Crackdown on Mumbai street vendors sparks a row over public spaces

Street sellers in Mumbai. – Reuters

MUMBAI: A crackdown on street vendors in Mumbai after they were blamed for a stampede at a train station last month highlights the diminishing access to public spaces for the city’s poor and marginalized communities, activists said. A report on the rush-hour stampede during a monsoon downpour that killed 22 people, said vendors crowding a narrow footbridge were partly to blame. Since then, city officials have doubled a fine for illegal hawkers, and said they will introduce a mobile app for residents to register complaints about hawkers.

Members of a local political party have clashed with vendors outside train stations, saying they pose a risk to commuters. “City officials have not done anything to create hawking zones and issue new licenses,” said Salma Sheikh of advocacy group Azad Vendors Union in Mumbai. “The law clearly states there can be no evictions till a survey is done. Yet vendors are being evicted, their wares destroyed; this is a blatant violation of our rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Vendors selling everything from snacks and tea to toys, clothes and shoes are a common sight in India’s cities, with their wares on pavements, outside schools and at traffic lights. Only about 20,000 hawkers in Mumbai are licensed, with the number unlicensed estimated at more than 150,000. Unlicensed hawkers often have to pay policemen bribes, and flee eviction drives which are becoming more common as cities are upgraded with high-speed internet and air-conditioned metro trains. A plan is being drawn up to regularize hawkers, a city official said.

“A survey has been done. We will be holding a meeting in coming weeks to decide on a committee to issue licences and demarcate hawking zones,” said Ranjit Dhakne, a deputy municipal commissioner. India passed the Street Vendors Act in 2014, which protects from evictions and relocations. States were required to pass a law adopting the policy, but few have done so.

Informal street life that offers livelihoods to the poor are increasingly seen as a problem, even as officials ignore illegal parking and extensions of shops on to pavements, said an academic who has studied the issue. “It is a paradox that the same people who want the convenience of street vendors also want them removed,” said Hussain Indorewala at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture in Mumbai. “Decisions about who belongs in the city, and what streets and public spaces should be used for are increasingly being controlled through the privilege of property ownership.”- Reuters

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