It is said that COVID does not differentiate. Yet, people on the margin have been differently impacted by COVID. Street vendors are one such vulnerable group. With lockdown, streets wore a deserted look. Street livelihood vanished all of a sudden. Street vendors, generally outlawed and operating with meagre capital and various kinds of livelihood insecurities and restrictive and punitive regulatory authorities found it hard to survive through the lockdown. Weekly markets were officially closed much before the lockdown was imposed. Regular street markets were not allowed during the lockdown. The lockdown guidelines termed fruits and vegetables as essential items. Street vendors selling fruits and vegetables with mobility did continue with their services but only to some extent as their movements were restricted at will by local authorities. Most street vendors are migrants and undocumented. Social assistance provided by central and state govt in forms of food through the public distribution system and in a very few cases cash transfer failed to reach to the majority of street vendors. Studies conducted during the lockdown suggest that street vendors largely tried to survive through the lockdown by consuming savings and/or taking loans often from money lenders at predatory rates of interest.
During the lockdown, we largely failed to reach out to street vendors with relief. Now, as we decide to unlock, it is important that we ensure that we do not fail in rehabilitation and street vendors are able to return to streets. Urban unorganized workforce residing in informal settlements can only sustain in cities with support services of street vendors. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MOHUA), Govt of India has announced scheme guidelines namely “PM Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi” (PM SVANidhi). The scheme envisions a special micro credit facility for street vendors to make them self-reliant. The central sector scheme fully funded by the MOHUA aims to provide working capital loan up to Rs. 10,000 each to five million street vendors. The loan comes with an interest of 24 per cent per annum. The vendors, availing loan under the scheme, are eligible to get an interest subsidy of 7 per cent on fulfilling attached conditions. Street vendors in possession of Certificate of Vending / Identity Card issued by Urban Local Bodies (ULBs); the vendors, who have been identified in the survey but have not been issued Certificate of Vending / Identity Card; Street Vendors, left out of the ULB-led identification survey or who have started vending after completion of the survey and have been issued Letter of Recommendation (LoR) to that effect by the ULB / Town Vending Committee (TVC); and the vendors of surrounding development/ peri-urban/rural areas vending in the geographical limits of the ULBs and have been issued Letter of Recommendation (LoR) to that effect by the ULB / TVC will qualify for the scheme.
The number of five million street vendors is still far behind the estimated number of street vendors in India, yet the number sounds ambitious. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Vending) Act of 2014 provisions street vending certificates for 2.5 percent of our urban population. Qualifying criteria of the scheme is directly linked to the successful implementation of the street vendors act. Street vendors with vending certificates, identity cards and documented in enumeration are likely beneficiaries. Rest of street vendors are on the mercy of urban local bodies as they would require a letter of recommendation from them. Given the track record of our ULBs it is hard to believe that they would provide letters of recommendation to vendors left out of surveys and not possessing any valid document of vending. A cursory look at the status of implementation of street vendors Act presents a dismal picture and does not instil confidence. The scheme could be a non-starter in its present form.
States like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand are yet to notify schemes under the street vendors act. In fact, Telangana and Uttarakhand are yet to notify even rules. Majority of Town Vending Committees constituted across India under the Act do not have vendors’ representation. Only four states have constituted grievance redressal committees. States like Bihar, Haryana and Maharashtra have not issued any certificates of vending. Bihar could only identify 65,000 vendors. In Chhattisgarh, only three people are having vending certificates. Delhi and Goa is yet to identify any vendor. Gujrat has issued only 111 certificates of vending. Haryana has distributed approximately one thousand vendors’ identity cards. Maharashtra is yet to issue any certificate of vending or identity card whereas Madhya Pradesh has issued only 6,000 certificates of vending. In Odisha 5,000 street vendors have been issued vending certificates and 9,000 have been issued identity cards. Uttar Pradesh has 43,000 vendors with certificates of vending and 50,000 are carrying identity cards. Uttarakhand has given only 4,000 identity cards and only around fifty people have been handed over the vending certificates. Himachal Pradesh has identified only close to five thousand vendors. Only 1,300 vendors have been allocated vending certificates by Jharkhand Govt. Punjab, Rajasthan and Telangana have only issued around 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 vending certificates respectively.
The numbers of street vendors having identity cards, vending certificates and documented in the enumeration is at best far below even one percent of the urban population all across the country without any exception. Numbers of street vendors reported by ULBs where enumeration of all existing street vendors has been completed are gross underestimation and points to exclusionary practices. It’s no wonder, as most surveys have been conducted contravening the street vendors act and without the supervision of Town vending committees having mandated elected representation of street vendors.
Success of the scheme depends on broader and liberal inclusion of street vendors and equally on providing beneficiaries a secured and protected livelihood to enable them to repay the loan. With almost no social security and in absence of cash transfer, it is very likely that the working capital can be consumed for meeting other exigencies. Cash transfer to beneficiaries must precede any liquidity support. Most importantly, working capital must be allowed to work freely and without fear of eviction and harassment.
Dharmendra Kumar is a Delhi based activist. He has been working on issues of labour, food and trade policy. His works include “Trade Invaders: how big business is driving EU-India FTA”, “A Future of Co-existence? Hawkers and the impact of corporate and chain retail” and “Agri-retail: Implications for the weakest links in the supply chain”. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org