Right to walk: Give back our public spaces

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HT logoShailaja Chandra | Updated: Apr 14, 2015 23:03 IST

In the name of livelihood, we have destroyed fine walkways that could have easily supported open-air cafes and well-laid out kiosks. (HT Photo)
In the name of livelihood, we have destroyed fine walkways that could have easily supported open-air cafes and well-laid out kiosks. (HT Photo)

The old tug-of-war between vendors and pedestrians has for once swung in favour of citizens, at least in Delhi’s congested Lajpat Nagar market.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the removal of hawkers and vendors from all metalled roads — a harbinger of what might be in store for similar markets booming on pavements, usurping motorable roads.

How things have reached such proportions not just in Delhi but also in many parts of Mumbai and other cities of India is a story that bears telling.

In 2010, the Supreme Court had directed that a law should be enacted balancing the needs of ordinary citizens and those of street vendors.

The case was Delhi-specific and only involved the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Committee. The SC juxtaposed two fundamental rights conferred by Article 19 (1) (d) and Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, the right of commuters to move freely and use roads without any impediment and that of hawkers, squatters and vendors to carry on hawking.

The SC wanted two apparently conflicting rights to be “harmonised and regulated by subjecting them to reasonable restrictions under a law”.

Cleverly using this opportunity, a partisan law which gives elected vendors a major say in deciding its implementation, seeks to protect them to the exclusion of the common man.

The law came into force in May 2014 and as could be expected was in the name of the poor.

But the crucial point that remains unanswered: Is the regulation of street vending purely a livelihood issue or whether it is also a municipal zoning issue? Can a citizen’s right to regulated public space be transferred to one body of citizens by marginalising the majority?

The biggest weakness of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014 is the use of the Concurrent List of the Constitution to enact a central law, ostensibly to protect livelihoods.

This when Parliament had been repeatedly told by the government “street vending is a state subject and the central government does not have the mandate to enact legislation on street vending”.

Under the new law the obligatory functions of the municipal local bodies have been put in deep freeze giving them the perfect alibi to abandon even what little they and the traffic police were doing to safeguard right-of-way for pedestrians and motorists.

The new Act is totally in favour of vendors. It is hazy on principles and does not specify how the vending zones are to be decided or how the number of vendors determined.

As of now different states and municipalities are at different stages of formulating rules, conducting a survey of vendors, seeking fresh applications and establishing the Town Vending Committees (TVCs), the fulcrum on which the new law rests.

Until all this falls into place — which could take years — the law expressly directs that no vendor is to be touched or moved. Many parts of Delhi and suburban Mumbai are badly clogged by hundreds of vendors who have spilled over from the footpaths on to main roads.

Municipal commissioners of three major city corporations lamented to me that the vendor representatives had been given 40% reservation on the TVC and can easily out-voice the official nominees. The largest stakeholder — the general public, which constitutes 99% of the users of public spaces — is represented by a sole nominee from a single RWA.

Astonishingly, the Act specifies a vendor population norm of 2.5% of the population for every municipal ward — a benchmark that is irrational for a country of the size of India, having an enormous floating population and wide variations between and within individual cities.

While the need for protecting poor vegetable sellers, street food hawkers and weekly markets is understood and must be welcomed it certainly does not hold true when it comes to extensive road space colonisation that is taking place in the name of poverty.

Vendors in Connaught Place in New Delhi have already usurped upward of 300% additional space over the original permitted conditions. The so-called “poor” had years ago swapped their permits for money, every square foot in the area being among the costliest in the world. Traders who purchased the allotment from once poor vendors now hire casual labour to hawk winter jackets, T-shirts and shorts, grabbing more and more pavement space each passing day.

The once prestigious Regal-Rivoli corner and the head of Janpath is now berth for some 1,000 vendors, itinerant hawkers and beggars.

If anything negates the concept of Incredible India and Swachh Bharat, it is this spectacle. In capital cities across the world, urban design focuses on maintaining the character of the city centre and its heritage buildings. Here in the name of livelihood, we have destroyed one of the finest walkways that could easily have supported open-air cafes and well-laid out kiosks promoting authentic Indian handicraft.

The vendors’ protection law is impractical and has paved the way for the triumph of bedlam. Until every ward has non-fungible spatial norms with vending slots allotted, leaving reasonable walking and driving space, matters cannot improve. Governments have repeatedly failed to protect the citizens’ rights and safety.

Now the NGT has started bringing some order into the prevailing chaos, more power to its elbow. The sooner the public gives its full-throated support the better.

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