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No More Street Food in Delhi!

Lalit Batra

Most cities and towns in the so called Global South are marked today by an overwhelming presence of the informal economy. Hawkers and street vendors are one of the most visible segments of the informal sector. When Keith Harth, an economic anthropologist, on a mission to study urban labour markets in Africa, coined the term 'informal economy' he was, to a large extent, referring to scores of hawkers and street vendors selling a bewildering array of goods on the streets in cities and towns of Africa. Till 1960s the dominant discourse viewed the presence of the informal sector of the economy, including hawkers and vendors, as a temporary phenomenon, a by-product of the transition from the 'traditional' to the 'modern' economy. It was assumed that as the process of modern capitalist development advances this sector would cease to exist soon enough with the extension of the legal, regulatory and administrative frameworks of the State to all aspects of economic activity.

However various studies subsequently conducted in many parts of the world proved beyond doubt that far from shrinking, the informal sector was in fact expanding. In almost all of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the majority of the workforce was found to be working in the informal or unorganised sector. Recent studies suggest that subsequent to the ascendance of neo-liberal economic policies in most parts of the world, its speed of expansion has increased substantially. In fact even in advanced industrialised countries of the West informalisation of the economy and the workforce is rising significantly.

Today about 93 per cent of India's work force is in the unorganised sector, which accounts for 63 per cent of the country's GDP. There is a dearth of reliable data on the prevalence of the informal sector in urban areas. There are studies which put these numbers at 65 percent in small towns to 46 percent in million plus cities. In any case, one can safely assume that over half the workforce in urban areas is earning its livelihood in informal sector. A large number of those within the urban informal sector- 15 percent according to one estimate- are street vendors.

Delhi has a workforce of roughly 40 lakhs, only about 22 per cent of which are employed in the organised sector. There is a paucity of official data on the number of hawkers and vendors operating in the city but reliable estimates put the figure between 3 to 4 lakhs making it one of the most important informal sector activities in Delhi. The problems faced by street vendors in the city are now too well known to need any elaboration. Studies conducted by several organisations recount the familiar tale of barely enough earnings to be able to survive, harassment and plundering by the police, municipal authorities and local musclemen, criminalisation by law, non recognition in official city plans, apathy or hostility of the middle and upper classes and so on.

Unlike many other major cities the Master Plans of Delhi have repeatedly made provisions for accommodating and regularising hawkers and vendors but there has been little effort on the part of authorities to effectively implement these provisions. Thus till date less than 20,000 tehbazari licenses have been issued by municipal authorities rendering the existence and livelihoods of over 90 per cent street vendors illegal and making them easy preys to all kinds of harassment and exploitation. A study conducted by Manushi, an NGO, in 2001 puts the payments made by hawkers and street vendors in Delhi by way of bribes and extortion to police, municipal officials and local musclemen at Rs. 600 crores annually!

In this context the recent Supreme Court order banning cooked street food in the capital is like punishing the victim instead of the perpetrator. The order put a seal of approval on the scheme proposed by the MCD and the NDMC to ban cooked street food in order to regulate hawking and vending in Delhi with a view to beautify the city for the Commonwealth Games 2010. Citing reasons of health and hygiene, the court ordered that, except tea and coffee sellers, all other hawkers selling cooked food on streets will have to go. The court also rejected the petition filed by hawkers' associations and NGOs like NASVI, SEWA and Manushi for conducting a comprehensive survey to ascertain the number of hawkers in the city and identify suitable hawking sites.

At a time when the economy has stopped creating jobs despite all the hullabaloo about 8 percent growth rate, the court order is bound to add a few lakh more to the list of the unemployed. Not only that it will kill the 500 year old great culinary tradition of street food of Dilli beside making the city further unsafe. Significantly, the order comes at a time when the government is considering allowing 100 percent FDI in retail. Sealing of commercial units, removal of hawkers... has the highest court of land put its weight firmly behind the Reliances, Walmarts and McDonalds of the world?

Pratirodh

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posted by Resistance 7/09/2007 09:18:00 AM,

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