The street vendor is increasingly defining the line where poverty meets progress, and the conflicting standards and expectations of different sections of society confront each other. After all, it was a street vendor in Tunisia who triggered the Arab Spring movement that has toppled many dictatorships.
Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, was regularly harassed by local officials and the police. When they confiscated his weighing scales, he could take it no more. He set himself on fire outside the governor’s office. His actions stirred the conscience of the public. In the absence of clear regulations that deal with street vending, vendors become vulnerable targets for the police.
It is noteworthy that the Indian Government has recently approved a street vendor’s Bill that aims to reduce the harassment that street vendors face from the police and other local authorities. The Bill will require town and zonal vending committees to be formed in every city that will include vendors, administrators, NGOs, police, town planners and elected people’s representatives. They will identify spaces that can be used by street vendors, and register and issue licences.
Ability to reconcile
The success of the system will depend on how the town vending committee operates and its ability to reconcile conflicting interests.
Small family-run retailers in India who got together to protest the entry of large retailers like WalMart on grounds that their businesses will be hurt, don’t seem to protest the operations of street vendors who also cut into their business. Perhaps it is because street vendors come from the lower rungs of society, and it is easy to sympathise with them and their needs rather than with a faceless giant corporation. After all, the argument goes, the vendors are only trying to earn an honest living and should be allowed to do so. Officials who chase them away or abuse them can be easily seen as heavy-handed oppressors, and corrupt.
Dealing with vendors is a global issue. In recent times, reports have emerged from several places where society is trying to balance the needs of ‘order in civil society’ with the right of a vendor trying to earn a living. Chinese microblogs are reportedly full of complaints against officials who extort money from street vendors. As migrants from rural areas head towards prosperous cities in search of a livelihood, their first option is to become a street vendor, peddling necessities with flimsy margins, or preparing and selling food. In the bigger cities that enforce hukou , the residency permit system, vendors are even more vulnerable since they lack such a permit.
Issues in US
Various American cities have also faced issues regarding street vendors. For instance, the town of Hialeah in Florida has regulations that say street vendors cannot hinder the free flow of traffic, stop permanently in one location, or sell within 300 feet of a highway ramp or exit. Protests from vendors led the town to remove another restriction, namely, that the vendor cannot sell within 300 feet of a retailer offering similar products.
In New York, police and town officials are cracking down on food trucks, vans that sell food partially prepared on the premises, on objections from restaurants. In Los Angeles, sidewalk vending is banned. Now, several NGOs are trying to loosen the restrictions. In the city’s suburb of Venice Beach, with its reputation for fun and funky style, pavement vendors line one side of the street along the beach front offering all kinds of handicrafts like beads, art, garden decorations, palm reading, or fruit snacks. Licenced street vendors participate in a regular lottery to decide who among them can spread their wares or services during the next permit period. Regulations ensure that they do not line the side of the street where there are shops, and also that their wares do not compete with what the stores sell.
The complexity of dealing with street vending is in trying to manage the interests of all the stakeholders. The general public benefits from the activities of street vendors, but can also be inconvenienced by them.
Shopkeepers who pay rent, obtain all the requisite permits, pay taxes, and provide employment find the vendors squatting outside their shops selling wares at half the price and taking away custom. The vendor just wants a chance to earn a living. It will require negotiation and accommodation among conflicting interests to make that happen.
The author is professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston, US.