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Why Mumbai will never get rid of its hawkers

February 07, 2013 17:05 IST

While hawkers are a necessity to the bribe-takers, it has to be understood that the vendors fulfil the needs of the citizens. Once they are pushed off the streets, everyone, the official fattened on bribes and the citizen deprived of a walk-through service are affected, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Here is a safe bet: Mumbai will never be able to ever rid itself of hawkers.

Last month, a day before the morcha to retain their right to the public spaces to do their business in, a hawkers’ union chief, Dayashankar Singh, was quoted as saying that between them the city’s hawkers pay as much as Rs 1,000 crore as bribes.

That is a big number. However, when you divide it by the number of hawkers across the city, the per capita obligation to the rent-seekers on an annual basis to remain in business is not much.

The arithmetic is as follows: the city is reputed to have about eight lakh hawkers. Assuming that each hawker pays the same sum, the average works out to Rs 12,500 per year which is Rs 1,000 per month. Per diem, it is about Rs 30.

It is apparently a business’s working capital.

But in each cluster humming with hawkers, each rentier’s take is tidy, enough to keep it going perpetually.

Even if it is conceded that both the size of the extortion -- Rs 1,000 crore -- and the number of hawkers -- eight lakh -- are an exaggeration, it does not dilute the fact that bribes keep the hawkers where they would like to remain: the sidewalks.

If the total were to be only half of what was claimed -- overstatements are the norm during agitations, to which Singh may have fallen prey to -- the sums that are exchanged are huge. Considering that the number of bribe-takers is relatively small compared to the bribe-givers who comprise the civic ward office staff and police station personnel, it is a good rake-off.

All they need to do is do nothing which is the easiest thing to do.

The toughie is often the go-between so the bribe-takers can remain invisible; he knocks off a bit for himself. The same person also may have political patronage of the local bigwig who either holds an elected office or hopes to sooner or later.

Nothing else explains why Mumbai’s streets are dominated by the hawkers when their sidewalks are mean for the pedestrians’ safety. It so happens that the sidewalks are owned by the civic body on behalf of the city’s citizens. At a stretch, it can be argued that even the hawkers are its citizens.

Municipal laws are sidestepped because of the venality of the law enforcers, both police and civic. When bribe becomes the single determinant of the level of law enforcement, it is hard to expect that simply because Bandra’s Hill Road and a few other locations have been cleared, the city would remain hawker-free.

While hawkers are a necessity to the bribe-takers, it has to be understood that the street-side vendors also fulfil another need of the city: access to something on way home from work, be it knickknacks or vegetables for dinner.

Once they are pushed off the streets, everyone, the official fattened on bribes and the citizen deprived of a walk-through service, much like the McDonalds’ drive through, are affected. Since they also serve the millions of slum residents from where these hawkers mostly come, their ‘essential’ nature becomes patent.

Yes, we can only complain of the other inconvenience which the hurdles to walking without the fear of being knocked down by a passing vehicle, the bottlenecks to the several railway stations’ access points. You can wish away a hawker but cannot do without him.

This by no means excuses the civic body’s culpability in keeping the streets teeming with hawkers. It stopped licensing them but has not been able to bring them under a proper hawking policy. That comes from a desire to duck the issue mainly because of the vested interests as well as its complexity. The civic body has just given up on the issue and institutionally, accepted bribery as a reality.

Of course, why would the bribe-takers agree to kill their golden goose?

The Supreme Court has said that hawking is linked directly to the right to livelihood which suddenly stayed the hands of the civic body, not only Mumbai’s but rest across the country. The plan to have hawking zones was defeated mainly because they were identified in places where a pedestrian does not go to and from his place of work. Walking a few hundred feet into a side street is too much of an effort for a Mumbai’s harried citizen to whom life and living is precarious on most counts.

A hawker’s plaza in Dadar remains a notion despite being built because of the same reason. Neither the citizen nor the hawkers find it to be of much use. Why occupy a place when you cannot do business from it? If this logic is ignored, it questions the very raison d’etre of their existence.

The city has been culpable in a variety of ways. It has never factored in the space required for hawking -- no stranger to any world city -- when they build new areas. They did not when the Ballard Estate was built.  Nor when Nariman Point layout was designed, and certainly not when the Bandra Kurla Complex was brought into being.

Nor for that matter in any part of the city’s residential areas where, by compulsion and adroit scheming, hawkers occupy spaces. No development control rules (DCR) has ever thought of it. Actually, they have assumed that expensive galas would suffice to meet an important component of the city’s economy.

No wonder the city is teeming with hawkers.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator who takes a common man’s view point seriously

Mahesh Vijapurkar