Businesspersons on the street: A day in the life of street vendors

Sabrang India takes a look into the lives and woes of vendors in metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi.

The workday begins in the evening for food-seller Mohammad Irshad. As office workers rush back home, he opens his stall ready to offer savory items like kathi rolls, chicken rolls.

“Nearly, 70 percent of office workers in Delhi are dependent on food stalls. Yet, during the pandemic we are among the first shooed away,” he said.

Irshad prides himself for his business that he started with his friend in 2002.

“My parents were labourers in Bihar. I came to Delhi wanting to start my own business and finish my education at the same time,” said Irshad.

Both of these dreams came true for him after he and his friend started their own food stall. The two used to watch YouTube videos, learn from their friends or watch other cooks at work until they figured out how to make the snacks. Each borrowed about Rs. 5,000 from their friends and went about the Red Fort area looking for materials to build the stall.

“We first started working at Suraj Vihar in East Delhi and within a few days, we had to deal with RWA [Resident Welfare Association] officials. They claimed we did not have the right to work there,” he said.

Over the last 18-20 years, Irshad said that such interrogation by resident officials, police and municipality workers had only increased. “You get used to it,” Irshad said dismissively.

The first time he faced the police, Irshad agreed to pay the officer monthly to stay out of trouble. It took him years to finally stand up to them and ask them not to bother him.

Over time, he figured out how to defend his business. Until 2010, Irshad had not known he could use the police-given fine receipts as proof of his business. Nor did he know that he didn’t need to pay the police but had to file for a food license instead. In 2013, he finally applied for the license with the help of an NGO Janpahal and now works with a food license.

One of his regular customers, a lawyer at the Supreme Court encouraged him to participate in the local Town Vending Committee (TVC.) He is now a TVC member of Sahdara South zone, East Delhi.

“I still wanted to help other people. So, I founded an organisation, Ekta Rehdipatri Sangh, to help other vendors file for their documents,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Irshad used to spend about three hours daily preparing for the food. He earned about Rs. 8-10,000 a month. Even so, he argued that food-sellers fare the worst among all the vendors. He reasoned that other vendors sell dry items such as mufflers, toys and only have to be wary of the police. On the other hand, food-sellers sell wet-items.

“We have to watch out for three kinds of people: the Corporation officials, the health officers and general body officers,” said Irshad.

The health officials end up being the most critical of food vendors despite a food license.

“The health officials are among the first to ridicule our vending rights,” he said.

Another problem Irshad mentioned is that a majority of hawkers do not know their own rights.  Therefore, they do not know what to do when the police or municipality officials take away their goods. The vendors are charged with Rs. 4000-5000 fine while their stalls are thrown into the municipality trucks, damaging property bought with their hard-earned money.

“A lot of us are scared. The corporation officials either don’t know or don’t care about our rights. But the law is for everyone. They should listen to us,” he said.

He alleged that this is the biggest cause of corruption – a complete dismissal of others rights.

Even before the enactment of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood And Regulation Of Street Vending) Act, the Supreme Court had explicitly said on September 9 2013, that those vendors who have received a fine prior to this date should not be bothered.

When asked about the Vendors Act, Irshad said the law properly protects vendors’ rights on paper. However, he wishes that the authorities would provide the services mentioned in the Act such as grievance redressal committees.

“When we approach the court with our grievances, we are told to go to the TVC officials. However, even that committee had its first election in 2018 although the Act was made in 2014,” he said.

Regarding the stigma related to vending he said, “You might call me a vendor but I am a businessman.”

Irshad said that the only difference between a vendor and a businessman with a shop is that vendors have “a sword hanging over them.” They don’t know when they’ll be forced into more harassment.

Similarly, he questioned why stalls are cleared from the streets every time a big personality comes to the town.

“The reason is simple. They do not want to show poverty. To them, the stalls are a symbol of poverty,” he said.

Irshad’s pride in his work is in stark contrast to how Vijayalaxmi Gaikwad, a flower-seller in Mumbai, entered the profession.

Widowed at the age of 20 years, Vijayalaxmi became a flower-seller like her mother to take care of her daughter. Taking a loan of Rs. 200-300 from her mother, she began selling flowers outside Saint Joseph High School in Vikhroli, her alma mater. She never had to deal with school children except on teacher’s day but tried to hide away from the professors.

“For the first two months, I hid her face from my teachers. I was embarrassed to be seen selling flowers on the street,” she said. However, as time went by, Vijayalaxmi received the encouragement of her teachers and friends and began focusing on her work.

“Good job. You have nothing to be shy about – that’s what my teachers and friends used to tell me. Slowly, I gained pride towards my work,” said Vijayalaxmi.

Before the lockdown measures were enacted, she used to earn Rs. 200-300 per day and Rs. 2000 during festivals. Nowadays, she lives at her home in Kalwa waiting for the trains to start once again. The working of the trains is vital for her work.

Every day, Vijayalaxmi boarded the 11 AM train to Dadar station to buy 10-12 kgs of varying flowers such as lilies, jasmine, mogra, chrysanthemum. The first part of this process involved pleasant talks with wholesalers. During the latter half, her real work began as she took the goods back to Vikhroli. Balancing the huge bags of flowers on her heads, she boarded the women’s special compartment and stood to the side, waiting to get off at her platform.

“Once I had to throw the flowers at Ghatkopar station because the crowd completely crushed the flowers and then pushed it off at the station. I have to protect those flowers from dirt and the fishmongers in the train. No one will buy the flowers otherwise,” she said.

Vijayalaxmi weaved the flowers into garlands and gajra, often bought for religious purposes. Accordingly, cleanliness played as big a role in her work as it did for Irshad except she did not have to deal with the officials’ harassment.

Even so, as the President of the Azad Hawkers Union, Vijayalaxmi has had her fair share of conflicts with authority figures.

“The BMC and police used to trouble us a lot. Technically, they are only allowed to keep us away from the streets till 9 PM. But there have been days when I have had to come to Vikhroli at 11 PM or 12 AM along with other officials to help other vendors being harassed by the police,” she said.

Vijayalaxmi agreed that there was an issue of crowding as more and more vendors gathered in one area and hindered the pedestrians. Police often came there for such reasons. However, she complained of the manner in which the fines were charged to them in such situations.

“They used to charge Rs. 1250 and then gave us a receipt that read Rs. 1200. For street vendors, those Rs. 50 make a big difference,” she said.

As in the case of Delhi, the Bombay High Court had previously said that hawkers working prior to 2014, should be given certificates. Over a lakh vendors were also identified in a 1997 survey conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) called the ‘Tata YUVA Survey.’ However, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) called for another survey which has created a lot of confusion regarding new vendors, said Vijayalaxmi.

Although living in different cities, under different circumstances, Irshad and Vijayalaxmi have similar complaints. The man-handling of their goods by municipal officials, the illegal confiscations by police and the lack of respect towards their profession.

“Other people are given due respect for their work. However, we never receive any appreciation for anyone. We do not ask for applause but the government could at least ensure that our rights are protected,” she said.


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