S Murlidharan

Don’t push street vendors aside

S. MURLIDHARAN | Updated on September 22, 2013

Of cabbages and ‘kings’ like Walmart

Walmart is welcome, but so is the street vendor.

Walmart, which has become a byword for big, organised foreign retail chains, has not arrived on the Indian scene, except in the cash and carry segment. This is despite the enabling rules permitting it to set up shop in India.

It is perhaps waiting for the political uncertainties to clear, with the BJP having been ambivalent in its stand.

How does one view Walmart vis-à-vis street vendors, now that the Government has brought out a Bill to protect them, which has been passed by the Lok Sabha? The Bill grants anyone who is at least 14 years of age the right to apply for a street vending licence and earn his/her livelihood, subject to the regulations drawn up by the local authorities. It broadly divides streets vendors into itinerants and stationary vendors, with both having the right to hawk their wares only within a certain area.

Does Walmart run counter to street vending? Well, if Walmart is to work in the consumers’ and farmers’ interest — given its potential to eliminate middlemen and guarantee fair prices for both — street vendors, theoretically speaking, would not have much of a role to play. But the reality is less straightforward. India’s poor and illiterate people will continue to take to vending as a livelihood option. And, that’s a right that should be protected.

Shortcomings in Bill

Be that as it may, the Bill, however, fails to address the issue of financing street vendors. They are fleeced not just by the hafta-hungry police and harassed by the authorities, but also by financiers of various hues.

The fact that they will be provided identity cards does not render them immune to harassment. A fine of Rs 2,000 per day for violations of the terms of the licence, including zoning and timing, provides enough elbow room for the police to continue with extortion.

Street vendors, especially the itinerant variety, must be given their place under the sun. They are a godsend to the old, the sick and housewives unable to stir out. Such consumers, shopping from the convenience of their homes, do not mind the extra amount inevitably charged by the itinerant vendors.

Online shopping is not for everyone and every commodity, especially perishables.

We need both

Walmart might set up shop in India, but the Indian shopping experience will not change dramatically, unless the country registers a quantum jump in per capita income. Weekend purchases of the ensuing week’s requirement — with husband and wife wheeling the shopping trolley around in a sprawling shop — is a couple of decades away for Indians as a whole. One needs a car to transport the items and a credit card to swipe at Walmart. The Indian shopping culture is front-loaded, meaning people shop in the first week of the month, when the purse is full. No credit cards for the hoi polloi, as yet.

This is not to debunk big retail chains. India needs both Walmart and street vendors, especially the itinerant ones, though some of the latter would be silently subsumed by the former. Many able-bodied street vendors would see merit in working for Walmart rather than trudging for miles together, only to end the day with a pittance.

In this context, a Supreme Court observation in Sodan Singh and others versus NDMC in 1989, is pertinent:

“If properly regulated according to the exigency of the circumstances, the small traders on the sidewalks can considerably add to the comfort and convenience of the general public, by making available ordinary articles of everyday use for a comparatively lesser price. An ordinary person not very affluent, while hurrying towards his home after a day’s work, can pick up these articles without going out of his way to find a regular market. The right to carry on trade or business mentioned in Article 19(1) of the Constitution, on street pavements, if properly regulated, cannot be denied on the ground that the streets are meant exclusively for passing or re-passing and no other use”.

We have been converting much of our busy streets into parking spaces, adding to traffic chaos. Let us not compound this problem by mindlessly allowing street side shops. Home delivery itinerant vendors are a better bet, any day. Let us protect them.

(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant.)

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Published on September 22, 2013
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