The latest news from Mumbai is that President Obama is about to visit, and all the routes he might possibly take are being beautified. Some of them are even being adorned with date palm trees, despite these trees being completely inappropriate for Mumbai’s humid climate. And alongside, anti-encroachment drives are being carried out to evict “illegal” hawkers squatting on the pavements. This prompted one KRP Gupta to ask why it is that while Obama gets the privilege of moving around without being encumbered by hawkers, the same privilege is not extended to regular commuters.
A very good question, I must grant. And the answer is implied – when Obama is not around, the cops and BMC (Brihanmumbai Corporation) offficials make money by accepting hafta (bribes) from these “illegal” street vendors. That is why “illegal” hawkers continue to sell their goods on the street. This narrative is very convenient for middle-class rhetoric – it makes it appear as though the hawkers and the government officials are conniving to deprive the middle class of their rights to free movement. Unfortunately, reality is somewhat more complex.
While the term “illegal” is bandied about quite freely to describe street vendors, most people do not really understand where the law really stands on the subject. A series of Supreme Court judgments have reiterated that hawking is a valid occupation protected under the constitution. They have argued that while hawkers can be regulated and charged rents, hawking cannot be completely banned as an activity. Instead, cities are required to declare a sufficient number of hawking zones where hawkers can sell their goods. Cities are therefore explicitly charged with the job of managing the conflict between pedestrians, motorists and hawkers. A national policy has been drawn up to institutionalize these principles, and now, fed up with continued inaction from all parties concerned, the Supreme Court has ordered the Central Government to pass a law regarding the protection of hawkers’ rights.
And yet, in all this while, cities have cheerfully disregarded these court orders and national policies and continued to deal with hawkers in the old way. It is not an accident that cities are so unwilling to change – bribes from hawkers bring in many crores of rupees into the kitties of government officials at all levels. Giving street vendors their rights would deprive these officials of their lavish lifestyles.
The current state, then, is not an unregulated state, as many would think, but a deliberately deregulated state of affairs that gives the elite in government maximum control over hawkers eking out a living by selling small goods on the street. Thus, as Ananya Roy writes in this paper, the state itself is steeped in informality, following and ignoring laws at will, and creating a situation where lawlessness is the rule rather than the exception.
There are benefits of being Obama – he is so powerful that he can get the extremely stubborn bureaucracy in India to forego its unlawful income from bribes for a few days of order on Mumbai’s streets. But apparently, even Obama cannot get city governments to forego their absolute power on the livelihoods of hawkers, to put in place policies that forever relieve them from the harassment of corrupt policemen and municipal engineers. One wonders who might possibly be powerful enough to get that. The Almighty God, perhaps?