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The Right to Sell

The law legalising street vending is welcome and comes not a day too soon.

The union minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation, Ajay Maken, believes that the urban poor have a right to conduct trade and business, even if it is on the street. He is willing to back this by bringing in a law that gives them the right. Thus, the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, introduced by Maken’s predecessor Kumari Selja in the Lok Sabha in August last year, is due to be passed with a couple of amendments in the current budget session. The journey towards such a law began many years ago, with a Supreme Court ruling in 1985 and culminating in 2009 in the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors. Yet, despite the increasing acceptance by policymakers at the centre that street vendors are not only a fact of life in Indian cities but should be allowed to conduct their business by law, the reality in most cities is vastly different.

Mumbai, for instance, has the largest number of street vendors, estimated to be around 3,00,000. However, only around 10% of them are “legal” in that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has given them licences. The majority of them are deemed “illegal”. Yet for decades, they have conducted their business by paying the local police and municipal employees varying amounts. Ironically, the BMC charges some of them for “unauthorised occupation” and “refuse removal charges” on a daily basis and even issues receipts. In other words, while continuing to call them “illegal”, it legally collects daily fines from them. Instead, if these vendors were given licences, the monetary gain to the BMC would be substantially more. Yet, it continues to keep its head firmly in the sand and allows this apparent illegality to flourish and grow. By doing so, it can keep for itself the right to arbitrarily decide when and how often it will deal with the “illegals”. Thus, almost on a daily basis in some part of the city, it conducts raids, confiscates the goods of these so-called “illegal” vendors, destroys their temporary shops and clears up the pavements. For these forays, a section of middle-class citizens applauds the BMC and urges it on. But within days, it is business as usual as the vendors return, pay their regular dues to their protectors in the police and the municipality and wait with trepidation for another round of demolitions.

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