Dear Kumari Selja ji,
In the national consultation organized on 23rd December 2011 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation on the new model legislation for street vendors, my presentation focused on how after the adoption of the new National Policy for Street Vendors by the Central Government in 2004, municipal administrations in almost every city began carrying out far more aggressive large scale clearance operations. Confiscation of goods and handcarts of street hawkers to the accompaniment of police danda has become a daily occurrence in most cities. In Delhi alone, at least 1.5 lakh vendors were pushed out of their occupation on the pretext of "beautifying" the city for Commonwealth Games.
Even though several state governments have gone through the formality of enacting special laws for street vendors at the behest of the Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation, at the ground level we are witnessing a well organized backlash leading to much higher bribes demanded by the police and municipal officials by way of "protection money". The politician and officials who control access to vending sites are determined to drive home the message that they have the power to thwart all attempts at reforming the system. I pointed out to the ministry officials that without paying close attention to the machinery of implementation and creating a protective environment for street hawkers by curbing the powers of police and political mafias, merely enacting pious sounding model legislation at the national level cannot bring much improvement in the plight of street hawkers. Unfortunately, certain disruptive elements prevented me from presenting concrete proposals for improving the model legislation. Hence this open letter.
Arvind Singh of NGO, NASVI (National Alliance of Street Vendors of India) who spoke after me at the national consultation responded to some parts of my presentation by making a potentially dangerous proposal. He began by saying, "Vendors need to be well organized and have effective unions in order to create the required pressure from below for the proposed new legislation." But thereafter he went on to the make an alarming proposal that "the government should help NGOs to unionize the vendors by including in the proposed new law a specific provision that only those vendors who are members of select unions will be provided with vending licenses and tehbazari sites."
NASVI's hegemonic tendencies and determination to emerge as the Jinnah style sole spokes person of street vendors has already brought it into deadly conflict with rival unions in every town and city it operates. It has been able to establish a countrywide network of affiliated unions because it is well funded by international donor agencies and is an active part of international NGO networks. That is one reason why it is an object of mistrust by the traditional trade unions who work on their own stream or with the help of mainstream politicians. At the national level, its most bitter rival is Hawkers Sangram Samiti - a militant union movement led by Shaktiman Ghosh of Kolkata who has fought many a valiant battles against the CPM regime when it tried to cleanse Kolkata of street vendors.
It is perfectly legitimate for NASVI to try and rope in as many small or big unions of vendors to come under its umbrella. However, to demand that the government should include a coercive legal provision in the new law making it necessary for each vendor to join NASVI or some other government authorized union in order to survive in the trade betrays an authoritarian mindset. It is in fact worse than what unscrupulous politicians do to keep vendors under their extortionist grip. They order clearance operations of hawker markets that refuse to come under their influence or use the police and local goons to tyrannize vendors. NASVI is going a step further by demanding that the coercive might of the state machinery be used to force vendors to seek the protection of NASVI or similar NGOs. To the best of my knowledge, no trade union in India has in my living memory ever made such a preposterous demand that people be denied entry into an occupation unless they are members of a state recognized union, though unions do use subtle or blatant pressure tactics to force workers to swell their ranks and to demand "recognition" by the employers as the "official" representatives of the workers whose cause they claim to embody.
This demand by NASVI raises many complex issues:
1) In each city and town, there are multiple unions. The moment a law comes into being that makes it mandatory for tehbazari aspirants to be a member of a union, a plethora of new unions will come into being - some genuine, many bogus ones. Will the government certify each one or will it be selective in recognizing certain unions? This in itself will create deadly rivalries and street battles for hegemony. What criteria are going to apply for deciding who gets government certification and who does not? The likelihood is that only those with special political clout will get government recognition. Each union will try to marginalize the other and seek hegemonic status by getting patronage of the, bureaucracy, police or powerful politicians.
2) A union presupposes an employer vis a vis whom people working in a commercial or official establishment organize in order to negotiate better working conditions or pay packet. Street vendors are self employed. They are not employees of the government nor do they directly or indirectly work for the government. Their relationship to the government can at best be described as that of tenants or lease holders.
3) As tenants or lease holders, they can form associations to negotiate better terms of tenancy from the government and introduce other services for the common good of their members. Such bodies can play a very positive role provided they are based on voluntary association.
However, compelling vendors to become members of any government patronized unions will give these unions total power over the lives and livelihood of street vendors. It will facilitate a legally protected extortion racket. Even today, many of the union leaders affiliated to NASVI act as touts of local politicians and the police.
"Freedom of Association" is one of the fundamental rights promised in the Indian Constitution to every citizen of India. It includes the right to refuse association with a trade union or any other organization. Being legally forced to join a state sponsored union or association smacks of Soviet style fascist regimes.
Dear Minister, I hope the Ministry officials who are in-charge of drafting the model law for the protection of street vendors will take this warning into account and not allow yet another protection racket to flourish in the guise of strengthening the rights of street vendors. My own experience of dealing with the existing range of vendor unions, including NASVI, has taught me that, barring a few exceptions, the union bosses have also acquired a vested interest in keeping vendors enslaved in order to build their own power base and political empires.
Former Chief Secretary of Delhi Government, Mr. Rakesh Mehta had appointed a Special Task Force to draft model legislation for street vendors in October 2009. The draft law I prepared for that Task Force was duly vetted by the legal experts of Delhi Government and Mr. Mehta himself. I am attaching a copy of this draft legislation. It has attempted to pay close attention to creating effective and accountable implementation machinery with clear protocols for transparent functioning so that it can actually honour the mandate of the National Policy for Street Vendors. I urge you to take this draft into account when enacting model legislation for the entire country
Madhu Purnima Kishwar
(For Manushi Sangathan)
P.S. The Draft of Delhi Street Vendors (Protection Of Livelihood And Regulation Of Street Vending) Bill, 2011 is given below: