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)


Fight Over Foreign Retail (Walmart!) Entry into India Enters a New Stage

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

New Orleans      Desperate to hold onto power with national elections coming in 2013 and beset by crises over coal, telecom, and slowing growth, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, announced modifications in foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, potentially paving the way for Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro, and other multi-national companies to enter the growing Indian market directly with 51% control rather than as secondary partners.  Singh was quoted in the Times saying “The time for big-bang reforms has come and if we go down, we will go down fighting.”  ACORN International’s affiliate ACORN India and the Indian FDI Watch Campaign, which have been fighting for accountability before modifications for the last half-dozen years, believe Singh’s remarks could be prophetic, if in fact these changes are now implemented.

Make no mistake, we and others have issued a press release yesterday in Delhi and have joined the call for nationwide protests on Monday (see below), so the fight is on, but as we enter this next stage of this long campaign the skepticism in the financial press about whether this will all now come to pass is not only passed on the political difficulties which led to a parliamentary crisis last fall, but also about the significant concessions we won over time and during the “suspension” of the government’s earlier action.  Reviewing briefly, they include the following:

  • 30% of products have to be Indian sourced.  We have argued that without such a provision, India was going to be flooded by Walmart’s Chinese sourcing.
  • 50% of investment has to be infrastructure within 3-years that supports better sourcing from Indian farmers and others.  We have argued that community benefits were essential.
  • None of this applies to anything other than cities over 1 million people and their suburban rings within 6.2 miles of the town center.  We have argued that the character of the Indian economy and its existing employment had to be protected.

There’s more including the trump card that none of this can happen without being approved by the state governments and the individual localities.   In a number of major states, like West Bengal with its mega-city, Kolkata (Calcutta), the governor has already rejected these modifications.  In some of the most populated states, there have also been indications of rejection.  In short, were this to emerge from Parliament, this is the beginning of the new fight, just moving to another stage, a more local stage where we are stronger frankly and one that will play out over coming years.  Even the Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which were quick to embrace the government’s proposed actions last fall as fait accompli were restrained this time and noted that this might still not come to pass even at the national level.

In a country of small shopkeepers, traders, hawkers, street vendors and others employing more than 10 million as workers, this change has significant impact.  This campaign has long legs and continues to move quickly.

Below is the press statement of Dharmendra Kumar and the India FDI Watch Campaign:

New Delhi 14th Sept. 2012

PRESS STATEMENT                         

Immediately Stop the removal of the suspension on FDI in Retail

Leaders of mass organizations of street vendors, workers, small shopkeepers, small manufacturers, joined by civil society organizations, consumer activists, environmentalists strongly condemned the Govt. of India decision to remove the suspension on FDI in multi-brand retail.

In a press statement issued here today, Mr. Shaktiman Ghosh, General Secretary, National Hawker Federation, said that the decision has nullified the Govt. approval to Street Vendors (protection of livelihood and regulating street vending) Bill 2012. He said that livelihood of hawkers cannot be protected merely by creating vending zones if corporations are allowed to out-compete them in streets. He demanded a complete ban all corporations selling fruits, vegetables, groceries, and daily use goods. He also demanded that no corporate store should be allowed within a 2 km radius of areas with a density of hawkers. He informed that National Hawker Federation would organize protests on Monday and Tuesday in all over India.

Dharmendra Kumar, Director, India FDI Watch said that the Govt. decision is a blow to parliamentary democracy and alleged that Govt. has backstabbed the nation after promising in the parliament to not to take the decision unless a consensus is reached. Mr. Kumar further alleged that India is kneeling down under pressure from US and European governments and their industry lobbyists as it still has no binding commitment on multi-brand retail services in multilateral, regional or bilateral agreements. He termed the cabinet decision for 51% in multibrand retail as letting off wild bulls of giant retailers without checks and balances such as regulations on number, size, location and provision of an economic needs test for opening a store as is the case in many countries around the world.

Kishan bir choudhary, Chairman, Bhartiya Krishak Samaj (Indian Farmers Forum) stated that FDI in retail would lead to monopoly of agricultural market and farmers would be taken for a ride by corporations. FDI backed retailers would dictate terms to farmers under contract farming and would turn independent farming families as bonded labour.

Vijay Prakash Jain, General Secretary, Bhartiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal (All India Federation of Traders and Manufacturers) termed the cabinet committee on political affairs decision as disaster for small traders and micro, small and medium industries.

Mr. Mohan Gurnani, President, Federation of Associations of Maharashtra said that our Govt. is refusing to learn from the experiences around the world and even failing to learn from its own experience of not being able to stop foreign cash and carry wholesalers from circumventing rules. He said that the infamous retail giant of the world Wal-Mart has entered from the back door using Bharti-Airtel as its fig leaf circumventing the wholesale cash & Carry permission. This is a gross transgression of the intention behind Wholesale Cash and Carry Permission. He accused that Bharti is only a thin cover for Wal-Mart’s profit making proclivities as it will only function as a fixed margin operator. The warning bells are dire for our small manufacturers, suppliers, shopkeepers and street vendors.”

street vendors in New Delhi