The dilemma of roadside vending

Location: Lokhandwala Circle, Kandivali East, Mumbai

Two policemen, seated in a police van (Bolero), with beacon, et al, on patrol. The van is conspicious as it crawls up the road, stopping every few metres, and disrupting the traffic while doing so. I see it during one such stop, with a vegetable vendor at its window, handing notes to the policeman seated next to the driver. Everyone around seems to be looking away, but both the policeman and the vendor see that I have seen. It is the vendor who looks uncomfortable, while the policeman looks through me as if I do not exist, and the vulture van moves forward to its next prey.

“Is that money that you gave to the policeman?” I ask the vendor.

His vegetable shop, well equipped for the monsoons with a blue tarpaulin sheet, is set up with a large table right in the place where the footpath should be. People who are walking are forced onto the road while negotiating the corner he occupies. He is not alone. There are others in this corner, where a new footpath is yet to be laid after recent road concreting.

Roadside vendors
This is an aerial, night-time view of “The corner”. The blue tarpaulin is the policemen’s noted victim. Note where the pedestrians walk.

Further up there are many more sellers (fruit and vegetables, flowers, plants, medndi application, clothes, CDs, tea, coconut water, ice cream, umbrella/shoe repair, pani-puri, toys, etc.). These occupy the road, for it has been ensured that their tables and carts are not on the newly laid footpath. Of course, encroachment such as this is supposed to be illegal, which is why the policemen are out on patrol. But instead of depriving the vendors of their livelihoods they get them to share some of the day’s profits.

“Dhandha to karnay ke liye, hafta dena padtha hai.”, he says. (To do business I need to pay). Without a phone (camera) in hand, I memorise the number plate at the rear of the van MH 01 BA 912. While doing this, I can see right inside through the open back of the van, and the policeman is taking money from another vendor, passing it to the driver (another policeman) who must be maintaing the accounts.

“How much did you give?”, I ask. “100 rupees”, he says hesitatingly. He looks sad and helpless, and also a bit shaken at being questioned, but he seems used to paying off the policemen.

“Do you pay everyday?”, I ask. “No, not everyday. Whenever they come and if they stop here in front.”, he says, visibly relieved that this is not a daily affair.

Roadside vendors are an inherent part of the Indian way of life. Indians don’t like to go into shops. They like the convenience of open markets, including roadside carts, where they can strike good deals without having to queue up for billing. (They also get the cheap plastic bags that are actually illegal to use, without having to pay for them.) Though I say this without any quantitative data to back it, I am sure that any survey will tell a similar story.

For the vendors, this roadside selling, with no major overheads, is their livelihood. Come rain or shine, this ensures day-to-day sustenance. The police bribes and banned plastic bags must be their major expenses.

Our government and administrators, town-planners included, are not unaware of all this. Still they have failed to incorporate vendor spaces in street design. Vendors occupy the footpaths and roads, and are a major bottleneck to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. If footpaths are good, people will walk. And when people walk, traffic on the roads will be less.

The result is a “system” of uncertainty for the vendors that thrives on corruption, depriving the state of what could be a legitimate source of revenue. At Rs 100 a piece, the sheer number of vendors would make the collection significant for an hour’s work. The vendors are paying, but the money is enriching private lives, ironically, the lives of policemen and elected representatives who are supposed to be protecting and serving their citizens.

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