Hawking Chichen Itza to the Tourists is a Bummer

the horde coming through the ticket book

Cancun  I’ve read about the great Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo for decades, and Chichen Itza has always been fabled as one of the most extraordinary. When travelers once spoke of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was often on the list. I still cherish my copies of John Lloyd Stephens great two-volume classic, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan illustrated by Frederick Catherwood published in 1841 after his journeys. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” always paled in comparison to their story, and the vivid illustrations that made me feel like I was there, plunging through the jungle undergrowth to see what few non-Mayans had ever seen.

We had spent Christmas Day at the Uxlan ruins in one of the more amazing days in a legendary list for our family. We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter, the power of the place was incredible. We were prepared for Chichen Itza being a different experience in some ways. The books indicated that the site gets more than a million visitors annually. We knew to be early. Chichen Itza in Mayan means something along the lines of “mouth of the well of the Itza people.” When we finished wending out way up the narrow road into the site, and parked with amazing ease for barely a buck and change, we saw a horde of people near the ticket booths and walked up to them in order to find the end of the line to get ours. It turned out that Chichen Itza now means “mouth at the well of the hawker people.” We walked through one hawker’s stand after another, until reaching the end. The falling expressions on hundreds of faces was shocking, but in a little more than a half-hour we had our tickets in hand and were ready to see the ruins and leave the hawkers behind.

the line snaking through the hawkers’ stalls

Leaders of ACORN’s hawkers’ union in India always asks me if there are hawkers in the United States, and I say, no not many, but they would be impressed at the way all of these tourists were being channeled through the stalls to the booths. I was too, until we passed the ticket booth and found that we were still walking a gauntlet of hawkers and booths. They weren’t selling hats and yelling, “Five dollars, cheaper than Walmart,” once we got into the archeological park, but they were literally everywhere we walked, often heralded by the sound of jaguar cries they were trying to sell. Often we could tell we were on the right path to see the Observatory or the cenote if it was lined by hawkers’ booths on both sides. Wherever there was shade away from the monuments, there were hawkers. It was impressive and amazing in its own right.

Google Chichen Itza and hawkers, and one Trip Advisor report after another from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand says almost the same thing: Chichen Itza is Awesome, but What’s with the Hawkers!

the Grand Pyramid

If this is supposed to be a community benefit to the local population, it fails there mainly because so few are making any sales. We walked three miles according to my son’s counter. Who would want to lug souvenirs through 90 degree heat? My daughter looked at fans she had priced in Centro Merida and they were 200 pesos or $10 dollars more expensive at Chichen Itza. How does this help the local community?

What is the government thinking? As at Uxmal, the federal and state government both separately collect money for tickets and stamp the tickets as you enter. Is there no coordination or is this an issue of there being no trust between the state and federal government? The government is probably right to believe that people like me and my family would weather any storm to see Chichen Itza in all its majesty, but why not leave millions in wonder and awe, rather with a funny, nagging taste in their mouths after the experience.

the Observatory


ACORN’s Indian Hawkers’ Union Tries Video Recruitment

Suresh organizing hawkers.

Suresh organizing hawkers.

New Orleans    In organizing you never know what might work, and every once in a while we get the opportunity to try something new, and it’s exciting to hold our breath to see what might happen next. This minute the back story is the whole story, but soon a special video recruitment tool will be debuting throughout Bengaluru and the south Indian state of Karnataka for ACORN’s hawkers and street vendors union, and we can hardly wait to see whether it will work.

Certainly we’re not alone in trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

A Washington Post article forwarded to me by a colleague was an “oh, wow!” piece about Indian university students who were arrested for giving seditious speeches that have gained new life and a huge audience once repurposed as “foot-tapping musical numbers” that have become “a surprise online hit with the Indian youth.” On a small scale we want to see if we can create a recruitment vehicle for ACORN with enough pizzazz that hawkers will pass it back and forth in the same way, and flock to the union. Our normal recruitment method is going market by market, stall by stall, and organizing meetings for workers sitting on pieces of tarps on dusty roadways to talk about organizing when there is a lull in business. But, what the heck, let’s try this, too.

The idea developed after several large doses of serendipity.

I stumbled onto a brilliant book called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Tomayo that I encouraged everyone everywhere to read. I tracked down Tomayo, currently a professor in Michigan, and interviewed him on Wade’s World (www.kabf.org) which went spectacularly. We both agreed we should continue the conversation and did so the following Monday before the podcast was even up on the KABF website. As we talked about his work and ours, there was an intersection in the time we had both spent in Bengaluru, where he had helped set up a Microsoft lab and we had organized communities and lower waged workers for years. He asked if I was familiar with the Indian phenomenon of sharing videos from mobile phone to mobile phone with or without internet and smartphone capability. Of course I was clueless, but I knew change was coming because our Bengaluru organizer, Suresh Kadashan, finally had a smartphone during my visit with him last year. When Kentaro asked if we would be interested in trying to see if we could create a video recruitment tool to see what impact it might have on enrolling new members for our hawkers’ union, he had me from hello.

Preview-Document-768x480 Preview-Document2-768x480 Preview-Document3-768x480

One thing led to another and with Kentaro we linked up with another professor, Jay Chen, at NYU’s outpost in Abu Dhabi on skype, and he recruited a student, Koh Terai, with film experience who was game to make it happen, who also recruited another student to help who had ties to India, and then with Suresh’s help the pieces were falling together. Skype calls between New Orleans, Michigan, Abu Dhabi, Berlin where Koh was studying temporarily, and Bengaluru were – to my mind – a technical miracle as well!

Through four drafts of a script by Koh and three days on the ground in the markets of Bengaluru with Suresh which included recruiting some of our members to dance, Bollywood style, in the video, the rough cuts were made and the “stills” alone made me ready to join yesterday. It’ll be another couple of weeks until we have the video ready for prime time in the markets of Bengaluru, but 21st century organizing, thanks to our new friends, Kentaro, Jay, and Koh, here we come!


Dub Sharma – Azadi [Audio] | Featuring Kanhaiya and Friends– One of the remixes of the student’s speech to music.

Visit ACORN International for more video stills of our hawkers film.


The Street Vendors Act 2014

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.47.54 AMDelhi               After eight days on the ground in India and two days in the air and endless discussions of the formally named THE STREET VENDORS (PROTECTION OF LIVELIHOOD AND REGULATION OF STREET VENDING ACT, 2014, which has become our primary organizing tool since formal passage and enactment on May 1, 2014, it was clearly time for me to read the full Act and understand the handles completely.   This is where the promise and problems with the Act become clearer.

At most levels the Act is everything we had hoped – and said – in one market place after another and used effectively in the first year of its enactment.  Where the licensing of street vendors had largely disappeared years ago leaving the vast majority of vendors technically operating illegally, the Act allows them a path to legalization.  Key in paving this road is something the Act calls the Town Vending Committee, which is responsible for putting together the plan, surveying the spaces, monitoring the whole operation, and hearing potential grievances.  These committees were to be appointed with some permanent members like the area’s medical officer and other governmental officials, but also members of the nonprofit community, local unions and associations of vendors.  Most importantly the published bill specified that forty percent of the committee, including thirty percent women, would be composed of vendors themselves to be elected through a locally created procedure by their comrades.

The vending committees were all supposed to be up and running within six months of the Act’s implementation and have their work ready for primetime within a year after passage, and here is where we start to find the rough edges dragging.  A year later most of the town vending committees have not been established, and the draft bill’s protections and process for forty percent vendor representation may not have emerged in the final form of the Act, leaving even more confusion and more responsibility in local Indian states and cities to freelance the process within the overall guarantees of vendor protection.   The Act is also murky on what point the central government steps in to assure the rights if local authorities fumble.

The protections are real.  There will be vending areas.  The vendors will have a right to the streets, sidewalks, and other areas.  There is a guarantee of a licensing process and some flexibility allowing there to be a number of licensed vendors up to a ceiling of 2.5% of the population of the ward, city, and so forth, which would allow legalization, identification, and protection against harassment.

The problems though are equally real.  There is no definition of “public purpose” that would allow removal, even though there is a guarantee of alternate locations.  The vendors’ protections are mainly familial on license transfers and the definitions require the vending be the primary income for the vendor, some of which doesn’t align with the realities on the street.  The grievance procedure is silent on whether the vendor can be represented by his or her union, which is critical to us obviously.

In short, we have a rough handle which seems certain to force us into innumerable fights in order to translate the general protections into realistic and workable safeguards at the local level.  The Act at best is a skeleton that needs to be fleshed out.  It’s no wonder our union has been growing so rapidly in south India over the last year.  Vendors can see the future with hope, but are realistic that without a union their chances at getting there in one piece are close to zero.   To make this work for the vendors in any way, shape or form will take years and years of difficult battles place to place, space to space, town to town, city to city, and state to state.


The Law of the Streets

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

Bengaluru       In Chennai and Bengaluru, the issue we continued to hear in every market where we visited with our members was the police.  Every day was a continual battle for space and the streets.   We may have gotten a law passed in Delhi, but without power, literally in the streets, it wouldn’t matter to our members.

Part of the problem is the push-and-shove between the hawkers and the police over every foot in the sidewalk and every inch into the street.  Some of this we can see in the streets of every major city even in the United States where people are rolling out their wares on street corners and bundling them up quickly when they see a cop car on the street in a continual cat-and-mouse game.  The law in India makes this different, because now there are some rights, but a street seller needs to get as close to the crowd of pedestrians as possible, and that’s part of the rub.

And, the reason why the police in India continue to want their palms greased, sometimes up to 100 rupees per day, which many of our hawkers continue to begrudgingly be forced to pay.  For the members, even when they join together and win as a union, if they were forced from their space even for a couple of days, as any small businessperson would realize, that means that they have to rebuild their regular customer base.   A food vendor in Bengaluru who was our leader in the area had worked his particular corner for 20 years, complained to us about having been pushed out for three days by the police, and now, weeks later, was still trying to reconnect to his customers.  He asked Suresh if it would have been easier to keep paying the bribe.  The question wasn’t rhetorical.

In Chennai, we walked a long way up and down the Mint Road Market.  The market runs almost four kilometers.  Some shops and sellers can date their business 80 years.  Under the new Act, any market over fifty years is a “heritage” market and has even more protection from dislocation.  Yet, as we walked towards the end of one terminus of the market with our leaders there, two policemen still, noticing the crowd around us, thought it was worth their time to come over and hassle us about what we were doing and try to edge their way into some semblance of control of the streets, claiming we were blocking traffic.  On Mint Road the streets truly belong to the people, but the display by the police made a point nonetheless.

Suresh’s phone kept ringing as we visited markets in Bengaluru with calls from Mangalore and Mysore, where city officials and police where threatening to bulldoze markets.  We watched a documentary one evening that Dharmendra Kumar had brought down from Delhi over the weekend.  Both he and Suresh had helped explain the situation with foreign direct investment and the hawkers to the Indian-Canadian filmmaker, and were credited with help and translation in the film, but it had taken Dharmendra four years to finally get a copy.  We relished the part that focused on the fight we had waged to protect a 350 year old market in Bengaluru and interviews with one of our main leaders there and the “happy” ending as the film’s postscript when the market was saved.

Like all organizing though, winning a victory one day doesn’t change the fight the next day for other members and other campaigns and other places and spaces.   We may have won a law, but it is enforced in the streets in the constant battle between organized sellers and police pushing the other way for control of the streets and some of the old ways.  This is a battle our union has to fight every day where we have members.   There is no end in sight.

bus transfer station market in Chennai

bus transfer station market in Chennai



Green Street Elite – Stand your ground



Street Sellers are not Cage Dwellers

Hawker Cage

Hawker Cage

Bengaluru       Visiting the Yesvantpur markets at dawn on a Sunday morning gave our whole ACORN team a better way of understanding the issues some of members were facing and what our union needed to do to address some of them in the future.

As soon as we saw our members in vegetable market spreading out their goods along the sidewalk and unpacking bags of produce, with their carts either nowhere visible or parked across the street and out of the way, I understood this was a different day entirely.  Not only was this due to it being a Sunday market where they were expecting three times the sales, but I finally understood why they were complaining that they were selling so much less on regular days from their carts.

Essentially, they were working in the vise of a tough compromise between two conflicting courts trying to make the new rights to livelihood that the Street Vendors Act of 2014 had given them actually work for them.  A complaint had arisen about the street vendors being on the footpath and the High Court of Karnataka had ordered them removed.  The Indian Supreme Court though had upheld the right to livelihood guaranteed by the 2014 Act which allowed them to sell.  The compromise would have split the sidewalk into sections with pedestrians getting a share and hawkers getting a share.  More practically, in Bengaluru the vendors had been forced onto carts in the street most of the week in order to share the footpath behind them, but on Sunday’s being allowed to take the whole sidewalk and let their shoppers come up to them on the street.  No one was happy, but business was business for now, though ACORN’s organizers were debating various options that would expand their access throughout the week, so there’s work to be done.

If anything, a more curious and difficult problem awaited us around the corner.  A city corporator or councilor had taken it on his own to force a solution that was almost starving some of our vendors.  With his own funds,  he had built an iron fence separating the street from the sidewalk and built one-meter square platforms where he expected the vendors to sell.  Some of the vendors had torn them down, but either way there was a problem because street sellers are not cage dwellers and only the most motivated customers could get to them on foot, and none of their customers could simply come up on a bike or scooter to make a purchase which was possible everywhere else in the stalls and on the carts.

The low fence on the city stalls worked.  There were frequent breaks allowing entry.  Shoppers were protected from traffic while walking on the portion of the street between the front of the stalls and the iron fence, and there was still enough street to even allow the giant buses to narrowly pass.  The cage though was a disaster.  Unfortunately, it would require a lot of work and no small amount of political clout to get the city itself to undue the arbitrary action of the councilor.  A number of the stalls were already vacant as vendors were voting with their feet to try and find other places in the street where they could ply their wares rather than hope people might find their way to their space.

None of the solutions are simple.  One of our leaders, who during the week is a lawyer, told us of the 60 year history of his cooking oil business started by his father that he still maintained and the 20 year history of court claims he had brought to secure their space.

No one can wait that long and survive.  It’s no secret why our street vendors’ union has had success.

fence in front of the stalls

fence in front of the stalls



entrance to train station

entrance to train station


This Land is Your Land – Billy Bragg Version (Video by a group protesting selling of public forests in UK)


Hawkers’ Work

IMG_2999Bengaluru       There are probably 200 markets in Bengaluru, a city of 8 million, known in the West allegedly as a tech-center, the Silicon Valley of India or in the famous novel, White Tiger, as a place where any Indian can be lost forever and reinvent themselves anonymously and invisibly.  We don’t know anything about any of that.  We primarily organize hawkers and street sellers in Bengaluru where we have 15,000 members in 30 of the markets here.

If it can be sold, it can be sold on the street.  If it can be sold on the street, it can be hawked.

Markets like Yesvantpur are divided nicely, though you might not notice it at first glance, between stalls, where various organizing victories by hawkers have led to permanent spaces bordered by iron fences allowing both livelihood and safe shopping.  In the stalls everything imaginable is sold from cooking oil to spices to clothes to small electronics to sneakers and sandals to cookware to literally whatever.

After walking down a long row of scores of stalls the demarcation is a low concrete walled composting area tended by cattle and roaming goats. Turn the corner and you are now in the vegetable market.  Large bicycle wheeled flatbed wooden carts with piled high with vegetables except for a firmly mounted scale with an aluminum bowl and weights to measure the sale.  At Yesvantpur, the most common street sellers featured onions, potatoes, garlic, and ginger.  Others had eggplant or yellow cauliflower. Some had grapes, apples, and bananas.  Small, almost softball sized heads of lettuce were featured in yet others.  The carts were lined up one after another on both sides of the street.  How one decided to stop was obviously a matter of habit and experience, since a novice would have had difficulty figuring out why a steady stream might be at one cart and no one at another even though the goods on offer seemed identical.

In the street market where we have recently won construction of a permanent market under a flyover, the variety is smaller but stunning. Hawkers of every description work there with their wares as well as others running a food court of sorts to catch the crowds coming across the railroad tracks towards the bus switching stations and the street traffic everywhere. One of our leaders was doing a brisk business in ear studs, simple silver chains, and multi-colored rubber bracelets that caught the eye.  I watched to see if the Che Guevara kerchief caught anyone’s attention and resisted the purchase myself.  The hawker kept a smile on the sell constantly, and helped clasp the chain behind the young men’s necks as they gave over their 20 rupees to cinch the deal.


Suresh Kadashan, ACORN’s organizer, pointed out one of our members, an older man who we referred to as the 100% hawker.  He had no home.  This was all of his life.  Right here on this patch.

The weekend is prime time, especially Sundays, where the crowds triple.  But, the market is a daily experience for many Indians, even in megacities like Bengaluru.  Our street sellers will usually make between 300 and 500 rupees a day.  When our hawkers, sometimes over generations, make their way to a permanent stall, they make more obviously.  When $2 per day defines the most abject poverty, a livelihood of $6 to $10 a day is a constant grind, but a big step up.  Having a union is another jump up the ladder allowing recognition, stability, and a decent livelihood.



BANGALORE IS HAPPY (Pharrell Williams) by Grey Worldwide India