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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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