Remember Operation Sunshine? “Think back to 1996,” says Shaktiman Ghosh, the all India president of the National Hawkers’ Federation. “Back then, the West Bengal government had mandated that all hawkers would be removed from the state by December 21, 1996. They called it Operation Sunshine. It was war waged on hawkers in the state, with more than 10,000 policemen forcefully evicting street vendors. At least 18 vendors committed suicide since they could no longer earn a living. And this was something that was happening across the country. We want to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
And it will not if The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, is adopted. The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 9, 2012, by the Union ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation. “It’s historic,” says Manali Shah, president of the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India. “It all started in 1988, when Mira Behan, as a member of the Rajya Sabha, first talked about the idea of having some kind of legislation for street vendors.”
The legislation seeks to protect the livelihood of street vendors across the country. Once the bill is passed, it will ensure that the vendors are not forcefully evicted from where they sell without due cause. A Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gainda Ram and others vs MCD and others had stated that street vendors have a right to livelihood, and that they cannot be evicted from the place where they conduct their business without due cause.
The bill hopes to give political backbone to previous attempts to introduce legislation concerning India’s hawkers. Until the tabling of this bill, most attempts were limited to policies that didn’t require mandatory implementation by the states. Now, the states will also have to pass their own variation of this bill. So far, seven states — Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — have already passed the bill in their legislatures while the rest of the states have only gotten around to drafting a bill, but not much more.
Apart from providing legislative protection to street vendors, the bill also aims at streamlining the unorganised retail sector. According to the National Sample Survey for 2009-2010, India has roughly four crore street vendors, with a total daily turnover of around Rs 8,000 crore. This also constitutes the vast majority of India’s retail sector (96 per cent, according to a 2008 report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations). The bill hopes to consolidate this huge working mass through a couple of innovative measures.
Chapter II of the bill proposes distributing licences to all street vendors through a town vending committee, which will also be in charge of managing all vending activities for that area. Anyone over the age of 14 can apply for a licence, which will be valid for five years, after which the vendor will have to re-apply. Vendors will be issued licences based on whether they are stationary, mobile or any other category. The town vending committee will demarcate the areas under their jurisdiction into three zones — restriction free, restricted and no vending. The committee will update the demarcated zones every five years.
Chapter III of the bill specifies the responsibilities vendors have towards maintenance of the vending zones. The conditions that vendors have to uphold while operating in the restriction free and restricted zones — such as maintaining hygiene, keeping the area clean and ensuring that public property is not damaged — have been clearly put down in the bill.
There is, however, some contention regarding some of the areas that have been earmarked as no-vending zones. According to Ghosh, there are two critical areas — all land that’s under the Indian Railway’s jurisdiction and all of Jammu and Kashmir. “If they can allow vendors to operate in public and private areas, why can’t they allow them to operate in Jammu and Kashmir and on railway property,” he asks.
Shah has a problem with the zoning idea — she is not happy that the work of demarcating zones will lie completely in the hands of city officials. “If you look at cities like Bhubaneswar, it’s almost like they’ve shut out hawkers from the city. We can’t leave everything in the hands of the city, there has to be some representation from the vendors’ side. Their livelihoods need to be secure.”
Another point of contention is the clauses on eviction. Chapter IV, Section 19 of the bill, goes into the details of how and when a vendor can be evicted. This concept found no place in the 2004 model Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill that eventually became the backbone of the current bill. Ghosh points out that the current bill does not require the authorities to give a notice period to the vendor. He emphasises the fact that street vendors are vulnerable to eviction as it is, and that there needs to be some kind of mechanism in place to ensure that they are protected against forceful eviction.
Shah points out that in the case of eviction, no clause requires officials to give vendors a receipt when confiscating goods. “Too often, when vendors’ goods are confiscated, they are not given a receipt and they lose the goods. Sometimes even if they are returned, they are damaged and unusable. There should be some provision in the bill to prevent this from happening.”
One last problem is the time it will take to process an application for a new licence. The bill says it will take a maximum of six months, which vendors feel is too long. Shah also wants a system of redress in case a vendor doesn’t hear back from the town planning committee.
Attempts to contact the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation for clarifications proved futile. But overall, street vendor associations say that for the most part, the bill is loyal to the various drafts they’ve presented to the government over the years. To them, the most important point is that the bill is passed by the Lok Sabha so that the states would no longer be able to ignore street vendors and their rights. And that, they say, is a victory in itself.