Finding Keys of the Locked Livelihoods during Nationwide fight against COVID-19 Outbreak


We are in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic and medical emergency which generations have not witnessed. We are together fighting this and in all optimism we shall be able to curtail the effect of virus. Lockdown for curtailing movement and infection? Done.  Exempting essential items? Done. Announcing relief package? Done. Categorically announcing relief provisions for the poorest and vulnerable sections? Done. Categorically providing relief to the poorest and vulnerable sections? I doubt. Responses are not about how you handle the situation, it is about how you execute your planning. For execution the government must have the plan and preparation on hand to tackle a virus outbreak. Isolation, contact tracing, testing facilities and quarantining the contacts are important steps for containing a virus medically. The government should have also done income source tracing of impacted ones along with contact tracing of the infected ones to minimise the economic distress on poors. Moreover other social stigmatisation and discrimination are adding to the voes of labour too.

India has a huge number of unorganised workers working in informal sectors. As per the Annual Report 2017-18 of Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) by Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MSPI) total number of labourers in informal sectors of agriculture and non agricultural work is estimated to be about 69% with a Worker Population Ratio of national average 34.7. There are several benefits and social security schemes   announced in the last few years. But most of these schemes are either for the workers in formal sectors or the registered workers in informal sectors. For instance about three crore workers are insured under Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) in India which is not applicable to unorganised workers and about five lakh establishments are contributing towards Employees Provident Fund which again by definition excludes unorganised workers. Almost all the labour legislations like Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act 2008, Inter State Migrant Workers Act 1979 and even Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Vending) Act 2014 emphasise on registration and survey of labours for receiving any benefit. The process of registration and survey is governed either by State labour departments or local governments in States. For instance the legislation for the protection of rights and regulation of vending of street vendors was passed in 2014 but in reality not more than five state or UT governments have framed rules in line with the provisions of act. Also, the process of survey and providing certificate of vending has also not been in accordance with the act. Street vendors associations, Unions and organisations have time and again emphasised on the speedy  implementation of the act since six years and local governments never actually paid attention to it.

Street vending is not constrained to selling groceries, fruits and vegetables only, it is as vast as the whole merchant economy. There is no available data for the number of street vendors but it is estimated to be around 2.5% of our population as the act suggests, taking the number to about three and half crores in urban areas. There are many labourers and assistants which are employed by these street vendors on their sheets, carts or stalls for help. They are mostly neglected during surveys or even registration. Their livelihood depends solely on the sheets, carts and stalls of street vendors. They are one of the most vulnerable groups as they are not secured in any relief measures announced by any government. The threat of joblessness, lack of income, no savings and lack of proof of vulnerability is having a deteriorative impact on the lives of street vendors at present. Street Vendors are no isolated groups; they are not less or more vulnerable than any other migrant or labour groups. It is only that street vendors are an important part of the informal supply chain in the economy. Street Vendors have always possessed the threat of getting infected due to their contact with people especially tourists in heritage markets but their helplessness is not getting tracked at all.

About three weeks ago on April 3rd 2020, Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) issued a letter to all the Principal Secretaries of Urban Departments (UD) of all States and UTs stating three important orders;

1) Street Vendors are identified and a rightful workforce which in some cases are providing essential items like groceries, fruits and vegetables,

2) Street Vendors carrying identity cards/ Certificate of Vending are to be allowed to sell these essential items to minimise movement of people and

3) Street Vendors need to follow the hygiene guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

This letter was issued after atrocities on street vendors were reported to the ministry by street vendors unions. Although this letter seems an important order from the central government but its ground effectiveness is close to nil as the legislation meant for ensuring issuance of certificate of vending has not been brought into effect in many states and UTs like Delhi, Bihar, and even West Bengal. As of 2020, States like Karnataka, Telangana Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland  are yet to notify rules. A recent study done by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and National Hawkers Federation (NHF) details that of the states which have notified, framed or drafted rules States like Assam, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Kerala etc do not follow the provision of democratically elect Town Vending Committees (TVC) due to which the actual interests of street vendors are left to be heard. Similarly a study done on the progress of implementation of street vendors act by Centre for Civil Society, it was found that less than 2500 statutory towns have formed TVCs and it is to be understood that cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata have either formed temporary TVCs or are yet to form TVC. Till TVCs are formed Certificate of Vending is not issued to the street vendors which the letter from MoHUA mentions. Certificate of Vending is obtained after a long process of framing rules, notification of rules, formation of TVC, framing scheme, notifying scheme, survey of street vendors as per scheme and TVC decisions and then street vendors with appropriate documents are provided certificate of vending. Certificate of vending has been issued to vendors in about 1200 towns but metropolitan cities are yet to issue this to vendors. This is why the central government order of allowing vendors with valid cards will have more ill effects on street vendors than providing them relief and a sense of security of work.

In Delhi most of the street vendors were ordered to not put their shops through a government order dated 16th March 2020. In a survey conducted by YUVA with about 200 street vendors of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, it has come out that with an average family size of seven people, vendors not selling essentials have not put their shops on average after 18th or 19th March 2020 which is more than 3 weeks. Most of these vendors are surviving on previous savings but vendors are very different financially, demographically and geographically. More than 60% of these vendors do not have any government issued Proof of Vending and others who have agreed to have proof of vending are considering Seizure Memos issued by Municipal authorities, Fine slip by Police and Challans etc. Most of the vendors were repeatedly evicted in the last two years on the name of encroachment clearance, beautification and traffic congestion even after the Supreme Court’s order of implementing the 2014 law. Due to continuous evictions many street vendors were not able to sell properly for more than a year now. This is why about 75% surveyed vendors did not have any savings before lockdown and they are dependent on relief provided by NGOs and other trade unions. The question of delivering the already announced measures will be impacted for sure due to on the ground situation of survey and registration of workers. Being a TVC member myself from City Sadar Paharganj Zone of North Delhi Municipal Corporation under nominated under Section 12 (2) of Delhi Street Vendors Rules 2017, and fighting with the street vendors on their right to livelihood, I have observed the ruthless nature of municipal authorities on how do they defy the provisions of central act as well as State scheme. After the notification of TVC members in September 2019 just two meetings were called by the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of zone who is also the Chairperson of this TVC. There was a gap of 5 months between these two meetings and in between more than five intimations and request for meeting was sent to DC but in vain. Street vendors from several markets in the zone were evicted and no discussion was held with vendors at all. This is the situation of almost the whole of Delhi. New Delhi Municipal Council did not call any meeting of TVC after the notification in September 2019. In actual timeline surveys of street vendors were supposed to be completed in Delhi and CoV should have been issued. Had that taken place, street vendors in Delhi would have been in a better position to avail relief measures being issued.

Government has taken some good decisions as a response to the situation like announcing no eviction, deferred payment of rents, mortgage payments and EMIs etc and it will surely ease out a part of the bigger problem. What exactly is this bigger problem? This bigger problem is the sum of several questions of medical services, public health, economic distress, lost lives and lost livelihoods. The bigger question about what will happen after the lockdowns will be taken back. There will be a gap of more than a month for the last working day and the next working day. It will take some days to procure resources for production, will it take more days to procure the produced for selling and will the customers of street vendors have enough money to buy from them? The supply chain question. Many activists working with street vendors are of the opinion that the extended lockdown will have adverse impacts on street vendors. With their savings exhausted, and no scope for work in coming days there should be a direct cash relief to all the street vendors irrespective of their registration or certificate of vending. Along with direct cash relief to all the street vendors during lockdown, all the street vendors should also receive cash support soon after lockdown ends for the procurement of goods. After the lockdown ends all the street vendors should be allowed to vend and they should not be evicted till the survey is completed and certificate of vending is distributed to them. As a part of the process of eviction and seizure of goods prescribed in the Schemes of different states should be executed on ground. As a part of relief measures Self Help Groups were provided credit relaxation, similarly will the home based workers be covered under the same? There are many questions and speculations and it is not merely questioning governments’ call for nationwide lockdown or any other actions. It is about getting prepared for the glaring economic distress awaiting the containment of the virus.

Ankit Jha is a housing and livelihood rights activist working with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) in Delhi.




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