DERAILED: Vendors who sell their ware on trains or on railway land are harassed by railway police and other officials
Anyone who has travelled by train in India knows about the multitudes of food vendors on the platforms. They come to the aid of hungry passengers and offer a wide array of foodstuffs — from fruits to samosas to sweets. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2013, passed by the Lok Sabha last month has come as a boon to street vendors — but strangely, not to those who ply their trade on railway land.
Clause 1(4) of the bill (it’s yet to be passed in the Rajya Sabha) states, “The provisions of this act shall not apply to any land, premises and trains owned and controlled by the Railways under the Railway Act, 1989.”
Says Braj Lal Prajapati, a vendor of eatables on platform No. 1 of Bhopal Junction railway station, and head of the Railway Vendors Mandal of the Bhopal region, “Vendors like me have been completely excluded from the bill. This means we will continue to be harassed by the railway police and other officials.”
Prajapati and others of his ilk have reason to feel aggrieved. The bill recognises street vending as a legal activity and is aimed at protecting the livelihood and social security of vendors. It also ensures uniformity in the legal framework for street vending across all the states.
There are about 10 million urban street vendors in the country. And according to the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009, they account for about 2 per cent of the population in several cities.
Some of the provisions of the bill include compulsory registration of street vendors; town vending committees to issue identity cards and decide on street vending zones; rules on relocation, eviction and confiscation of goods and penal provisions for street vendors violating the terms of vending.
Street vendors also got a shot in the arm last year when the Supreme Court directed all state governments and the Union Territory administrators to ensure the formation of town vending committees within two months and registration of all street vendors within four months. The directive is binding till the enactment of the law.
But Prajapati and lakhs like him will not benefit from any of the benefits ushered in by the new law. And it’s not just the vendors within the railway stations who won’t be covered by the law. Those selling goods on railway land outside the stations won’t derive any benefits either.
So why has the bill kept street vendors in railway stations outside its purview? It’s because the government went with the view of the ministry of railways, which argued that since it had a well-established policy of granting licences to vendors on the platforms, trains and elsewhere on railway land, there was no need for these vendors to be covered by the new bill.
But Ranjit Abhigyan, programme co-ordinator, National Association of Street Vendors of India (Nasvi), argues that the Railways Act, 1989, doesn’t have the safeguards for vendors that the new bill has. “The Railways mostly awards contracts to major vendors who have sub-contractors. These are poor people and they don’t have any protection at all. The new bill should cover everybody,” he says.
Prajapati describes how he faces constant harassment from Government Railway Police (GRP) personnel who are part of the state police, Railway Protection Force, railway officials, and others. “Sometimes they don’t pay us after buying stuff from us — even though we have a licence,” he says.
Indeed, those who are benefiting from the bill are also disappointed at the exclusion of vendors on railway land. “It is unfair on railway hawkers. They face harassment from multiple authorities. There’s no difference between them and normal vendors,” says Hariram Yadav, secretary, Bombay Hawkers’ Union.
Other organisations like Nasvi and Self Employed Women’s Association (Sewa), have welcomed the bill, but are hoping that it will be changed to include railway vendors when it comes up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha.
“We are happy with most of the provisions, but it’s not fair to leave out vendors on railway land. We will certainly pressurise Rajya Sabha members to look into this aspect,” says Manali Shah, president, Sewa.
Many of those who deposed before the parliamentary standing committee on housing and urban poverty alleviation say that the non-inclusion of railway vendors defeats the purpose of the bill. “Railway vendors provide a valuable service to travellers, mainly the poorer ones, as they offer food at cheaper rates,” says Sharith K. Bhowmik, professor and dean of the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and part of the drafting committee of the National Policy for Street Vendors.
Housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry officials say it was the railway ministry that was opposed to including vendors on its land. “We didn’t get any encouraging signs from the ministry when we tried to sound them about the law on vendors,” says an official.
The standing committee of Parliament, however, was not impressed with the railways’ view. In its report, it said, “There is lack of adequate regulation for vendors operating on railway land and outside the stations and exclusion of such vendors from the provisions of this bill duly expose them to harassment and exploitation by railway authorities and the police.”
One of the fundamental provisions of the bill is regarding the confiscation of goods from street vendors who violate the law. According to it, if goods are confiscated by the authorities, it should be accompanied by a panchnama detailing the confiscated goods and signed by the official in charge of the drive. “The railways ministry should at least consider such provisions so that vendors are not harassed,” says Shah.
However, the ministry of railways seems quite unmoved by such pleas. “We have a very strong system for lakhs of vendors. So we don’t see the need for including vendors on railway land in the bill,” says Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, minister of state for railways. Chowdhury goes on to stress that urban and poverty alleviation and railways are “two totally different subjects”.
Meanwhile, street vendors organisations say they will continue the fight until the railway vendors are also brought under the ambit of the law. “Railway properties are national property. The ministry cannot claim that everything on railway land will be governed by its own law. There is a need for change in the attitude of the ministry of railways,” says Abhigyan of Nasvi.
There is no indication of that, however — at least for now.