By Ratoola Kundu and Anushyama Mukherjee
On December 12, Salt Lake city, adjoining Kolkata, saw a spate of violent evictions against street vendors in Karunamoyee junction, a busy junction where East-West metro works are underway. Around a hundred and fifty small and big, temporary and semi-permanent structures were demolished by the Bidhan Nagar Municipal Corporation, including Ben Fish, Ganguram sweets, Mio Amore – a popular confectionary shop, and a Trinamul Congress party ward office. Although there had been warning of a possible evictions, vendors had refused to vacate their spots as for most of them this was their only livelihood. So far there has been no word of rehabilitation and the civic officials maintain that no new permanent structures will be allowed to be set up on the pavements and that more evictions to clear pavements will be carried out in a phased manner.
Forced evictions have intensified over the past few months in the satellite city which recently hosted the FIFA under 17 World Cup. Right before the mega event, a number of informal shops and settlements were cleared around the Salt Lake Stadium, prompting a mass protest rally by street vendors and evicted slum dwellers under the banner of Joint Forum Against Forced Evictions, demanding an end to the evictions and adoption of rehabilitation measures.
In 2015, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal had announced that hawkers would not be evicted and that a policy would be worked out wherein they would be enumerated, given trade licenses to operate and be entitled to social benefits and schemes while ensuring that traffic flowed properly and pedestrians had enough space on the pavements to walk. In the last two years following this announcement, the city of Kolkata had seen fewer large scale forced evictions of street vendors. At the same time however, sporadic evictions have been taking place in and around Kolkata, particularly around transportation and related infrastructure projects. The state government has also steadfastly refrained from enacting the central level Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Vending) Act 2014 that prohibits evictions and calls for the enumeration of all street vendors, a democratic Town Vending Committee comprising multi-stakeholders, and the designation of vending and non-vending zones in a city, in spite of sustained pressure from the Hawker Sangram Committee, federal union of street vendors in the city.
It seems that the stalemate situation has been broken in the satellite city of Salt Lake prompting street vendors and unions supporting them to review their strategies and future course of action given the sudden climate of insecurity. Our colleague at the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, Dr. Anushyama Mukherjee who along with Dr. Ratoola Kundu has been conducting a study on the Right to the Streets in Kolkata, was in Karunamoyee post the eviction to assess the situation on the ground. Some of the street vendors who had surreptitiously crept back to the spot to salvage their goods or else had put up temporary mobile vending stalls on wheels seemed disoriented and disillusioned by the move. They sensed a shift in the government’s attitude towards the urban poor particularly with the announcement of more mega events and urban infrastructure projects.
One middle aged street vendor at the spot commented “I have no clue what is happening. I feel this is happening because Salt Lake is conducting Book Fair this year and government wants to see clean roads and pavements as Book Fair attracts a lot of global customers. But again, I think state is also thinking of hosting more games and events like FIFA hence the city should look clean and we are supposedly a menace in the city. It is the same government who supported us during 1997 and now look what they are doing? Isn’t all of them are the same?” He was referring to the Operation Sunshine movement in 1990’s which was carried out by the then Communist led government which had carried out massive and brutal demolition of some of the largest hawker dominated stretches in Gariahaat, prompting public outcry and the mobilization of street vendors into a strong city level and finally national level struggle for a recognition of their right to livelihood. Ironically, at the time, Ms. Mamata Banerjee who was in the opposition at the state level, had stood by the hawkers and vehemently protested against the evictions.
Dr. Kundu and Dr. Mukherjee’s research in sites such as Gariahat, Hatibagan, Esplanade and Rajarhat also indicate that though evictions have dwindled in those sites over the past two years, the street vendors are using multiple strategies of negotiation unique to their territory with a wide variety of stakeholders in order to stake claim to the streets. There is a lack of knowledge among street vendors about the rights, provisions and benefits that the enactment of the Street Vendors Act of 2014 will endow them with. There seems to be little cohesiveness across the vendors except for those registered with the Hawker Sangram Committee making it difficult to push for the implementation of the Act. On the other hand, there has been a growing opposition to the street vendors from shop owners and other traders associations across the city who see their business being affected by the thriving business on the street. Opposition to vendors is also growing from an emerging middle class who are voicing their displeasure at not being able to walk on pavements or are facing issues with parking spots, or are simply aspiring towards a city that is “better planned” and therefore hawker-free. Spectacular mega-events, proposals for becoming smart cities and large scale urban infrastructure projects have also prompted the removal of informal settlements and vendors from pavements as capital seeks to transform the very spatiality of the city.
The street vendors have tentatively adopted a wait and watch policy not wishing to antagonize the present government though they are worried about their livelihoods. One hawker selling evening snacks from his mobile cart said, “It happened very suddenly. (They)Did not give us time to think and act. I do not think we should protest because in that case state will go against us even more. We are hoping for a mid-level negotiation hence we are not going into the protest mode right now. We need to observe the state action for a few more days. In any case, we have lost our livelihood, there is nothing left for us anymore.” However, it seems that there will be more inhumanitarian evictions in the near future jeopardizing the livelihoods and disrupting the lives of street vendors and their families raising an urgent need for collective action and implementation of the Street Vendors Act of 2014 in West Bengal.