The winds of political change blowing across Bengal have brought to hawkers in Calcutta the right to do business from the pavements.
State urban development and municipal affairs minister Asok Bhattacharya announced on Tuesday that the government would issue identity cards to over two lakh hawkers with a cabinet meeting clearing a “proposal” to “formally recognise” them.
The move to legalise the presence of those who have robbed the pedestrian of his pavement is seen by many as a desperate attempt to shore up the Left Front’s dwindling voter base ahead of the civic body elections in May and Assembly polls next year.
“The Left Front is trying to earn votes in lieu of identity cards that will legalise the presence of hawkers on the streets and pavements,” said former mayor Subrata Mukherjee, whose efforts to rid the streets of hawkers drew a blank for want of political support.
Bhattacharya attributed the policy shift — the Left Front had once launched Operation Sunshine to clear the city roads of encroachment by hawkers — to the Centre’s National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009.
“We have taken this decision in keeping with the provisions and spirit of the central policy. We are trying to adopt a balanced approach rather than blindly driving hawkers away from the roads and pavements,” claimed Bhattacharya.
So what will be the eligibility for an identity card? “We will give identity cards to hawkers who have been in the profession for a long period,” the minister said.
A senior official of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation said that the national policy was to offer benefits to hawkers as part of poverty alleviation programmes, but there was no mention of identity cards to legalise their presence.
The state government’s argument is that hawkers are an integral part of the city’s trade and commerce, helping “poor people” buy products of their choice at low rates.
Hawkers in Calcutta are estimated to sell goods worth over Rs 8,722 crore annually. The flip side to their presence on the pavements and streets is that they eat up Calcutta’s meagre road space, which is only around 8.2 per cent of the total area.
Vehicle movement in several busy areas of the city — Burrabazar-Posta, NS Road-Brabourne Road, Canning Street, Esplanade-Metro Cinema, Hatibagan–Shyambazar and parts of Sealdah and Gariahat — is slow mainly because hawkers have occupied pavements as well as parts of the thoroughfares.
Bhattacharya said identity cards didn’t mean the government would let loose an army of legalised hawkers on the city.
“The city will be divided into three zones — one where hawkers would be allowed, one where they would be controlled and another where they would be banned,” said the minister.
The proposal to restrict hawkers to specified zones is not a new one, though. Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya’s percentage formula to “balance” the right to pavement between pedestrians and hawkers has long been reduced to a farce.
The civic body had announced in May 2007 that hawkers must leave two-third of the width of a pavement for pedestrians and steer clear of areas within a radius of 50 feet from a busy crossing. But there have since been instances of hawkers even assaulting pedestrians at the slightest hint of protest.