Another vignette of a city on the move. Business as usual for pavement-grabbing food stalls on Theatre Road on Wednesday. Picture by Sayantan Ghosh
The chief minister on Wednesday promised “legal rights” for pavement-grabbing hawkers for their defiance of the Citu strike, striking fear about pedestrians losing the little sidewalk space available for them.
The announcement followed a whirlwind tour across the city, which sources said left Mamata Banerjee both disturbed, as she rode past rows of closed shops, and elated, as she found hawkers plying their trade in large numbers on one pavement after another.
“I would like to express my gratitude for my hawker brothers who sat with their daalas on roads,” Mamata said at Writers’ after the tour.
In line with her carrot and stick policy, the chief minister also announced that the few shops that remained open during the day would be given tax benefits.
“Jara khuleychhen tader dhanyabad janachhi ebong ami nije dekhe eshechhi kothay kothay khola achhe. Amra ekta corporation thekey survey korchhi kar kar dokan khola, kar kar dokan khola nei. Jader khola achhe tader amra dhanyabad janabar jonye eta korchhi. Tader amra kichhuta tax relief debo. (I thank those who have opened their shops and I have seen it for myself. We are carrying out a survey through the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to find out which shops were open and which were closed. This is to thank those who opened their shops today. We will give them some tax relief),” the chief minister said.
The announcement left many shopkeepers stumped. “This is clearly a divide-and-rule tactic. You can’t blame the shop-owners who did not open shutters today for fear of their establishments being vandalised by bandh-backers,” said a trader.
Legal experts, however said, said the chief minister’s decision to dole out selective tax benefits would fail legal scrutiny.
“Neither the Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act, 1980, nor the West Bengal Sales Tax Rules, 1994, has any provision for special tax benefits for anything related to a bandh,” said Anjan Bhattacharya, a lawyer at Calcutta High Court. “If challenged in court, the move is likely to be struck down.”
Sources in the government dubbed the chief minister’s sop for hawkers a “lethal blow” to the city’s crumbling traffic system.
The Indian Road Congress manual (IRC: 103/98), experts said, has specified the ideal width of a sidewalk keeping in mind two factors — the number of pedestrians in one direction per hour and the number of pedestrians in both directions per hour.
If, for instance, 4,800 persons walk in one direction per hour, the sidewalk should be three metres wide. If the hourly pedestrian count is 2,400 in both directions, the width should be 2.5 metres.
“In Calcutta, there has hardly been any rational basis for determining the width of a footpath. As a result, many sidewalks in the city are narrower than what they should have been considering the pedestrian load. Now, if pavement-grabbing hawkers are given legal sanction, pedestrians will be crowded out of the already narrow footpaths,” said a traffic police officer.
Traffic bosses at Lalbazar said some of the worst-affected stretches would be BB Ganguly Street, Lenin Sarani, SN Banerjee Road and AJC Bose Road, where pedestrians hardly get to use the footpaths.
They also pointed out that legal validity would mean hawkers could sit anywhere on pavements. “There is still some room for the police to act against hawkers if they block the entire pavement. The chief minister’s move would take away that right,” said an officer.
“Former mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya had announced that hawkers would be restricted to one-third of the pavements and they would be given identity cards. Mamata Banerjee has gone a step ahead.”
A list of 43 intersections of 18 roads, stretching from BT Road in the north to Rashbehari Avenue in the south, was drawn up during Bhattacharyya’s tenure. The authorities then shortlisted 27 intersections of nine major roads in the Burrabazar-Sealdah-Park Street-Beadon Street area, where hawkers would be allowed to take up one-third of the pavements.
“It was subsequently proposed that the government would earmark zones for hawkers to carry out their businesses in a stipulated timespan,” said a senior civic official.
According to an estimate, there are around 3.55 lakh hawkers in the city. Their annual business is worth Rs 8,820 crore. For a 10sq ft space on a pavement in the city’s prime area, a hawker has to pay a selami of over Rs 1 lakh, which is shared by the police, civic bosses and union leaders.
Will the stamp of approval on hawking result in some additional revenue for the civic body? “For that hawkers need to be given trade licences. But those can’t be issued as hawkers don’t have any valid address of their businesses,” said an official.
The government has of late allowed stalls measuring 5 feet in length and 3 feet in width on certain stretches of Millennium Park and at the intersection of Harish Mukherjee Road and Elgin Road. “But the problem is these hawkers don’t restrict themselves to this specified area. They will place a bench, stools and other items and end up occupying more space than was allotted to them,” said a civic official.