The Rise of the Street Hawker

Posted By: Ranjona Banerji|Dated: June 7, 2012

Across Indian cities, the middle class appears to be rising against a group which could also be seen as innocuous, commonplace and convenient – the street hawker, or someone who vends their goods in a peripatetic manner. It could be an old woman at a street corner with a basket of vegetables or a man selling peanuts or even a more enterprising salesman who has appropriated a pavement with bamboo and plastic to sell his knockoffs of knockoffs of knockoffs.

But as the middle classes have grown in India and economic prosperity has changed their mobility and their shopping habits, the hawker has become an impediment. He uses up precious space, is messy, sometimes aggressive and adds little beauty to the surroundings. As residents’ associations become more powerful, there is pressure on local municipal offices to tackle what newspapers call – with no qualms – “the hawker menace”.

Here is what the Supreme Court of India had to say about the “hawker menace”: “Considering that an alarming percentage of population in our country lives below the poverty line and when citizens by gathering meager resources try to employ themselves as hawkers and street traders, they cannot be subjected to a deprivation on the pretext that they have no right.”

However, nor can it be denied that there is a conflict for space here as well as some need for regulation. For one, unlicensed vendors have to pay enormous bribes to the local police and municipal officers to conduct their business. For another, there are times when hawkers appropriate so much space for themselves that they do become more of an impediment than a convenience.

The problem is that when a group is called a “menace” – and newspapers carry stories everyday about how citizens’ groups want hawkers evicted – looking for a just solution which will benefit all stake-holders becomes difficult. Hawkers may well be inconvenient to morning walkers and car owners. But you only have to watch the crowds thronging the shoe sellers on Linking Road in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra to know how popular they are.

There is one additional question to be considered as well here – the right to walk on a pavement, which is not an elitist demand. Between cars, vendors, utilities and the propensity to widen roads to meet the demand for cars, pavements are an easy casualty.

The answer has to be found in more cooperation and less confrontation. There is a bill in the offing to regulate vendors and there is the Supreme Court to intervene when natural justice is polluted to cater to the needs of a few, albeit powerful. The middle classes, which are getting more vocal about their own rights, need to step back a bit and consider that they have to share space and resources with all the other parts of India, no matter how unappealing they appear to be.

It is not fair however to categorise the entire middle class as being uncaring or indeed being indifferent to hawkers. As I walk around my area of Mumbai, I often see fancy cars parked next to a famous roadside stall which sells popular local snacks like “bhel puri” – a mix of puffed rice, chopped onions, potato, coriander, sprinkled with fried bits of extruded gram flour, mixed with spicy and sweet chutneys and then served with a fried wheat biscuit. It’s an irresistible part of Mumbai’s street culture and long may it last!

About the author

Ranjona Banerji

Ranjona Banerji has worked for more than 25 years in publications such as Bombay Magazine, India Today, Gentleman, Mid-Day, The Times of India, Ahmedabad and DNA. She is currently a columnist and consulting editor with MxMIndia.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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  • Ramakria

    Respected Author
    Iam sure Supreme Court of India will support all Indian Citizens and imparts JUSTICE yes the Superme Court of India is our saving grace .
     Now coming to the point of Street Hawkers
    i)What the Govt can do is empower Local Govts to impart Clealiness,efficient use of Space like better designed Carts to carry Goods
    ii)Regulate street hawker Zones so that they do not look like they are impacting Living Spaces etc
    iii)How other things like Water etc are used or served to the customers (again suitable Training imparted and made cumpolsary for Street Hawkers as well
     The above can be as part of Govt scheme through subsidies I heard similar things were planned before CWG 2010 Games for New Delhi based Hawkers by Delhi Govt
    Perhaps we can ask Union Govt to come up with a policy and ask Local Govts to fine tune and implement the same as well 

  • Anbazhagan S V

    In our street hawking starts early morning, 7am ! The item shouted about is ‘carpets’ ! Believe me ,this is daily. They probably are paid for shouting and not for selling.Next comes, ‘greens and flower’ ! Following this ‘apple’ tomato; then vegetables; again another ‘greens’ and ‘flower’. And the famous ‘old paper wallahs’ follow, one after another, as if they scan the surroundings. These things go on and on through out the day and ends with ‘jasmine’ at aroud 10pm. Old people resting, children napping, all have have a harrowing day, not finding a way out. And the price they quote,is like a slap on our face. Oh, what is happening, we wonder.If they are not a menace, what they are, i do not know.And i do not think there is a solution in the near future except with the buyers.They must decide to buy from hawkers or from an organised outlet.

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