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

 

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Green Street Elite – Stand your ground

 

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Beautification, Fisher Folk, and Coal in Chennai

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Suresh and Nity

Chennai      I had met Nityanad Jayaraman briefly in New York and promised to track him down and find out more about his work, so Suresh Kadashan and I began our day traveling across Chennai to find him.  As the auto rickshaw made its way, the police detour took us in a long sweep along the water in sight of the beach where colorful fishing boats were often pulled up on shore, men were still untangling nets, and women were selling the morning’s catch on blankets in the street.  Chennai is New Orleans hot and humid, maybe even more so natives claim, but though I had been here twice before over the last decade, it occurred to me that I had always been running to meetings or dealing with hawkers and others in the streets of the city, and had never actually been along the Bay of Bengal here, and it seemed beautiful in every way.  Suresh punctured the mood only slightly by mentioning that his fear of water was so acute that he was nervous being this close to the sea, even as we motored along.

Our meeting with Nity, as everyone calls him, was fascinating in the special way that you can stumble on someone for the first time and feel you have discovered a comrade for life who has been moving on parallel paths.  Sitting in his office only blocks from the water, he explained that his organization was “somewhat anarchistic” in the sense that it was a “collective” of sorts with a flexible membership over the last twenty years initially begun by him and several others.  They managed to stay evergreen by pulling in young people regularly for years at a time.  They were attached to an NGO that worked on some environmental projects that paid the rent on the office.  The collective defined its purpose as supporting popular struggles and campaigns through media, research, legal, and innumerable other ways, large and small.  He described himself as “an activist and journalist,” and decidedly not an organizer.

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We first talked about the campaign involving the government proposed, huge coal-fired plant about 60 miles away that had been the topic when I first met Nity several months earlier.  They had been asked to help by some people in the area and concerned environmental groups some years before.  The plant proposal also involves a coal port that would level some of  the sand dunes that had saved the fishing livelihood of the communities from the devastating 2004 tsunami, and this information, perhaps more than any other factor, was moving local people to participate.  In many ways Nity felt confident that their odds of stopping the plant were very good at this point, and it was a relief to agree.

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Asking him what was engaging them most in Chennai now, he quickly replied, “Beautification!”  It seems this city of almost four-and-a-half  million is being pushed by local officials, promoters, and developers – the usual gang — that what it most needs is some kind of urban uplift or beautification, particularly along the waterfront areas along the Bay of Bengal.  Translated into urban policy this is not a tree-planting-garbage-pickup proposal, but the kind of urban renewal/people removal, so familiar from the widely discredited United States experience fifty years ago.New construction would line three story buildings along the beach and wipe out the fishing families.  The first area targeted in fact turned out to be the stretch of beach where our auto rickshaw had been diverted earlier that morning.  Even more importantly, Suresh was immediately able to detail the fact that the Street Vendors Act of 2014, our current primary organizing handle for our union of hawkers and street vendors, would protect the fish vendors as well and their right to livelihood.  This animated the conversation quickly.   Suresh pulled papers out of his briefcase, shared a copy of the Act, and how it could be used in this situation, and our willingness to organize the fish sellers, while Nity and Suresh simultaneously translated the discussion into Tamil for several others in the office as they arrived.

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We committed on Suresh’s next trip to beginning the work immediately.  Nity jumped at the chance to write a piece about the “beautification” projects in Chennai for the fall issue of Social Policy.  We grasped the chance at a partnership and the opportunity to be honorary members of this collective, so ready and able, fellow travelers all.

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The Waterboys: “Fisherman’s Blues”

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Riding the Rails to Chennai

Bengaluru train station

Bengaluru train station

Chennai           Railroads are serious transportation in the giant expanse of India.  The trains are old, but reliable.  The amenities are not bare, but nonexistent, many of which are filled by hawkers jumping on from station to station selling tea, coffee, chai, samosas, hot tins of food, heaping buckets of food, purses, knickknacks, and pens, giant pens twice the normal length.

Our journey from Bengaluru to Chennai started at 3pm, scheduled to arrive in Chennai six hours later at 9pm.  We pulled off within minutes of the schedule and creeped out of the station until we were well out of the city.  This made it easier for the runners with their bags and sometimes whole families to lope across the track and jump on the train through one or the other of the open doors.  They could then stand with others until their destination or be asked off and try again on the next train.  Their predicament was not totally different from later boarders who might have bought a ticket where the station master assigned a seat without knowing or perhaps caring that someone had already purchased the seat and had been occupying it down the line for hours.  This happened frequently and enlivened the trip for some.

 

 

Suresh at the start

Suresh at the start

My Seat

My Seat

The fares are cheap.  Much cheaper than buses for example.  Less than $10 for our trip from what I could figure, and the trains carry a load.  The benches face each other and each hold three people on each side.  None of this armrest nonsense either.  So that’s twelve per row.  There were 29 cars in our train.  Conservatively there were 20 rows per car.  Could there really have been a 7000 person capacity on that train?  Surely there were some cars not filled fully or my math is wrong?  Let’s just knock 2000 people off the train and call it 5000.  That’s still a lot of people riding the rails to Chennai with us.

 

good place to hang your stuff

good place to hang your stuff

The windows are open.  There are bars though not respected.  Many of my seatmates were frustrated that they were unable to open the bars on my window seat for example, thinking it would convenience me more.  There was a drawing that instructed the means for opening the bars in an emergency, but that was not seen as relevant.  When the train was up to full power we had a good breeze.  There were multiple fans coming from the ceiling along with the fluorescent lights, but I was unsure how many fans were functional.

 

rocks in Andra Praseh, like the west!

rocks in Andra Praseh, like the west!

The scenery was amazing.  The contrast from one eight million person city to another four and a half million person city was largely one of complete and total rural villages and scenes fixed in time for centuries.  Two oxen were plowing one field along the way with a man driving them from behind.  Numerous goat and sheepherders stood unmoved by the passing train as they watched their flocks.  We watched a funeral and much else.  There were small towns and there were mud brick thatched roof houses a plenty.  Some low rise, rocky rises made me think of the US West though seeing them tower over coconut trees was hard to reconcile.

across the bench neighbor

across the bench neighbor

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It all worked remarkably well.  Everyone seemed to understand the drill and settle into it.  The biggest excitement other than duplicate seating was a young man’s lost mobile phone that brought a half dozen outside the train for a look around the tracks for a purpose that escaped me, and was unsuccessful as expected.

lost mobile prompts a search at a train stop

lost mobile prompts a search at a train stop

We jumped out at Chennai into a bustling, black, humid night none the worse for wear and better for the experience.

 

Chennai train station

Chennai train station

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It is two for Tuesday, thanks to Kabf.

Please enjoy

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Unfair Weather Friend

Alabama Shakes’ Future People

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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

carts

carts

entrance to train station

entrance to train station

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

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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.

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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.

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BANGALORE IS HAPPY (Pharrell Williams) by Grey Worldwide India

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Karnataka Government Becoming Environmental?

Gaur at the sharp boundary between tea plantation and native forest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photos taken by Dr Christopher Young.

Gaur at the sharp boundary between tea plantation and native forest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photos taken by Dr Christopher Young.

Bengaluru       Although the national government in India seems so biased towards business and development that NGOs, unions, and others worry for their future, some state governments seem to be feeling the wind blow a different direction leaving some hope for the future.  The two-year old government in Karnataka, claiming Bengaluru as its largest city, may be one encouraging example.

The local Deccan Chronicle gives the new government low marks on many issues but pointedly in article after article scores them highly on environmental issues including no tolerance towards problems throughout the state in mining disputes.  The scoring must be on a curve though since the previous day’s Deccan Chronicle story on a major study of the Western Ghats, part of the higher ground, watershed feeding Karnataka and several other Indian states, reported the study as a battle of “miners vs greens.”  An earlier report on the ecologically sensitive area or ESA had sought a blanket ban on mining and industrial activity in 69% of the area, while a newer report would only limit 39%, bringing 60000 square kilometers under the ESA and the ban.  The Karnataka government has not agreed to stop quarrying and sand mining yet, citing development needs.

The paper gives the government more consistent good grades on their policies around land encroachment, which can be translated as stopping builders from erecting developments on vital wetlands and lake beds, an issue well understood in Florida, Louisiana, and other Gulf States in the USA.  In one area they have demolished commercial areas and resorts on 140 acres.   Not that they had much choice since a higher court had ordered the action after residents brought a lawsuit complaining of the constant flooding in their houses, particularly during the monsoon season.  The demolitions do not affect residents, so it’s a tricky environmental problem.

Advocates, including Leo Saldanha with the Environmental Support Group, who ACORN India’s organizers see as the benchmark on such issues, argue that the lakes need to be rejuvenated in order to serve as catchment areas and rebuild the water table.  They are demanding a cleanup of all of the concrete debris from the building demolition in order to achieve those results, and worry that anything less by the government will lead to future encroachment or the creation of a dumping ground.  If the lake is unable to once again hold water, then it must be limited to growing trees, not further development, they argue.

Once again the scorecard is not simple, indicating that concerns over the environment and any curbs on development are still difficult even as the current government seems to be doing better.  Protests are continuing by various community organizations in the encroachment areas whose stated aim is to prevent the government from “caving in to the builders.”

Old habits seem hard to break, but the balance seems to be shifting in the state from development at any cost to a recognition that the environment has to be a first priority as well in order to make the growing city of Bengaluru sustainable.

India Greenpeace Funds-1

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Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning

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