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The Street Vendors Act of 2014 and the Collective Struggles of Women Vendors

Right to the City

This paper provides a historical analysis of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 and the subsequent amendment in 2016. It highlights the relationship between the struggles for the right to livelihood, urban spatial governance, and legislative intervention. The legislation fails to address the conditions created by urban and developmental planning, everyday forms of violence and harassment, and the gendered nature of public space entitlement. The paper foregrounds the voices of women street vendors in New Delhi. It critically examines the laws, policies, and activism and points to internal contradictions and limitations within each of these efforts to alleviate the condition and livelihood of street vendors.

Street vending accounts for a significant portion of the informal economy in urban areas around the world. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 (hereafter the Central Act) recognises vending as a legal right to livelihood and aims to protect the rights of vendors as workers. Street vendors, despite being indispensable to the civic economy of urban centres, have faced the brunt of urban development projects, city planning, cleanliness drives, surveillance projects, and political agendas. Henri Lefebvre’s famous call for the “right to the city” resonates in movements and activism led by street vendors in diff­erent countries of the global South (Harvey 2008; Lefebvre 1970, 2003). For instance, women vendors in Delhi participated, in large numbers, in the movement for a central legislation that would recognise vending as a means of livelihood and decriminalise their presence in public spaces. The act, however, is embedded within limits set by regulatory frameworks and urban governance. This paper locates the collective struggle for protective legislation led by women vendors historically. In their struggles and everyday presence in the workplace lie ­political articulations and demands for the right to the city and its public spaces that have historically been denied to them. Instead of reading the legislation as a goal, or the movement led by women vendors as a means to an end, this paper examines the possibilities immanent in their struggles and org­anising efforts. Overall, this paper demonstrates the fractured rel­ationship between spatiality of urban governance and the right claims to livelihood through law.

The aesthetic form that New Delhi, as a “world-class city,” has been aspiring for in its urban planning and city renewal schemes leaves little room to accommodate street vendors and places severe limits on their free movement in public spaces. In the shrinking public spaces of cities, women vendors are ­affected by everyday harassment and violence, which include both formal and informal forms as well as official and unofficial regulations. Although this paper examines the movement and struggles that led to the formulation and enactment of the Central Act, 2014, it is important to locate this study within a longer history of urban planning in ­Delhi. This is to show the historically located dynamics bet­ween law and order in urban centres and the concomitant political activities of the marginalised sections of urban populations are most gravely affected by such processes.

This paper will show that the mobilisation of street vendors drew heavily from existing knowledge of colonial forms of regulating laws and policing as well as political actions of the urban poor in the colonial and postcolonial period. This gave the movement towards a central legislation historical meaning and foresight, albeit being deeply embedded in localised small-scale collective campaigning in different Indian cities. The next section provides a brief historiographical sketch of the themes that run through the paper, followed by a description of the national context of activism and mobilisation within which a central legislation for street vendors emerged. The paper then turns to the role played by the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Delhi in the activism and mobilisation towards the central legislation. The final section incl­udes ethnographic interviews of women vendors in Delhi and highlights the local realities of vendors before and after the legislation.

Locating Street Vendors’ Struggles

Historically, the urban poor have had a contentious relationship with governmental and regulatory authorities. Identifying linkages between various processes or urban planning and public space management as well as legislations and regulations can help in better understanding the intersections of law, spatiality, and politics of the urban poor. The view that street vending hinders the progress of a modern city can be traced to the colonial government’s disapproval of vendors and hawkers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Economic reconfiguration of society during the colonial period went hand in hand with urban policing. Colonial vagrancy laws, laws to control contagious diseases and prostitution, and most notably the criminal tribes legislations in colonial South Asia and nuisance laws in colonial African cities were meant to control movement and access of colonial populations to public spaces (Singha 1998; Muiruri 2010; Levine 2013).1 The very term “public space” is embedded in a long history of Western political imaginings, notwithstanding its varied meanings and usages over time. The colonial ­usage of the idea of public space in India drew from legal distinctions of public and private forms of property codified in the 13th-century England. The use of the term “public” to describe specific spaces in emerging urban centres was concomitant with the development of municipal institutions for managing and regulating cities. William Glover (2004: 212) argues that the idea of public space became significant in political discourse in colonial India only in the late 19th century. He suggests that

by naming certain urban properties and spaces “public,” drafting rules governing what activities could take place there, and enforcing these rules through new urban ins­titutions the colonial government created both a concept and a corporeal substance—“public space”—that had no prior history in the Indian city. (Glover 2004: 212)

The spatial form that cities constitute demonstrates the historically linked processes of colonial and postcolonial geographies. The colonial capital of British India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The plan for a “new” Delhi sought to bypass the previous capital of Calcutta and the precolonial Mughal capital of Delhi (Shahjahanabad). Even in the architectural planning of New Delhi, architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker envisioned the exaltation of imperial authority through the use of neo-baroque geometrical designs. The spatial order of the colonial state, Swati Chattopadhyay (2012) argues, was meant to control anti-colonial political agitation. The particular constructions of the capital city of New Delhi in the early 20th century reflect logics of governance and power that are equally relevant to contemporary city planning and development (Chattopadhyay 2012). Particular constructions of colonial subjects in terms of class, caste, and religious community were significant elements for urban planning and ordering space for the colonial state (Legg 2007). Stephen Legg (2007) shows that the historical production of segregated spaces, surveillance, and control of disorder in colonial Delhi relied on the construction of Old Delhi as a place of tradition and community. The spatial lay out of Delhi prepared in the 1914 demarcated living quarters hierarchically, from Class A to Class D, for different types of religious and racialised categories were identified by the state. City planning in postcolonial Delhi can be understood in and through segregated spaces, with an increasing investment in dividing the private and public spaces through the creation of gated communities. This is particularly visible in the period of resettlement projects of the 1970s and the 1980s (Tarlo 2003: 137–69; Ahmed et al 2013: 641–53). The 1980s ushered in economic reforms, formalised in the 1990s, setting the foundations for neo-liberal economic changes in India, making the legacy of colonial urban planning clearly visible in the shrinking public spaces and competitive increase in real estate value (Rao 2010).2

The struggle against restrictions on mobility of vendors in cities and public spaces shows that law is used as a site of resistance. Embedded within governance through legal ordering, the nature of politics of the urban poor since the 1990s compels an envisioning of transformative politics at the city scale. In this vein, the urban citizenship theory reco­gnises the city as a scale of citizenship that constitutes the processes of demanding rights and protective mechanisms and regulations. Localised citizenship processes convey both demands and needs of the marginalised sections more effectively than at the scale of the nation state (Holston 2001). For instance, Delhi can be viewed in terms of citizenship practices of the marginalised sections by looking critically at ways in which legal rights are confronted by women vendors in the movement towards a central legislation for vendors.

Legal Precedents

Two Supreme Court judgments in 1985 and 1989 are of parti­cular historical importance in the formulation of the Central Act. The Supreme Court order of 1985 in Mumbai was used as a precedent in formulating demands for a central legislation to regulate vendors. Following claims to public spaces in Mumbai led by the Bombay Hawkers’ Union in the late 1970s, in 1985, the Supreme Court dictated that street vending is a constitutionally protected right.3 In response to a case filed against its inaction, the Bombay High Court set up guidelines for ­regulating hawker zones and the creation of a three-member committee to survey the city. The zoning of the city produced several problems including regulatory non-uniformity, unequal access, and continued harassment and attack on the livelihoods of hawkers. In 1989, another significant juridical intervention was made by the Supreme Court in a case brought through a public interest litigation by vendor Sodhan Singh who had been evicted by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Singh and stated not only the fundamental right of vendors to carry out their trade but also the importance of vendors in providing essential articles at lower costs to the poor sections of the city (Bhowmik 2003).

These legal precedents were used in formulating the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill and in organising a movement leading to the passage of the legislation in 2014. Located in Ahmedabad, the early struggles led by SEWA countered the legal framing of vendors as criminals, which amounted to a perceived illegitimacy of street vendors and vending as work. SEWA’s demand at the time was the issuance of licences to vendors, followed by designated spaces or zones for vending. The initial mobilisation in Ahmedabad consisted of delegations, rallies, and sit-ins, ensuring dialogue and action. Early policies that recognised the right to livelihood of women vendors included a 1988 report of the National Commission on Self-employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, titled “Shramshakti.” This was foll­owed by the Planning Commission’s report in a chapter titled “A Fair Deal to the Self-employed” translated into Hindi as Do Tokri Ki Jagah (Two Baskets Worth of Space). In Kolkata, the Hawker Sangram Committee amalgamated many smaller unions and associations that sprung up as a result of a concerted effort by the state government to remove hawkers from the streets in the 1990s. The committee emerged as a powerful political platform for vendors as well as an alternative to formal trade unions.4

In 1998, the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) was formed to bring vendors from different parts of the country together for policy dialogue. It is a coalition of trade unions, community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and professionals. Some of the issues raised by NASVI included providing vendors licences that would ensure their legal status, creating appropriate hawker zones, protecting and expanding the existing livelihood of vendors, promoting and developing the natural market system, and including street vendors in city planning and urban development planning by recognising how integral they are to the urban distribution system. NASVI emerged in part due to the attention paid to street vendors in the global economy by the Bellagio Declaration of 1998 (Bhowmik 2003: 5). The legal status of street vendors was a focal point of this coalition. In addition, the alliance found it pertinent to issue guidelines for supportive services at the local level through non-formal mechanisms such as committees where there was adequate representation of street vendors and hawkers as well as NGOs, local authorities, and the police, and for relief planning in cases of disasters and natural calamities. The alliance prompted meetings across the country and initiatives for disseminating information were set up. SEWA and NASVI worked as bargaining platforms and provided channels to incorporate vendors’ needs into state policy and regulation.

The right to livelihood and protection of street vendors was framed from the outset by these organisations in regulatory terms such as “itinerant” and “vending zones.” A report titled “Haw­kers and the Urban Informal Sector: A Study of Street Vendors in Seven Cities” demonstrated the problems of hawkers in Patna, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar, Mumbai, Ahme­dabad, and Imphal (Bhowmik 2000). This report infor­med policies and provisions in the Central Act. The definition of a street vendor used in the report was incorporated in the legislation. It encapsulated both their informality and scope in terms of what they sell and where. According to the National Classification of Occupations (NCO 1968: 431.10),

hawker, peddler, street vendor, pheriwala sell articles of daily utility and general merchandise such as vegetables, sweets, cloth, utensils and toys, on footpaths or by going from door to door. Purchases goods from wholesale market according to his needs and capital (money) available. Loads them in basket or on pushcart, wheel barrow or tricycle and moves in selected areas to effect sales. Announces loudly goods or articles on sale and their prices to attract customers. Attends to customers and effects sale by measuring, weighing or counting as necessary. May also display goods or articles of sale on footpath and effect sales. May purchase goods in lot, in auction or other sales. May prepare and sell his own products and may operate means of conveyance. May work on salary or commission basis or both.

The legal status of vendors as workers is formalised through licensing. Legality concurrently imposes control over their move­ment and limits their use of public space. Working within the parameters of constitutional rights and law, the mobilisation efforts and demands of SEWA incorporate the idea of licensing as a means of visibilising vendors. However, the history of regulatory laws demonstrates that licensing itself has been used to restrict the mobility of vendors and their rights to public spaces within the city as well as a mechanism for surveillance. Additionally, as will be demonstrated later, many vendors without licenses face enhanced vulnerability.5 The next section examines the movement and activism towards the implementation of the Central Act, 2014 with a focus on SEWA’s role.

Central Legislation for Street Vendors

Different associations, including SEWA, NASVI, and the National Hawker Federation, take credit for the final passage of a central legislation for street vendors.6 SEWA’s archival documents show the urgency of a national-level intervention from the early 2000. SEWA took a lead in organising the National Policy Dialogue on Street Vendors and Hawkers in India in 2001 that included officials from the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation, academics, representatives, and NGOs. The resultant “National Declaration on Street Vendors and Hawkers” called upon those concerned to create a national policy and to give street vendors legal status. The workshop brought vendors to the forefront and allowed them to voice their grievances on a national platform. The outcome of the workshop was the setting up of a national task force to look into the issues around street vending and create solutions acc­eptable to all stakeholders. The task force included Renana Jhabvala from SEWA, sociologist Sharit Bhowmik—the founder of Nidan, coordinator of NASVI Arbind Singh, and representatives from the police force and government. Some street vendor organisations also found a place on the taskforce. However, there was no consensus on a national policy. A drafting committee was formed with selected members of the task force to write the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2004.

SEWA’s strategies were aimed at enhancing the visibility of vendors as workers, thereby protecting their right to livelihood without imposing significant cost on the cities (Roever and Skinner 2016). SEWA formulated a model bill in 2007 called the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill to serve as a template for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA). The MHUPA draft bill on street vendors in the same year sparked debate on whether a law could be passed at a central level. It was argued by some sections of the bureaucracy that the bill is an ­issue of urban development and not a matter for the central government to decide. However, SEWA emphasised that at its core was the constitutional right to livelihood and therefore within the parameters of the central government’s concern. Earmarking a percentage of the city’s space as vending spaces was intended to accommodate both old and increasing numbers of vendors. The demand to preserve natural markets was an extremely imp­ortant provision affecting the reformulation of public spaces. “Natural markets” were defined as those spaces where buyers and sellers traditionally congregated for the sale and purchase of goods based on the mutual needs of the public and vendors.

In the run up to the Commonwealth Games to be held in New Delhi in 2010, the Delhi government and its municipal authorities were on a mission to transform the city.7 This meant building new infrastructure to impress international visitors, but more prominently included forced evictions and displacement of street vendors. These evictions took place for various reasons ranging from constructing stadiums, building parking lots, widening roads, city “beautification,” and clearing of streets on grounds of “security” (Uppal 2009). The preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games led to the eviction of thousands of street vendors including women vendors, many of whom were members of SEWA or subsequently joined the union. The push towards a central legislation picked up momentum after the vendor evictions in Delhi for urban ­beautification and urban infrastructural development during these years.

The Right to Livelihood

The National Convention of Street Vendors was held jointly with NASVI and NAC in December 2011 to intensify the movement for a central legislation. In 2012, SEWA submitted a memorandum to the MHUPA and the standing committee on urban development with a list of suggestions to improve the bill. Emp­hasising the need to enact a central legislation, the memorandum reiterated certain points to be included in the legislation. These included new and increasing numbers of street vendors, preservation of natural markets, and accommodation of vendors in open spots in adjoining streets or the immediate vici­nity in the absence of schematisation of natural markets. Addi­tional points included digitised surveys, issuance of identity cards, demarcation of vending zones, earmarking 2% of the city’s land for vending spaces in town planning schemes, redress mechanism in the case of conflict, and a procedure to avoid the confiscation of goods by authorities. The memorandum concluded that a collective solution to the issues facing vendors should be arrived at “through the participatory process of stakeholders and a strong legislation with guidelines enacted for the same” (SEWA 2012). The security and surveillance of street vendors emerged as integral to the draft bill. Not only was the access of street vendors limited to demar­cated zones within the city, but the proposal for digitised identity cards was also meant to enhance the monitoring and surveillance of vendors.

The final leg of the movement to push through the legislation was between January 2013 and February 2014. In January 2013, SEWA presented a draft bill for the standing committee of urban development. It was passed by the Lok Sabha in the same year but not by the Rajya Sabha. Thousands of street vendors marched to the home of the then Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in order to put pressure on him to get the bill passed in the Rajya Sabha. On 16 February 2014, the street vendors started a protest and hunger strike outside the Rajya Sabha. This was the final phase of the struggle leading to the passage of the bill on 19 February 2014 and signed by the President on 5 March 2014. It came into force on 1 May 2014. The 2016 amendment authorised town vending committees (TVCs) in every municipal district to enforce the policy of registration and licensing at the local level. The TVCs would also act as decision-making bodies for granting licences.

According to the Central Act, legitimacy of the vendor was contingent on several factors. Prominently, the act describes the city as divided into spaces wherein the vendor’s legal rights are valid. This point is the foundation upon which the vendor’s rights to the city and rights to livelihood are determined. The public space, therefore, is redefined for the purposes of vending. As Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay (2016: 682) points out “unlike the abstract pedestrian’s rights, which are fundame­ntal to the law of public space in a bourgeois city, the street vendor’s rights are founded on a series of exceptions and contingent legality.” Although the Central Act unites, in theory, the rights of hawkers and vendors as workers, the primary implementation of those rights are the responsibility of the states, cities, and municipal authorities. The introduction of the TVC as a mediating platform provides less than majority participation for elected vendors representatives. Further, the representation of vendor interests depends on vendors’ membership in particular associations or unions and continued guarantee of registration and licensing. Interviews with vendors who are members of SEWA revealed a continued presence of uncertainty about the future, having already experienced erratic and shifting resource allocation and protection after the Central Act was passed. Although no structured interviews were con­ducted with non-members of SEWA, it became clear through conversations with hawkers in Old Delhi that many who had never been in any associations or unions prior to 2014 had ­either joined new or existing associations.

Streets for Women Vendors

Women vendors in Delhi were at the forefront of the movement for a central legislation for vendors in India. As members of SEWA, many women used their community networks to ­mobilise large numbers of supporters for protest rallies and a hunger strike that lasted three days. The days of struggle were crucial for many women as Kiran ben, a SEWA member and vendor, pointed out (interview, New Delhi, 2016).8 According to her, despite being a member of SEWA for over a decade, it was during the period of mobilisation and campaigning that she found her trust in the association. However, she pointed out that the legislation had failed in addressing the restriction on mobility of vendors. “Gated neighbourhoods have sprung up everywhere, and the guards do not allow us in,” she stated (interview, New Delhi, 2016). She also claimed that the importance of registration created difficulties for those who did not have official documentation.

The mechanisms for registration, being the responsibility of the local TVCs, have created irregularities, disparities, and room for exploitation and harassment. Kolika ben, a SEWA member and vendor in the Velodrome market, opined that the newly assigned place had restricted business and vendors were not able to sell enough. Sharply attuned to politics around the legislation, Kolika ben pointed out that the politicians supported the legislation mainly “because it was close to election time” (interview, New Delhi, 2016). Kiran ben further exclaimed her frustrations about restricted movement due to gated neighbourhoods. She stated that designated vending zones meant that both traffic of customers and the sale of products were limited (interview, New Delhi, 2016).

Police harassment and confiscation of goods is another persistent problem faced by vendors. Leela ben, a SEWA member for 13 years and a vendor in the Red Fort area of Old Delhi, routinely witnessed such violence. She pointed out that organising with SEWA enabled her to understand the importance of collective action. “I know how to deal with authority and the importance of working in a group if the police start harassing a member in the market.” She noted that collective organising and struggle had instilled much confidence in her. “I have started asking for a receipt from the police who ask for money” (interview, New Delhi, 2016). Women vendors who have been crucial in the movement to bring about the Central Act, 2014 emphasised the confidence and strength of collective org­anising and bargaining. Interestingly, many women vendors in the movement did not know the specific details of the bill but felt that their issues could be resolved if it was passed as a central legislation. The following discussion locates the roles, voices, and experiences of women vendors in Delhi.

According to a SEWA advocacy pamphlet, Delhi’s women street vendors are subjected to acts of verbal and physical abuse, threat of eviction, and confiscation of goods every day. Women vendors have worked with municipal authorities as consultants and pushed policies to improve market safety and hygiene conditions. In Delhi, this research was conducted with SEWA members and vendors in markets including the Velodrome road market that has 150 SEWA members, Qutub Market having 600 members, and the Book Bazar that has 200 members. The mahila market has around 60 vendors on any given week and is a unique space exclusively for women vendors.

The mahila market was set up to rehabilitate women evicted from the Red Fort weekly market during the large-scale evictions of vendors prior to the Commonwealth Games (Uppal 2009). The mahila market, first set up in 2008, is loc­ated on Tagore Road near the famous Civic Centre in central Delhi. It is a weekly Sunday market and consists of only women vendors who are members of SEWA. The items sold are largely second-hand clothes, shoes, watches, electronic items, handicrafts, and jewellery. The women work from 9 am to 5 pm and earn between `200 and `500 a day. However, the earnings can vary significantly if there are fewer customers. Many of the vendors who participate at the mahila market are from Raghubir Nagar, Jahangirpuri, and Sunder Nagari, which are working class neighbourhoods in the National Capital Region.

The vendors unequivocally pointed to problems they face in the mahila market due to the lack of infrastructure such as shade or covers in summers and in the rainy season. It has det­erred the vendors from coming to the market or adversely affe­cted their goods in case of sudden rain. Another challenge has been the absence of toilets. Women who spend the entire day on the sidewalk of Tagore Road had to walk quite far to use toilets. Additionally, the vendors continue to face harassment from men who come to the market as buyers or belong to the neighbouring areas. In surveys conducted by SEWA among women vendors who were evicted prior to the Commonwealth Games, the widespread exploitation of women vendors in largely male-dominated vending spaces was highlighted as a persistent problem. Women have a harder time obtaining permits from the municipal authorities, negotiating with local men as well as enforcement officials—mainly the police.

In the initial years of operation, SEWA ensured security, free transport to the bazaars from the different neighbourhoods, temporary structures to provide shade, and tables for the goods to be sold. Vendors have higher incomes in the Red Fort area, known as andhi kamai, because of consumers who are able to pay more for goods as well as higher foot traffic. The customers that attend the mahila market on Tagore Road, on the contrary, are from the adjoining lower-income neighbourhood and therefore the cost of goods is adjusted to meet the demand.9 The mahila market is an initiative towards creating spaces that centre women vendors’ livelihood. Yet, the market is not a harassment-free space for women vendors. However, the collective and dominant presence of women enh­ances the possibility of challenging normative positioning of men in relation to women in markets and public spaces. The visibility accorded to women in the mahila market has provided many of the vendors with confidence that was crucial during the movement for a central legislation. Many women who are vendors in the market were key activists in the struggle for the enactment of the central legislation. The challenges faced by vendors of mahila market highlight crucial lacunae in the central legislation and its implementation. It also points to the need for reimagining public spaces and creating the entire city as a harassment-free place.

The Central Act legitimises the presence of vendors in designated spaces. It allows for a limited definition of vending and zoning, thereby categorising a large section of vendors as illegal. It also comes with the price of severe breaches of privacy and surveillance. Having the legal rights of a vendor, that is, being recognised as a vendor in the Delhi survey requires documentary proof in the form of receipts, ­tokens, union identity cards, or other membership identity cards. Certificates of vending are issued under various terms and conditions, which are relevant to understanding the res­triction placed on vendors. One such provision states that a vendor “should not have any other means of livelihood except for street vending” (Delhi Scheme Schedule II Street Vendors Act, 2014). Such a clause assumes that vending is a sufficient form of livelihood and ignores the reality of a large number of vendors who may need to find other sources to generate ­income. It also does not take into account seasonal or occasional vendors, despite classifying vendors into natural markets, weekly markets, heritage markets, festival markets, night bazaars, and choupatty or beaches. This classification clearly suggests that many vendors depend on other forms of ensuring a decent livelihood.

SEWA and NASVI’s negotiations with the multiple stakehol­ders demonstrated that the primary task has been to balance the perceived social and economic role and contribution of vendors against increased demands of the private and corporate interests for access to urban land spaces (Roever and Skinner 2016). Public spaces such as parks and pavements are largely restricted for use by vendors and effectively operate as privatised spaces. Although the Central Act provides the much-needed visibility to vendors as workers and the need to protect their livelihood, it ignores a crucial aspect of heterogeneity of vendors’ social location. Further, an emphasis on the legal rights to vend and protective mechanisms provided through licensing and representation in TVCs eludes radical demands made in anti-eviction movements, including access given to the urban poor to public spaces in the city. The relationship between access to safe and conducive working conditions and the right to public spaces as workspaces are crucial aspects of the right to livelihood as a fundamental right.10


The implementation of the central legislation to protect the livelihood of street vendors in Delhi reveals the tense relations between rights, equity, and legality. The use of legal mechanisms by the urban poor to challenge their status as illegal has been seen as a form of increasing democratic participation (Eckert 2006). Yet, the legal status of street vendors is severely limited due to the constraints around licensing and the very definition of vendor in the Central Act. Implementation lags notwithstanding, it is pertinent to ask what status a vendor has in a city: Is their status that of a business person, labourer, trader, or citizen? Further, what rights and obligations do these categories carry? The social location of vendors in the city—as either working class, migrants, women, or lower caste—is not at the forefront of the struggles led by SEWA and NASVI. Yet, it appears as crucial to the political articulations of vendors interviewed for this research.

The legislation, although passed at the central level, depends heavily on the state and city authorities for implementation and requires an analysis at the city scale. Rights claims through legislation can be understood as citizenship pursuits by groups that remain marginal to urban governance and planning in Delhi (Holston 2001: 326). The retreat of the state’s welfare activities has shifted the onus on NGOs, unions, and cooperatives such as SEWA to address the challenges of women in ­informal employment, casual labour, and irregular employment (Bhowmik 2000). This marks a shift in the relationship bet­ween state and society reflected in non-state actors taking up the responsibilities of pursuing social goals (Jenson and Saint-Martin 2003).

The street vendor’s political articulations in the movement towards a central legislation emerged within spaces created by organisations like NASVI and SEWA. Such demands, couched in terms of legislative and policy initiatives, foreclose the historical claims to public space and ignore complex political locations of vendors. While the struggle for a central legislation helped in bringing about an appreciation for collective action and leadership experience for women vendors who are members of SEWA, the outcomes of the legislation have been less than helpful for them. Designating zones for vending as well as licensing appear to have increased challenges to the large and varied groups of vendors across the city. If localised or ­urban citizenship is a means to rights and entitlements to the city, concomitant local and global processes affecting the lives and livelihoods of the poor and working class must be emphasised (Mohanty 2002). Foregrounding the historical, social, and material complexities of women vendors’ struggles for livelihood in a global city like Delhi enables a theorisation of the interweaving of the local and global that further visibilises interconnectedness as a site for struggle of marginalised populations facing the onslaught of a global capital.


1 For a comprehensive study of regulations for controlling different populations in colonial India, see Singha (1998); on the relationship between controlling venereal diseases and criminalising working-class women, see Levine (2013); and on a recent intervention on spatial justice with specific ­reference to street vendors in present-day Nairobi, see Muiruri (2010).

2 Ursula Rao points out that the spatial ordering for class-based segregation is enabled further in the recent two and a half decades through increasing property prices as well as the fear of crime among the middle and upper classes. These classes are also driven by the consumerist and classist appeal to create and live in “safer” neighbourhoods that require keeping out the ­under classes.

3 It is important to note that the existence of different bodies or civil society groups requesting regulations around street vending is not all in the ­interest of vendors. The protection of pavements as public spaces is an example of how the issue of street vending and regulation is easily appropriated in ways that emphasise the “protection of public spaces” and not the protection of livelihood of vendors.

4 For a detailed historical study of hawkers’ movement in Kolkata, see Bandyopadhyay (2016).

5 In the 19th-century colonial India, a systematic legal policy to curb itinerancy created a lasting impression of the danger associated with peripatetic communities and traders. By the turn of the 20th century, Halsbury’s Laws of England became the basis for controlling and regulating the urban poor, migrants, and itinerant communities in the British Raj. The Halsbury encyclopedias provided city authorities the right to “deal with” anyone who impeded or obstructed the city space including those who issue excise license, imprisonment and fines, and demarcate private and public spaces.

6 It is a federation of more than thousand street vendors unions and associations that are lin­ked to the Kolkata-based Hawker Sangram Committee formed in the 1990s.

7 In another recent example of large-scale evictions, Mexico city evicted thousands of vendors and squatters in preparation for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Housing and Land Rights Network pointed out that such actions by the government and municipal authorities are considered as human rights violations.

Ben is a suffix used by members of SEWA while addressing one another, and I was encouraged to do the same in the interviews and while refe­rring to them in the research. It means sister and is the preferred usage instead of last names.

9 Interviews were conducted with vendors who are members of SEWA Delhi at the Mahila market, Old Delhi, and Velodrome market bet­ween February and June 2016.

10 Demonstrating the erasure of the urban poor from developmental imagination and urban planning, Gautam Bhan (2014) notes that there has been an “impoverishment of poverty,” that is, a reduction in placing demands and rights from specific locations of poverty and class. Poli­tical engagement, he argues, works through and despite the laws, regimes, and practices of planning. National-level policies such as the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission, the National Food Security Act, the Universal Health Insurance Scheme, and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act could create a social ­protection regime for poor urban residents (Appadurai 2001; Holston 2008; Bhan 2014). These proposals and projects, Bhan (2014) argues, will be terrains for contestation on issues of equity, welfare, and distribution of rights.


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Updated On : 8th Jul, 2022
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