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.
Green Street Elite – Stand your ground