Owning the streets

The street vending bill goes a long way in securing the livelihood of the urban poor.

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, passed by Lok Sabha on September 6, 2013, is a landmark piece of legislation for the urban poor. It is the culmination of the efforts of organisations like the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) and the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), which have been campaigning for a comprehensive law for nearly two decades. The impetus came with a Supreme Court judgment passed in October 2010 — Gainda Ram and Ors vs MCD. The court directed the "authorities" to frame adequate laws by July 2011 to protect and regulate street vending. A debate ensued on what the competent "authority" was. The Centre said that since street vending was a matter of urban policy, it was the responsibility of the state governments. Finally, it was decided that urban development was not the issue, the livelihood of the urban working poor was. And that was in the domain of the Union government (as in the case of MGNREGA).

The bill states that every city will have a town vending committee (TVC), headed by the municipal commissioner or the chief executive, which will decide on all issues related to street vending. All stakeholders will be represented on the TVC, but the elected representatives of street vendors will constitute 40 per cent of the members. One-third of the latter shall be women. The TVC will issue identity cards to all street vendors after conducting a survey to determine their numbers and locations. It will ensure that all street vendors are accommodated, subject to the condition that they constitute no more than 2.5 per cent of the total population of a ward, zone or town. If a particular area has more than the stipulated maximum, the excess number will be transferred to an adjoining zone, but the bill stresses that there will be no eviction. The bill also states that no street vendor will be evicted till the survey is completed.

Eviction is the biggest threat that street vendors face. The authorities forcibly remove street vendors and confiscate their goods. Even the better-off sections of vendors can be reduced to penury after an eviction drive. They lose half their goods and the fines for claiming them are exceptionally high. The bill makes it clear that under no circumstances can fines be more than the value of the goods confiscated.

The bill notes that evictions may be carried out as a last resort and only in cases where vendors resist relocation. In case relocation is absolutely necessary, the vendors must be given notice of 30 days. If they fail to respond, they will be fined at the rate of Rs 250 a day and if even that does not work, they may be forcibly evicted. The bill states that the vendors will be provided a signed seizure list and they may claim the goods after paying the fine. It further states that perishable goods can be claimed by the vendors on the same day. Non-perishable goods must be released within two days.

The seizure list is crucial because the street vendor can get back all the goods confiscated. At present, no such list is provided and the vendor finds that half the goods are missing. Even when the police raid the homes of criminals or terrorists and gather evidence, a seizure list is provided. But street vendors are denied this basic right.

Legalising street vending is a big step towards improving the economic conditions of these vendors. Their present illegal status encourages rent seeking by unscrupulous officials and denies them access to loans from banks. A study conducted by the UNDP and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on financial inclusion of street vendors in 15 cities shows that banks are willing to give loans if the vendors have legal status. At present, they are drawn to private money lenders who charge interest rates ranging from 300 per cent to 800 per cent per annum, which pushes many vendors into a debt trap. The bill directs the government to help in providing institutional credit, insurance and other welfare schemes.

The TVC is also empowered to collect taxes from street vendors, which will help in providing infrastructure. As of now, the only "tax" they pay consists of rents or bribes. In 1998, when TISS conducted a census of street vendors, it was estimated that around Rs 400 crore was collected in bribes every year. The rate must have gone up by now and the total amount could be double that figure. Even if half of this is collected as tax, it will help provide better infrastructure facilities for the city instead of lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

The writer is professor and dean at the School of Management and Labour Studies, TISS, Mumbai express@expressindia.com

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