make legal hawking part of the civic structure of modern cities and towns should be the objective of the bill, and matters of law and order, and of safety and discipline, should be built into the substance of it. The definition of a legal street vendor should be firmly laid down with a realistic sense of how these terms of the law can be undermined by actual political systems in specific regions of the country. To legalize disorder and the abuse of power would be regressive. Hawkers must learn to be law-abiding citizens if they want to enjoy the benefits of the law.