INDIA IN TRANSITION: The rights of street vendors

Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay | Updated on March 13, 2018

Street vendors are not the main cause of congestion and chaos at busy intersections.

The policy envisages zoning laws, issue of licences and social security for vendors, but works on a principle of exclusion.

Street vendors occupying public spaces such as pavements, parks, and thoroughfares, and thereby appearing to deny access to their “rightful” users has been a highly contentious issue in major cities across the globe. Recently, in India, the street vendors' question has received enthusiastic public attention with the Central Government's publication of the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009, supported by a Bill to be converted into Acts through the state legislatures.

Based on the recommendations made on the 2004 policy draft, the 2009 draft of the National Policy was created and published.


The National Policy recognises street vending as an integral part of the urban retail trade and distribution system. It aims at giving street vendors legal status. Each street vendor will be registered under the supervision of a town vending committee (TVC), headed by the respective municipal commissioner, and given an identity card with a code number and category.

The National Policy recommends that the municipal authorities in the cities provide for the street vendors a range of civic services such as provisions for solid waste disposal, public toilets, electricity, water, and storage facilities.

In exchange, the TVCs will collect a registration fee and a monthly maintenance charge, depending on the location and type of business of the vendor.

Other important initiatives under the National Policy include providing access to credit, skill development, housing and capacity building, health care benefits, and pension schemes for street vendors. However, if compared with the draft policy of 2004, the revised document of 2009 makes a significant omission with regard to the protection of street vendors from the existing repressive municipal laws.

The National Policy, 2009 introduces three zonal categories, namely, “Restriction-free Vending Zones,” “Restricted Vending Zones,” and “No-Vending Zones.” The National Policy declares that one of the pivotal functions of the TVCs will be to come up with city-specific zoning laws on the basis of consensus among stakeholders.

In demarcating vending zones, the TVCs will maintain a proper balance between the usable space and the number of vendors without compromising the issues of traffic, public health, and environment. For this, a digitised demographic database (archive) will be created in each city by trained professionals on street vendors.

This will also help the TVCs to issue registration certificates, identify trespassers, curb spatial and other aberrations, collect taxes, provide civic facilities, and introduce welfare schemes. This means that at least in the context of the National Policy, legalisation involves the privileging of some activities as legitimate and branding of some others as illegitimate, deserving punishment and eviction.


While most of the states agreed to bring the street vendors in the fold of some sort of social security mechanism, they differed in defining the non-vending zones and in determining the composition of the TVCs. First, many street vendors' associations have questioned the limited possibilities of stake-holder participation in the TVCs that are, in many states, heavily populated by high- level state executives.

Second, activist groups have also questioned the city-specific legal frameworks under which any street vendor policy is to work. In the state of West Bengal, for example, street vendors are implicated in the repressive Municipal Corporation Act (1951 and 1997). Section 371 declares that street vending is a non-bailable and cognisable offense.

Recently, the National Advisory Council (NAC) aptly pointed out that in order to implement the National Policy, 2009, the existing legal provisions under the Indian Penal Code and other municipal laws in various cities would have to be amended in favour of street vendors.

The National Policy does not provide a guideline for the states to handle surplus labour force in the sector. For this reason, the National Policy should be linked with a larger employment generation scheme led by the state.

Again, in the absence of any clearly specified law safeguarding the vendors, the implementation of spatial restrictions and the registration mechanism will give the governments an informal flexibility to favour powerful lobbies and local-level regime functionaries.

The current draft of the National Policy does not pay attention to the internal hierarchies within the street vending sector. It does ensure that more than 40 per cent of the members of TVCs are from the street vendors' associations. But, it remains silent on the fact that only a meagre proportion of street vendors in India fall under the fold of unions.


In 2010, West Bengal came up with the “West Bengal Street Vendor Policy” that proposes to declare a 100 meter radius around all busy street crossings in the city of Kolkata as non-vending zones along with the immediate vicinities of hospitals, schools, colleges, offices, and heritage buildings. The idea of a non-vending zone is premised only on the perceived connection between street vendors and traffic congestion in the street crossings. The National Policy seems to lack the common sense that it is congestion and density of human activities that cause street vendors' presence in the proximity of crossroads and not the other way around.

In fact, during a field survey in twenty-two earmarked crossings in Kolkata for non-vending zones, organised by the Urban Research and Policy Programme (URPP) of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), pavement vendors were observed to have played a marginal role in causing congestion.

It was additionally observed that the presence of several other factors unrelated to street vending such as car parking areas in the vicinity of the crossing, auto rickshaw stands, road repair works, narrow road and pavement spaces compared with the extent of traffic, existing retail shops encroaching pavement spaces, and instinctive violation of traffic rules by pedestrians and automobiles, caused congestion and anarchy.


The zoning law for street vendors might not be able to solve the problem of traffic congestion at street crossings, since according to NIAS-URPP study in Kolkata, street vendors do not seem to be the principal cause of congestion in the intersections. It might achieve little else apart from displacing established street vendors, affecting their livelihoods.

Second, an upper limit on the number of street vendors in the city may be considered from time to time with the consultation of major street vendors unions. A baseline year can be set. However, in doing so, the implementing state agencies should take into account two things: a) under no conditions should the upper limit be less than the number of existing street vendors, to avoid the risk of displacing livelihoods; and b) any upper limit on the number of street vendors should be drawn only when the government can assure viable employment alternatives with similar payoffs, if not better.

Permanent rural and urban employment guarantee schemes will be essential in the long run to ensure employment alternatives and better implementation of the upper limit.

(The author is a Postdoctoral Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISc, Bangalore.)

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on September 28, 2011

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