Building Ties: Importance of Networks and Solidarities Among Street Vendors

By Akshata Bhat

The livelihood of street vendors in India is extremely precarious, despite it being an old occupation and all the legal protections the new Street Vendors Act (2014) has provided.  Since it is an “informal” mode of occupation which is mostly carried out on roads, sidewalks and footpaths, making a livelihood out of it depends on the interaction street vendors have with a wide range of people such as customers, pedestrians, traffic police, the local authority, and the state and central government at large. It also centrally depends on unionisation and network building among the vendors themselves. Based on fieldwork done in Juna Bazaar, Mangalwar Peth market and Aundh market, the piece looks at street vendors as entrepreneurs and how networking is crucial to successful business.

Each vendor is like a node in the network that is connected to different types of citizens. This dense network is informed by various parameters that can affect their business such as supply lines, location of vending, customer relationship, solidarity, exchange of resources with other vendors and other types of businesses. The dynamics of this network is also subject to the periodic actions of the municipality, namely the frequent threat of eviction.

In the DAV Public School, Aundh market area, few people are seen on the streets during this hot summer afternoon. Their faces are covered with scarves and heads protected by caps from the dust and sun. There is minimal interaction with the vendors. In the distance, a woman buys some vegetables and walks away. However, not a single vendor has any protection against the sun. There is, however one fast food stall that has tarpaulin to cover the foodstuff, but none for the vendor. The woman who runs that business speaks to us as sweat beads run down her face. She speaks of her fear of getting reported to the municipality by my fellow researchers and I because of the interest we take in her livelihood. People on the streets only inquire about the goods and its price; such an interaction is unexpected.

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In conversation with Shamim.

By the time the sun sets, several other hawkers turn up, set up their stalls and sell their goods. The hawkers occupy the space designed for cycle riders. This is because of the belief held by a resident near the area that “footpaths are for walking… we do want the hawkers, but they must be in the place allocated to them by the municipality”. These residents have formed a Vikas Mandal, that supposedly works for the benefit of both the vendors and the pedestrians.

The vendors are visible on the streets in equal measure of the utility they bring to the customers. However, like other occupations that are practised behind desks in buildings, the intricate nature of their interaction with the other citizens is invisible. “There’s one customer who is loyal to me and helps me in times of need by lending me some things”, says Shamim (name changed to protect privacy), a vendor who sells vegetables in the Aundh Market area. “The rest mostly just bargain with us”, she adds.

Eviction drives are a common feature in the lives of the vendors of Aundh Market. An eviction drive I witnessed first-hand allowed me see the resignation on the faces of the vendors; an acceptance that such an event is a part of their livelihood. Shamim, however, is devastated each time her goods are seized. “I thought of getting together all the women here who constantly face this harassment, but they haven’t responded to the idea… So what can be done…” she says.  

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Union leader with his son at Juna Bazaar.

The union leader of Janiv Hawkers Union mentions that apathy runs strong among those hawkers who are not part of his Union. The Union mediates administrative and legal matters, addresses the grievances of those who communicate with them, and serves as a source of empowerment for hawkers — particularly for women as they have the least access to basic health and hygiene facilities.  However, even among the different types of vendors, there is hostility towards the mobile ones as “they don’t pay the fees”. Therefore, even amongst the Union, formed mainly for the purpose of building strong networks there reigns a similar trend of lack of sustained social connections. The Union is currently a few thousand members strong in Pune, yet the leader says that its representation in the Town Vending Committee is inadequate because the unity dissolves as soon as a problem gets solved.

A market level union at Juna Bazaar in Mangalwar Peth is formed on the strength of hawkers who have been in the business for nearly forty years. Here, the nature of interaction among the vendors is of a different nature. They discuss ways of improving their conditions and demand for shops made of bricks and concrete. Here, we can seen a glimpse of networking where each vendor, who can be represented as a node in a network has equal stake and weight in running their business.

An overall idea about the basic strength of connections in the local networks formed by the two markets and the Janiv Hawkers Union can be represented as shown in the network diagram below:

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Factors contributing to these differences are several such as historical origin of the market — the Juna Bazaar understood as a heritage market and the Aundh market understood as a mix of natural and rehabilitated market, the popularity and influence of market in inviting customers, type of relationship shared with co-vendors- blood relations in Juna Bazaar and near absence of any relationship with co-vendors in Aundh market etc.

Despite similarity in items and the source of supply in the Aundh market, which sells perishable food items bought from the Market Yard, Pune, their social connectivity with the other vendors in the market as a whole remains low.

The opposite is true of the Juna Bazaar where there is a considerable difference in items of supply, yet there exists a strong social connectivity among the vendors even as it varies with those who are new to the business versus the ones that have engaged in it for about a few decades.

Therefore, this paper shows that there exists a direct relation between strong networking and the stability of livelihoods, especially since eviction drives seem lower where unionisation and networks are stronger. This is true only of markets that we studied in Pune.

The summer institute is a full-fledged 3 credits course in the academic calendar of the Masters in Urban Policy and Governance program of the School of Habitat Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. It is conducted as a continuous module of approximately 2 weeks  duration, involving immersion in a community and location. This year’s institute studied the socio-political dynamics of street vending, especially in relation to the recent Street Vending Act (2014) that cited key constitutional provisions in support of street vendors and established guidelines for state governments so that the state can safeguard the vendors’ right to livelihood. In the following month, we will be posting some of the students’ research in the form of blogs, photo essays, narratives, life stories and analytical pieces that describe in great detail the everyday lives of vendors and local street markets. Watch this space for more.

To see institute reports from previous batches visit our website: http://urk.tiss.edu/winter-institute.html

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