In Their Fight For Space, Female Vendors Deal With Everyday Violence

Violent evictions from streets, abuse and brutality are routine for street vendors. A law to protect their rights suffers from flawed implementation

September 9, 2017 had started like any other Saturday for Shehnaz Singh. Within hours, her life had been upended. 

The 48 year old hawker had set up her cut fruits stall near the Bandstand promenade in Mumbai’s Bandra area, home to several Bollywood stars. The 1.2-km walkway is popular among joggers, college students, young couples and families and business is usually brisk in the mornings for Singh.

Suddenly workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) along with police personnel arrived on the promenade and proceeded to evict her and other hawkers. They confiscated her stall along with the fruits and other commodities. “When I tried to get my saman (belongings) out of the vehicle, they started beating me up,” said Singh, “Around 10 people, including female police personnel, joined in and started beating me.”

Singh’s daughter, then 14, tried to intervene to help her mother, but a male police personnel hit her, fracturing her arm, Singh alleged. Singh was taken to the police station where she was detained and verbally abused. “I asked them, ‘Why are you making us sit here? You beat us so much there and now you are making us sit here’,” recalled Singh. “When I refused to tell them my name, a beat officer who knew all the street vendors at the promenade, told my name. And that’s how they filed a case against me.”

She, along with another female hawker, was charged with assaulting a police personnel. And this was only the first case that was filed against her. Over a year, four more cases were filed against her, said Singh, and for no reason. “I knew a case had already been filed against me,” she pointed out. “Even if I really wanted to beat the officials, why would I repeat the offence and get another case filed against me?”

Singh’s story finds echoes in crowded cities across India where women have to fight everyday for street space, essential for the survival of their fragile businesses. To investigate their working conditions we interviewed women vendors across Delhi and Mumbai and found that no laws or rules are followed in how they are treated by the authorities or the middlemen who control a large part of their work lives. There are no safety nets, no guarantee of the right to work and violence can strike any time, anywhere.

The Indian government passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act in 2014 to provide protection from eviction and harassment. It also made provisions for regular surveys of street vendors and the formation of Town Vending Committees with elected representatives of street vendors. However, our research shows that in Mumbai and Delhi, slow and patchy implementation of the act has made arbitrary evictions a part of every vendor’s life.

There is still no clear data regarding the number of street vendors in India, available estimates are widely varied. In 2009, the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors estimated that, in many cities, street vendors constitute 2% of the population. One estimate, which refers to the 2017-18 Periodic Labour Force Survey noted that India had 11.9 million street vendors, of which 1.2 million are women. Another assessment based on the street vendor survey in 3,257 cities and towns, by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, identified nearly 5 million street vendors.

This story is the first report in our series highlighting the everyday violence women face and the structures that enable such violence.

State Violence

Born in Mehsana, Gujarat, Dantani Sona ben Ashokbhai aka Sona ben, 43, grew up in Delhi and has been vending near Delhi’s Red Fort since she was eight. She recalls accompanying her mother on her rounds as a child and learning the ropes.  

A street vendor’s life, Sona ben said, is one filled with struggle. She grew up seeing her mother work hard to get a fixed space to sell her samaan (things) and she too has had to go through the same routine. 

There is a shortage of vending space and some markets are in unauthorised spaces, she said. “There are threats from the police and traffic police everyday,” Sona ben told Behanbox, adding that sometimes police men even try to snatch their gathris (bags where they keep their stuff). 

She recalls an incident which she remembers quite vividly from her younger days. “I was in my 20s. I still remember that day when this police person tried to snatch my mother’s gatri. My mother resisted, but the cop slapped her hard and she was in tears.” (Sona ben’s ordeal was also cited in an earlier Behanbox article on the workspaces of hawkers by the urban collective, City Sabha)

These incidents, she said, are common.

On April 18, 2020, less than a month into the nationwide lockdown, news agency Asian News International (ANI) posted a video of officials trying to evict a female street vendor in Mumbai’s Mankhurd area. Surrounded by municipal corporation officials and police officers, she can be seen trying to save her cart and her weighing scale. Ten seconds into the video, one official overturns her cart which leads to a physical altercation.

Evictions are like a game of hide and seek, especially near railways stations, said Anisfatima Shaikh, a street vendor and general secretary of Azad Hawkers Union. “Officials come to evict and hawkers run to hide their goods and return within half an hour. Some time later, the officials come again and the cycle repeats,” she said.

Last year, Sona ben’s 62-year-old mother accidentally stepped on a nail while being chased by the police. “There was blood everywhere,” said Sona ben, “I had to take her inside a small lane where the police wouldn’t find us and that’s where I was able to attend to her injury.”

There is no method followed in the process of eviction and it often turns violent and unruly. “Sometimes, the evictions are done by contract workers and there have been cases of them being drunk,” said Vinita Balekundri, general secretary of the Maharashtra Hawkers Federation. “This creates an unsafe space for female hawkers.”

The 2014 Street Vendors Act specifically states that hawkers cannot be evicted and if eviction is necessary, then a 30-day notice has to be given. But arbitrary evictions are still routine and resistance means more violence.

‘Jail Firmed My Resolve To Fight’

Shaikh learnt this when she was just 17. In 2005, nearly a decade after she started working as a street vendor, BMC officials arrived on the Apna Bazaar Road in Mumbai’s Powai area where her family stall is. “This has been a hawking zone for years and a 2003 Supreme Court judgement also approved it as one,” said Shaikh, “We told the officials about the judgement which also recognised hawking as a fundamental right. But they did not listen to us.”

So, Shaikh and other members of the Azad Hawkers Union staged a protest. “The officials called the police who lathicharged and brutally assaulted us and then pushed us into a police van and arrested us,” said Shaikh, “That was the first time I went to jail–a turning point in my life.”

Shaikh, popularly known as Salma, is a prominent leader among hawkers in Mumbai. She has been a part of the hawkers union since 2000 but her first arrest made her resolve to help other vendors stronger. The same year, Shaikh faced another lathicharge and was arrested, this time for protesting in Dadar. “In Dadar, the authorities were evicting women vendors who were 60-70 years old and working because they had been abandoned,” said Shaikh, “The authorities would not talk to us. So, we protested and were lathicharged and arrested. We spent 7 days of the Independence Day week in jail.”

Shaikh added that there are increased instances of the police filing cases against street vendors. “Earlier we could hold protests or even try to have a dialogue with the officials,” said Shaikh, “But now, even if the vendor is just trying to show a court order or provisional licence, they file a case under section 353 of Indian Penal Code (IPC).” This section relates to assault or use of criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his/her duty and is a non-bailable offence. 

Behanbox has contacted the Mumbai Police Commissioner and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Commissioner for details about the eviction process and asked them about the allegation of abuse of section 353. We will update the story when we receive a response.

When Process Is Punishment

Trips to the Bandra sessions court have now become a routine part of Shehnaz’s life since 2017, and she has to routinely skip work to go to the court. “They make me sit all day and then at the end of the day, give me another date,” said Singh. The hearing is yet to begin. “Neither the police, nor the BMC officials appear in court but I have to.”

In addition to the loss of income on the workdays she misses, Shehnaz has to pay her lawyer around Rs 2,000 for every court appearance. This is double her daily income.

The high pendency of cases in India’s judicial system is no secret. High levels of vacancies in the judiciary has meant years of waiting for people like Shehnaz for a court case to reach its resolution. As of September 15, 2021, 45 million cases were pending in India, a majority (87.6%) of which were in subordinate courts.

“Some cases [against me] are still going on but I have been acquitted in some cases after 10-15 years of legal battle. This is also a form of harassment,” said Shaikh, “I am poor. Do I take care of my work, income and family or do I spend days going to court? Ye kamar todne ka kaam hai, ye andolan ko todne ka kaam hai (This is done to break people’s backs, this is done to muzzle the agitation).”

Shehnaz alleged that the other four cases against her were fake and that she was targeted because she was a “leader”. “They [police and BMC officials] came in their vehicles specifically asking for me,” said Singh, “They would say, ‘Isko pakdo. Ye bohot leader bani ghumti hai (Arrest her. She acts like a leader)’.”

Street vendors also have limited recourse to fight against this violence. “When someone infringes upon our rights, we are meant to go to the police to complain,” said Shaikh, “But if police is doing something bad to us, where do we go?”

After Shehnaz was beaten up in 2017, Gurunath Sawant, Maharashtra state coordinator of National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) wrote to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mumbai Police Commissioner and the Maharashtra State Commission of Women urging action against the police brutality. “The chief minister’s and police commissioner’s offices told me they are investigating but the women’s commission office forwarded my email to the same police station where Shehnaz was detained asking them to investigate,” said Sawant. “It was like asking the perpetrator to investigate the crime he is accused of.”

Increased Vulnerability

Most women vendors we interviewed said they entered the business, despite the constant threat of eviction and violence, to earn for their children. “Street vending doesn’t attract many women and those who do enter the field are in desperate need of the income,” said Sawant. “There are high levels of insecurity. First, it is difficult to manage household chores since they work from early in the morning to late at night. And then, they have to deal with harassment from thugs, municipal corporation staff and police officers. They also face harassment from other street vendors, especially competitors.”

Sati Bhide, 40, opened a street food stall in Kalamboli after her husband abandoned her and her five children. “I have done many kinds of jobs – as a domestic worker, in hospitals, companies, but I have not got any benefits,” said Bhide. “I could not earn much and I could not focus on my children’s education. I set up a stall so I could earn more and be more involved in my children’s lives.”

But she is harassed almost everyday by municipal officials, and even if she hides her wares in a garbage bin, they locate and confiscate it, she said. “So I stopped setting up a stall at that location but then within days, another vendor moved in. I moved to another location but I get harassed here too.”

Daily earnings of street vendors can be as low as Rs 100-Rs 200, says Usha Dhavare, 50, a hawker and vice president of the Navi Mumbai unit of Kamgaar Ekta Union. The loss of belongings then is a big blow to their financial stability and then there is the abuse.

No Family Support

Sona ben, widowed early, also said that she faces verbal abuse. Once, a contractor snatched her phone and threw obscenities at her when she asked for it back. “I couldn’t even send my son to school after class 10. Now he works at a showroom,” she said.

Shehnaz’s husband is an alcoholic and she is the only earning member of her family. “I have to ensure that my children have a better life than me, and don’t go hungry or miss out on education,” said Shaikh. “My husband took us all to his village in Uttar Pradesh in 2001 and we had nothing to eat. I would tell him I am going to the toilet and steal a few potatoes from the neighbour’s farm. I’d then roast them and feed my children.”

During the pandemic, Shehnaz begged in nearby highrises and sought work as a domestic worker. “We lost our income but schools and colleges continued asking for fees and we had to eat,” said Shehnaz. “So I was desperate and did any work that I got.”

Lack of education and financial stability puts women in a vulnerable position, said Shaikh. “Men have the option to not take care of their children, but women do not. They have to take care of their family and their stall,” said Shaikh. “Educated female vendors know the law but for those new to the city, unaware, nervous, the struggles are magnified. If she buys vegetables for Rs 5,000 and the officials confiscate it during eviction, it will be like she has lost everything.”

Being a single mother with five children, Bhide says she has limited freedom to fight for workspace. “My daughters are old now and I worry about their safety,” said Bhide. “We always keep our doors locked. I cannot fight with people as I worry for their safety.”

‘Contractors’ Wield Power

Earlier “contractors” and middlemen used to demand Rs 50 as protection money for a designated space but the amount often varies, said Sona ben. Sometimes it is Rs 200 and on other days, it could go up to Rs 500 to 1000. “It all depends on their mood. I have been witness to this for years and I feel things will never change. No one cares about us,” said Sona ben. 

The present-day Kabari Bazaar market near Red Fort is not legal so middlemen, who boast of connections in the municipality and police, force the vendors to pay a hafta

Kabari Bazar was moved to a new location near Geeta Colony in East Delhi for three months on a trial basis in 2019. “Things were much better there,” she said. There was no harassment for money to set up a stall but the pandemic happened and that trial ended. So, they are now back to the same old space near Red Fort where harassment continues. SEWA members have made requests to the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi to shift the street vendors to the area in East Delhi but nothing has come of it so far. 

According to Lata ben, vice-president of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of Delhi union, some contractors have kept these markets under their control. “There is no fixed person collecting this money and often they don’t speak to the women properly–they don’t respect women,” she said.

On some days, Lata Ben said, if a woman is not able to put up her samaan (things) or takes a day off, the contractors give away the space to someone else. No one dares to protest. “Around two months back, a female vendor called to tell me that at the Kabari Bazar near Red Fort, someone tore her clothes and hit her. She even named him. But when she called 100, the offender apologised and said ‘you are like my sister’. She decided not to complain. We are aware that these people are too powerful.”

Patchy Implementation

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 aims to protect livelihood rights and social security of street vendors, designate zones for vending and regulate street vending across India. It also mandates Town Vending Committees (TVC), with stakeholders from municipal authorities to vendor associations, to identify street vendors, issue vending certificates, and keep records of vendors. 

To implement these provisions, state governments were supposed to create a scheme and issue rules. And urban local bodies are responsible for implementing the act. However, a 2021 report by the Standing Committee on Urban Development noted that many of the Act’s provisions, including issuing vending certificates and constituting TVCs, are yet to be implemented by several states and Union territories.

The Maharashtra government published the rules in August 2016 and the scheme in January 2017. Under the scheme, the BMC created 7 zonal Town Vending Committees (TVC) and also conducted a survey of street vendors in 2014. The survey identified over 100,000 street vendors, but no licence has been issued in the city.

The Bombay High Court, in November 2017 said that under the act, 40% of the TVCs should be elected representatives of street vendors but the scheme issued in January 2017 makes no mention of this. The order said that the scheme would be general and not under section 38 of the act, effectively cancelling the scheme and leaving the act’s implementation in a limbo, said Sawant of NASVI.

Lata Ben said TVCs have been formed in Delhi but there are no regular meetings. “TVC members are not aware of the importance of the TVC and the Act. They should be trained and made aware of this. Even the municipal corporations and the police are not aware of the law,” she said, adding that TVCs need to conduct surveys on the number of street vendors across the city. “Until now, 77,000 street vendors have been surveyed but we think according to our estimates there are around 700,000 in Delhi,” she said. 

Behanbox made several phone calls and emailed the municipal corporations in Delhi but those were left unanswered. 

The Act means nothing to most women vendors because they barely know of it, said Sona ben. “We have struggled so much, our market area has moved three-four times. I don’t think anything new will happen here in Delhi. Zindagi mein kisiko bhi street vendor hokay paida nahin hona chahiye (nobody should be born a street vendor in India).”

In Delhi, women street vendors’ main demand has been to have a space of their own where they are able to sell with dignity. “It is because there is harassment, that is why women demand such a space,” Lata ben said. There are a lot of women who are unable to speak up openly due to financial constraints. “Some women are so hassled by the daily harassment that they stop showing up at work altogether.”

In 2007, Lata Ben said SEWA members had put pressure on the then Congress government in Delhi seeking a designated street vending space for women. “We started a mahila bazaar (women’s market) in Minto Road in 2009 and now there are 200 street vending women there. Those women are happy because they don’t have to face harassment from the police, middle men and contractors. Customers ki batameezi bhi unko nahin sunni parti (they don’t face mistreatment from customers too). To fight this kind of harassment, a collective of women is necessary and there should be reserved vending spaces for women,” she said.

[ Illustration by Manimanjari Sengupta(she/they). Manimanjari is a painter and illustrator with a background in Sociology and Law. Their work is rooted in challenging the status quo laid down by patriarchy and highlighting lived experiences of women and non-binary folk.]

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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