Banjara Market Demolition

In the first week of October the Banjara Market of Gurugram, a place of livelihoods as well as housing for a marginalized community, was demolished. In recent years this had become a popular place for purchasing crafts, house décor items and furniture at reasonable rates.

More sensitive authorities would have instead taken steps to help these small entrepreneurs and seen this colony cum market as a symbol of the resilience of a community which has suffered much from neglect and injustice but retains faith in its hard work and skills. This is the semi-nomadic community of Gadaliya Lohars.

Their traditional livelihood as blacksmiths had been badly eroded in recent times. So several of these households embarked on a new path of procuring those craft items which could not be sold at big stores due to small blemishes and using their skills they not only repaired but also improved these products, adding to their beauty. When some of these units became popular more joined with other products along similar lines, and soon this market emerged as a landmark which not only added diversity and colour to a modernizing city but also came to symbolize upward mobility of several members of a very marginalizd community.

The ruthless demolition of such a place of creativity by an urban authority is yet anoher indication that in their arrogant elitism our urban authorities are extremely insensitive to the needs and aspirations of deprived communities, known for their skills and hard work and struggling to find those urban spaces where these assets can fetch them satisfactory, creative livelihoods.

Another insensitive action in recent times relates to eviction of hawkers from roadsides where highways are being widened. Several news reports from Himachal Pradesh, for example, have drawn attention to this. This violates the otherwise widely agreed principle here of bringing tourism benefits closer to weaker sections. Small peasant or landless families living in villages alongside tourism routes have for years been setting up small stalls of chhole kulche or rajma chawal or local delicacies where in a corner they would stock a few local fruits as well. These are very useful for budget travellers getting a bite, as well as for any workers on or around the road. Such stalls, often with colourful billboards, also establish points of inter-action with local villagers. However once highway widening is taken up, instead of finding some convenient place for them, these vendors are asked to simply go away.  This policy should change.

Another extremely creative category of vendors that has been facing increasing difficulties includes vendors, mostly women, who give shining new utensils in exchange of old clothes. Then they wash, mend and iron these clothes to increase their resale value in the market for second- hand garments.The easier access these vendors who went from door to door had earlier is decreasing fast . A few years back the biggest colony of these vendors in Raghubir Nagar, West Delhi, was demolished. This was done despite the fact that this place had become a hub for this community, their cultural centre with a beautiful temple and a specially constructed market for trading clothes.

Several of these households were shifted about 15 kms away to the outskirts of the city. When I went to meet them they were full of stories of collapsing livelihoods as the income opprtunities declined sharply after they were removed far away from a busy area and the main hub of their livelihood. As this special market starts very early in the morning, in the winter mornings they often had to leave at around 4 a.m., and sometimes even slept at the market itself.

These are just a few examples of the increasing problems faced by vendors and hawkers in several contexts. According to official estimates there are around 10 million vendors in the country.  When protective legislation in the form of the Street Vendors ( Protection of Livelihoods and Regulation of Street Vending ) Act was passed in 2014, despite several limitations of this law, high hopes were raised that things will  become much better in the near future.

However by and large these hopes have not been fulfilled due to the unsympathetic and sometimes even hostile attitude of the authorities which has stood in the way of implementing the protective law in the right spirit. The delays in implementation steps have been very frustrating. Even in a city like Delhi, which has shown relatively more activity, the survey has not been completed yet despite seven years having passed since the enaction of the 2014 law. The union government has been publicizing its credit scheme for vendors a lot, but this by itself cannot achieve much in the middle of corruption, eviction and uncertainties which trouble vendors.

This is not to say that there have been no good initiatives. The recent initiative in Punjab to train food vendors in such a way that can do their work in more hygienic and efficient way is reported to have given good results. But the overall trend even in the post-1914 phase has been one of increasing dificulties, belying hopes.

These difficulties increased further in COVID and lockout times. Although several hawkers operating very close to their home to supply daily needs were able to contribute in a very important way to meet essential needs of people, re-emphasizing their important role, for the majority of hawkers and vendors difficulties increased. The special markets that have been created for them in several areas remained closed for long durations. The hawkers working in railways, long-distance bus terminals and other transpot hubs really suffered a big loss of livelihoods.

In rural areas many vendors who move from village to village and hamlet to hamlet and even to individual homes had difficulty in gaining any entry and their work cycle broke down. Examples would be the Kuchbandiya community in Bundelkhand and Nepali vendors in Himachal.

Hence vendors of various categories need a really sympathetic and encouraging attitude on the part of the authorites in these days of exceptional difficulties. In such a situation to order cruel demolitions of the kind seen in Gurugram Banjara market or to evict hawkers from widened highways is just the kind of policy thst should be completely avoided. Instead these should be seen as times of helping vendors to protect and improve their livelihoods.

Bharat Dogra has been close to several social movements. His recent books include Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.


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