A SNEAK PEEK INTO THE STRUGGLING YET HOPEFUL LIVES OF STREET FOOD VENDORS

Vibhuti Devgan & Meenakshi Rana

ABSTRACT

Indians’ love for ‘Pani Puri’ is beyond comparison; similar is the case with other street foods. If you are in India and want to taste the traditional delicious cuisines of the land, nothing would be better than the street food to represent rich tapestry of India’s multi-cultural fabric. In general terms street vendor refers to a person who offers goods or services for sale to the public without having a permanently built structure. The love which Indians show toward street food is not shown towards street food vendors.  Livelihood of 10 million street vendors in India depends on the whims and fancies of the administration. They work under the fear of ‘lathi’ and with the support of the bribe that they pay to exercise their fundamental right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. Their poor living condition is aggravated by plethora of problems which they face, beginning with insecurity of earning and work space, constant threat of eviction and fines imposed by the police and local authorities. Covid-19 pandemic has further worsened the situation. When everyone was sitting in their homes they were moving on the roads for long hours, covering distance of hundred kilometers and more, and even losing their lives The present article deals with the plight of street food vendors, covering constitutional provisions to safeguard them, case laws that recognize their rights, analysis of Street Vendors (Protection of livelihood and Regulation of street vending)  Act, 2014, harassment faced by them, their situation during lockdown due to covid-19 pandemic, government initiative to protect them and suggestions to improve their condition.

Introduction

“If only street lights could speak, the world would get a glimpse of the hardships faced by those street food vendors struggling to sustain their livelihood.”

The ongoing covid-19 crisis has highlighted the plight of the street food vendors as never before. This nightmare has condemned their life to such a fate that the sustenance of their livelihood has become a heavy cross to bear. Although, governments claim massive aids being provided to them, the work can only be seen in papers and the ground zero reality seems to be unchanged. It is simply not that they are facing problems due to the ongoing crisis, these people have lived a life of suffering, facing oppression at the hands of the authorities and the mafias since the very beginning and the pandemic has only added fuel to the existing fire.

Before delving deep into this issue, it is better to understands what is meant by street food vendors. A street food vendor is a person who offers ready to eat food or drink selling them on streets without any permanently built structure but with a temporary static structure or mobile stall (or head-load).[1],[2]Street foods form an integral part of a country’s rich, diverse, and a unique cuisine. It forms a major chunk of the economies of tourist destinations, supports livelihood of many poor and down-trodden and helps in bringing out true flavors of a specific cultural cuisine. According to Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, there are nearly 10 million street vendors in India.[3]However, this is an ill-fortune of our country that even till date this large population is not recognized as an organized sector, forcing these people to live a life under abject poverty.

Coming back to the current situation, the Union government is also trying its level best in order to help these vendors with a supportable livelihood through schemes like PM SVANIDHI-Pradhan Mantri Street Vendor’s Atmanirbhar Nidhi scheme.  But this scheme will address the grievances of these people only during the Covid crisis and other problems faced by them in their daily life when everything is normal will remain unresolved. This situation of pandemic will improve with the passage of time but the deplorable lives of these people will remain the same.

There is a plethora of problems faced by these vendors in normal situations as well ranging from facing forced eviction in the name of infrastructural development and beautification of cities to earning a meager income because the greater amount of their income goes in rents and paying bribes to local officials, from facing harassment at the hands of the local administration and the ones in power to being suppressed by the mafias and from constantly passing through a phase of insecurity and uncertainty because of lack of licenses to losing their prospects of making a good living due to a rise in online shopping, the list enumerating the problems of these vendors goes endless. The city/town planners very conveniently ignore the rights of these vendors leading to their forced displacement from an area where they had established their business by the sweat of their brow.  Apart from all this, various extortion rackets involving local goons are the never ending source of terror for these poor street vendors All these problems exist because street vending forms a part of the informal sector and thus, the vendors don’t enjoy protection from any government, NGOs or any other labour organizations, making it feasible for anyone to carry on their exploitation at various levels.

Although, the Indian Constitution very proudly proclaims the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1949, yet depriving these people of their rights tends to dilute the effectiveness of this article. Even Article 19(1) (g) of the Constitution of India, 1949 also appears to be lagging behind in its implementation as it states that all citizens shall have the right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation trade or business. But these articles mean nothing to those poverty-stricken vendors who are forcefully evicted from their places of work, ostracized by local administration and local goons and are coerced to pay bribes in order to continue their only source of income.

The Honourable Supreme Court of India in the case of Bombay Hawkers’ Union vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation and Ors.[4] upheld the right to livelihood of the street vendors and also observed that unreasonable restrictions and conditions cannot be imposed on street vendors. In the case of Olga Tellis & Ors. v/s Bombay Municipal Corporation[5], the Honourable Supreme Court observed that “the right to life conferred by Article 21 is vast and far-reaching….An equally important facet of that right is the right to livelihood because; no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood. If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to live, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation5.

In Gainda Ram vs. MCD[6] the Apex Court pronounced that, “the fundamental right of the hawkers, just because they are poor and unorganized, cannot be left in a state of limbo nor can it left to be decided by the varying standards of a scheme which changes from time to time under the orders of the court.”6

In order to address all these issues the Government of India came up with The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014.  Before this act, street vending was mainly regulated by the traffic and municipal laws of the area or theModel Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and regulation of street vending) Bill 2009. However, these laws became the major reasons for such an exploitation of the vendors at the hands of the administration.

The introduction of The Street Vendors Act, 2014, gave a ray of hope to all those people who came under the ambit of this act. However, the act has not been able to see the light of the day yet. The Delhi government in September 2019 claimed that it was all set to become the first ever government to implement this act, and it announced setting up of a Town Vending Committee in order to decide upon the further course of action.

The act lays down the provision of Town Vending Committees which would conduct a 5 yearly survey of the vendors falling under its jurisdiction. The act aims at setting up of special vending zones and no vending zones along with issuance of license certificates for carrying out business to all the street vendors above the age 14. All street vendors would carry out their business in designated vending zones and a notice of relocation would be mandatory 30 days prior to eviction. Rents from the vendors will be collected by the local civic bodies. The act also makes the Town Vending Committees responsible for keeping a check on the illegal street vendors. It also provides for the constitution of Dispute Resolution body consisting of a Chairperson who has been a Civil Judge or a Judicial Magistrate and two other professionals as prescribed by the appropriate government. The act also lays down the provisions of granting credit insurance and chalking out welfare schemes by the appropriate governments for the street vendors.

On the whole, the act can be termed as a revolutionary step taken in the direction of promoting rights of street vendors. However, being in its primitive stages the act cannot be termed as completely free of loopholes. The very first thing being that the states have not yet adopted this dilutes the true goal of its enactment. Moreover, the act states that police can evict street vendors merely on the grounds of public nuisance but does not clearly define so as to what can be exactly termed as public nuisance. The meandering pace of justice and lack of clear channels for approaching the grievance cell would prevent vendors from filing complaints against harassment. Further the provision for issuing licenses to the vendors would nurture the evil of bribery rather than curbing it. The act also fails to make it mandatory or give any clear instruction upon what sort of welfare schemes need to be framed. There is absence of provision to help these people spend their old age in a dignified manner without relying on anyone else. Unless the governments cater to all these demands, it would not be wrong to call these provisions a litany of false hopes and promises.

Even the society has role to play in securing their livelihood. We need to realize that by buying something from a street vendor could contribute a bit in making a street vendor earn an income for her/his family. Many associations have also been formed at the national level in order to voice the demands of the street food vendors. To make the position of street vendors secure it is important that rules or schemes are framed having provision for special insurance scheme for loss of goods, both saleable items and that needed to carry on their work, of vendors due to both natural and man-made causes. There should be a mechanism to compensate the vendors who have lost their goods due to the action of civic authorities or open confiscation etc. The street vending activity should be included in the city planning by the urban planning bodies so that the right of vendors to claim spots from the town vending committee is strengthened. Most importantly there is a need to create awareness among vendors about their rights and this could be best done with the help of NGOs. There is need of collaborative efforts from various sections of the society in order to bring an effective law for protection of the livelihood of the vendors by making amendments in the existing laws and also forcing the government for proper implementation of framed laws. It is high time that each and every street vendor raises her/his voice in order to be heard with full determination and remember what P.B. Shelly once quoted:

“O wind, if winter comes can spring be far behind[7]?”


[1] DEFINING STREET VENDORS, National Association of Street Vendors of India – NASVI, http://nasvinet.org/newsite/defining-street-vendors/ (last visited June 4, 2020)

[2] STREET FOOD, National Association of Street Vendors of India – NASVI, http://nasvinet.org/newsite/street-food             (last visited June 4, 2020)

[3] Street Vendors, a neglected lot, https://www.thestatesman.com/supplements/nbextra/street-vendors-neglected-lot-1502770795.html (last visited June 4, 2020)

[4] 1985(3)SCC528

[5] 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51

[6] 2010(10)SCC715

[7] Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley, https://poets.org/poem/ode-west-wind (last visited June 5, 2020)

Leave a Reply