Off the streets with no relief, pandemic shatters street vendors

Business Capstone COVID-19

As the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic hits India, street vendors, an already devastated part of the Indian society, fear losing their livelihood completely.

Bangalore: Rangana, a fruit and vegetable vendor, has been vending on HSR Layout 18th cross for five years. When COVID-19 hit, and the lockdown was announced across the city, Rangana, amongst many others, had to put away their carts. Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palika (BBMP), at the end of January 2020, suddenly held an eviction drive there. HSR Layout 18th cross, one of the most vibrant streets selling markets in the city, was suddenly quiet. Rangana said, “The officials told us it was a ‘cleanliness drive’ as drainage/sanitation work was being undertaken in HSR Layout, and that the eviction was temporary.”

Rangana went back to his village Ramohalli and struggled to make ends meet as he was the only one earning his family. Even though he started selling fruits and vegetables again, people were hesitant to buy not just from him but also from other street vendors because of the scare of the virus.

Street vendors come under the informal sector, which doesn’t allow them to benefit from government schemes.

Dr. S.R. Krishava, Economist at Bangalore University, said, “All those in the informal sector, including the street vendors, should be registered; only then can we get to know the exact idea of who is doing which profession. Unregistered informal sector workers will never be able to get the benefits of the schemes. Street vendors should be the first to be registered as they were the most affected during the lockdown.”

Shriya Anand, Lead – Academics and Research, Indian Institute of Human Settlements, said, “The authorities are supposed to conduct surveys under the Street Vendors Act every five years and give licenses to street vendors who are found under the survey and create a framework that there are vending and non-vending zones.”

A survey of informal sector workers, conducted by various labour unions this March 20-21, highlighted that street vendors would be the worst hit by the lockdown.

As per a Times of India report, this was a planned eviction of illegal footpath encroachments by the BBMP. But the vendors had a different account. Laxmi, a food vendor on another street in HSR Layout, said no notice was served to vendors. “Previous day, all were operating as usual and closed their carts in the night. When they came back in the morning, the authorities had organised ‘Swachchatha’ (cleaning) programme, and then no one was allowed to keep their carts.”

Street vendors are the backbone of the economy

The street vendors make up four percent of the workforce across urban India. These street entrepreneurs run a parallel economy with a turnover of Rs. 80 crores per day. According to a study done by the Institute of Social Studies Trust, the National Hawkers Federation estimates that 50 percent of the street vendors sell food. Vendors also sell at least 35 percent of the fruits and vegetables sold in urban areas and far-flung, remote rural corners. The remaining 15 percent of the vendors sell clothes, footwear, plastic goods, and crockery.

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“The workforce in India is around 50 crores, out of which approximately around 90 lakhs are street vendors. The amount of employment it generates and the number of households to which the street vendors are catering to itself show how much they contribute to the economy,” said Dr. S.R. Keshava.

Vending provides a source of low-paying but steady employment to many migrants and urban poor while simultaneously making city life affordable for others – as vendors offer a crucial link in the distribution system of food and other critical goods at affordable prices. Street vendors are the primary source of food security for many households and integral to India’s cultural heritage and ethos.

Ignorance of the Street Vendors Act

Despite being legalised under the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulating Street Vending) Act in 2014, officials continue to disregard street vendors’ rights. 

Permanent zones will offer adequate job security for street vendors and instill confidence. Rangaswamy, president of the Karnataka Beedhi Badhi Vyaapari Sanghatanegala Okkuta, said, “We aim to earn a livelihood from vending without troubling the general public, and the government should help us do this.”

Rangaswamy also holds that arbitrary evictions and harassment of vendors are because of officials’ ignorance of the act.

“The Street Vendors Act has guidelines on how the State Government is supposed to approach this sector, and as compared to other such policies, it is a very progressive policy. The issue is the implementation of the act because, on many occasions, vending organisations and the government are not willing to come to the same table,” added Shriya Anand.

Town Vending Committees a respite

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act of 2014 regulates street vendors in public areas and protects their rights to operate. The act mandates a Town Vending Committee (TVC) constitution in every Urban Local Body across the country.

The Special Commissioner (Market and Welfare) of the BBMP, S.G. Raveendra said, “Ever since the Street Vendors Act has come into play, I’ve ensured the formation of TVC’s in all eight zones of Bangalore.”

Town Vending Committees (TVC) in all eight zones of Bangalore have helped the street vendors in some way. Consisting of official members like Joint Commissioner of the zones, Police officials, etc., and non-official members will consist of street vendors association and other such associations.

“The official and non-official members of the committee have to sit down and decide what issues they have to look at and what all can be done to protect the livelihood of the street vendors. Maintenance of their hygiene, cleanliness, and sanitization was looked at by the TVC’s during the period,” said S.G. Raveendra, Special Commissioner of markets and welfare, BBMP.

However, a study by the Center for Civil Society found that only a third of India’s 7,263 urban bodies have TVCs, 42 percent of which do not have sufficient street vendor representation, a clear violation of the act. Additionally, fewer of them have grievance redressal committees. 

Is PM SVANidhi helping?

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs kick-started the PM Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) scheme to empower street vendors in June 2020. The scheme allowed a street vendor to avail a loan of up to Rs. 10,000 for a year.

According to S.G. Raveendra, “We have been trying our best to get these loans sanctioned, but the banks have not been co-operative. They always come up with excuses at the highest level meetings and are not bothered about giving this loan.”

As of May 22, 2021, the PM SVANidhi website’s dashboard shows that only 19,600 loans have been sanctioned out of 51,015 applications, and only 12,825 have been disbursed in Bangalore.

The status of the PM SVANidhi scheme as on May 22, 2021. Source: PM SVANidhi dashboard

The Assistant General Manager of Canara Bank, Malleswaram, Main Branch, Aradhana Trivedi, said that the banks have been relatively consistent in their work, and the street vendors are at fault. “Whoever applies for the scheme, don’t show up for taking the loans. The loans aren’t paid because it requires one-day physical presence.

According to Suresh Kadarshan, who works with Janpahal NGO, the problem lies in the lack of coordination between the banks and BBMP.

“The application doesn’t go the banks correctly. The BBMP official has to go to the banks personally and match the numbers with the bank’s server; only then banks recognize the application. This requires a lot of coordination, but they don’t have that.”

While there are provisions and schemes made to favour the street vendors, no coordination on behalf of the parties involved and the implementation of them not being up to the mark will continue affecting street vendors.

Vendors like Rangana and Laxmi can only hope that everyone involved does their part and make considerate decisions to help them during these tough times.

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