Calcutta, April 16: Mamata Banerjee’s populist streak prompted her to announce sops and freebies for hawkers besides legalising them ahead of the civic polls, but the CPM and the BJP have failed to highlight the citizens’ woes because of the government’s stance.
The Opposition apparently could not read the pulse of the people as the ABP Ananda-Nielsen India opinion poll showed that 49 per cent of Calcuttans believed the hawker problem in the city had worsened in the past four years.
Hawkers in Calcutta’s New Market
The hawker menace has led to less road space for vehicles, crowding of pavements and more garbage.
However, the chief minister disregarded such concerns and on March 13 announced that hawkers would be legalised in Calcutta and given free trade licences. A host of other sops such as paying half the cost of their structures and health insurance were also announced.
“I am not in favour of eviction (of hawkers) but in favour of making you all self-sufficient,” Mamata had said.
Senior Trinamul leaders said the announcement was a political move ahead of the civic polls.
“Rough estimates by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) put the number of hawkers in the city at 2.75 lakh, but the figure could go up to 3.25 lakh if a survey is carried out now. Every party will try to win over the hawkers ahead of the civic polls. We tried to send the message to hawkers that they would not be evicted,” a Trinamul minister said.
Although the announcement has serious repercussions for residents of Calcutta, the Opposition parties have not addressed the issue properly in their manifestos.
While the CPM and the Congress did not mention the hawker problems, the BJP briefly touched upon the issue by saying the party would implement the national hawker policy, which ensures the rights of pedestrians.
CPM leaders said in private that they avoided the issue consciously considering the “adverse effects” of Operation Sunshine — an eviction drive carried out by the then Left Front government in 1996 to make 16 important roads hawker-free.
The Left government had to call off the drive midway in the face of severe criticism and agitations led by Mamata, who was the Opposition leader.
The CPM had to pay a political price as they lost the 2000 civic polls, which prompted the party to abandon its plans of removing hawkers from the streets of Calcutta.
BJP leaders said they did not lay stress on the issue during the campaign as “every vote is important”.
But some senior bureaucrats said the Opposition might have missed a chance to nail the chief minister.
The hawker-friendly stance of the government has not gone down well with shop owners and traders, who are set to be the worst sufferers if the chief minister’s plans materialise.
The Federation of the West Bengal Trade Associations (FWBTA), which has 2.25 lakh members, had criticised the chief minister’s policy to legalise hawking. The traders of New Market had downed shutters for three days to protest against the hawker menace.
“There was a great opportunity to stand by the traders and shop owners, who fill up the government coffers. There was also a chance to call the government’s bluff,” a senior official said.
According to him, it would be almost impossible for the government to implement two major announcements of the chief minister — no eviction of hawkers and free trade licences as a central act implemented last year could not be ignored.
Under the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 — the state government has to identify no hawking, restricted hawking and hawking zones in the city if it wants to give legal status to them.
“This means the government has to create a no-vending zone and relocate all hawkers currently doing business there. Will our populist chief minister go for such a drive?” a Nabanna official asked.
If the government has to declare a no-vending zone in the city, it has to be the central business district that stretches up to Camac Street from BBD Bag, an area where a large number of hawkers do business.
“In several government documents, there are proposals that this area be declared the central business district and no hawking be allowed here. But as the chief minister has already promised that she is against eviction, I am not sure whether she would allow such a drive,” the official said.
Even if a no-vending zone is created, the government will face trouble in relocating the hawkers as the central act lays down several preconditions.
The act mentions that in case the number of hawkers exceeds the holding capacity of a vending zone, “the town vending committee shall carry out a draw of lots for issuing certificate of vending for that zone”.
This rule will hurt the interests of the hawkers and the ruling establishment, as all vendors cannot be accommodated in a particular area.
“For example, if the vendors of Esplanade are relocated around the Exide crossing and its surrounding areas, a lottery would have to be done as space is not unlimited and hawkers already exist in the area. This would create trouble as some vendors would not get a chance,” a CMC official said.
Only a stipulated number of hawkers can be relocated to a particular area as the central act mentions that the number of vendors should not exceed 2.5 per cent of the population of a ward.
The act also mentions that licences to the hawkers should be issued against a payment and they would have to pay regularly to the civic body for services such as cleaning of garbage and restoration of the places where they would carry out business.
“The Opposition should have highlighted the hurdles Mamata would face in legalising hawkers,” a CMC official said.
Some senior officials said the state government could work its way past the hurdles by bringing in an amendment to the central act. But it would require presidential assent.
“As the state’s proposals would be contrary to the central government’s, it would require presidential assent. Given the nature of the amendment, which would curb the rights of the city’s residents, it is unlikely that it would secure the President’s nod,” a law department official said.