The Hawkers Dilemma in India

ACORN ACORN International Organizing

New Orleans     India has now edged up to 2nd or 3rd behind the United States in the number of coronavirus cases.  With over a billion population, teeming cities with overcrowded slums, and tens of millions without access to sanitation facilities, a cough can be a healthcare crisis. Talking to ACORN India’s organizing team on WhatsApp was not reassuring.

A curfew continues in Bengaluru.  There is no public transportation in Mumbai.  The government in Delhi is still giving us dry rations to distribute at our migrant centers in the city. Informal workers who depend on a daily wage to eat and survive have retreated to rural, family homes, but find no work there.  Domestic workers are not allowed to enter the housing estates where many of them both lived and worked, leaving some middle-class families having to fend with cooking and cleaning themselves for the first time.

ACORN has tens of thousands of members who are hawkers, especially in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Delhi.  Markets are closed where they plied their trade providing fruit and vegetables to daily shoppers.  The organizers report that hawkers able to be mobile on the street are able to make it, but only if they have a cart and can keep moving.  They depend on their work for food, and others depend on the food they provide to survive as well.

The government has announced a program to help hawkers get back on their feet as the pandemic subsides.  Applicants are eligible until 2022, if it takes that long.  Essentially 10,000 rupees would be provided for them to reestablish, so that they can make the purchases for resell.  10,000 rupees is the equivalent of $133 USD.

Importantly, the government, recognizing the reality of informal work, allowed hawkers to be eligible, even if not licensed by their local municipalities.  Instead, in a nod to hawkers’ unions, the government’s first proposal asked them to mark one of three national hawkers’ unions where they might be a member in order to vouch for their status as hawkers.  This would have been devastating to our ACORN union membership, because it would in effect be forcing hawkers to join one of the three named unions on the original proposal in order to access the funds.  We mobilized quickly, as we heard about the application process, and in a significant win, convinced the government instead to simply allow hawkers to list their union affiliation in a blank spot on the form.

Good for the hawkers and good for our union.  Unfortunately, as our call ended, that small victory was about the only good news coming out of India in these desperate times.