Starting from Bandar Road and stretching all the way upto the Apsara theatre, Besant Road, which is about half a kilometre long, is one of the busiest streets in Vijayawada. It is part of one of the older market areas in the city, teeming with people, and shops lining either side and teeming with streetside hawkers and pushcart vendors selling street food, fruits, clothes, accessories and several other products.
Earlier this month, the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation (VMC) held a workshop on ‘Support to Urban Street Vendors,’ with street vendors from across the city, including Besant Road. Officials discussed the rights and protections accorded as per the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014. They also talked about options available for vendors to take loans which could help grow their businesses, as well as the plans to hand out identification cards and vending permits to the city’s street vendors.
While the hawkers in attendance were happy with most of the discussion points, there was one aspect which set off a familiar sense of unease. Officials mentioned the categorisation of streets into three kinds - areas where vending is allowed, or partially allowed during certain hours, or completely banned.
Murali, the secretary of the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) Hawkers’ Association, says that the demarcation of vending and non-vending zones is a move that hawkers in the city have been resisting for more than 15 years now. “Back in 2003, there was a proposal by the government to prohibit hawking in a few major roads in the city. They had suggested moving hawkers to less busy and populated areas, but that would obviously result in bad business for us,” Murali says.
The VMC has recently announced its plans of ‘beautification’ for different parts of the city, including Besant Road and Lenin Centre. The plans for Besant Road involve redeveloping it and placing bollards on either side, which would emerge into place at certain business hours, blocking traffic through the road and only allowing pedestrians. According to Sridhar, VMC Project Officer for Urban Community Development, the process of transforming the road will take 4-5 months, after which vendors will be allowed to set up their businesses on either side of the road.
Murali, however, says that many hawkers are sceptical about the proposal, afraid that they may not be able to return to business as usual, if the beautification plan is accompanied by the demarcation of vending zones and the process of regularising street vendors.
The government workshop on support to street vendors also mentions issuing of identity cards and work permits to street vendors, in accordance with the Street Vendors Act. Murali says that the last time the IDs and permits were issued in 2016, less than 40 percent of applicants ended up receiving them. “We are yet to get these licenses.There is fear that the government survey may be flawed like the previous time, and some of the hawkers may not get the permit,” he says.
Apart from Besant Road, Lenin Centre may also see a transformation, says Sridhar. “There are a lot of bookstores and other businesses at Lenin Centre. We are discussing relocation plans with them. As of now, they are rejecting the site that we have suggested, and are asking for an alternate site, which may not be feasible. The plans are still in initial stages, and we will take their opinion into consideration and try to work out ways to carry out the beautification without causing disturbances,” he said.
While the government has offered loans for investment and developing their businesses, hawkers say that they need to be able to make enough sales to meet daily expenses and pay off loans, which is difficult if they’re relocated to areas with less footfalls. Even a temporary relocation for a few months could be a huge blow to the precarious financial situations, with many hawkers taking informal loans with high interest rates.
Acknowledging the situation, Sridhar says, “Some of the hawkers have mentioned that they have loans for which they need to pay daily interests. We are looking into the issue and will try to come up with some support which works for them.”
Another question among hawkers is whether the road will be able to accommodate enough vendors after the beautification. “There will be a fixed, limited space along the side of the road, where only licensed vendors are likely to be allowed to conduct business. Pushcart vendors and hawkers who keep moving around, may not be allowed on the road once the bollard system is implemented. Some of the vendors are from nearby towns and villages who do business here occasionally and return. They may not be able to do their business either,” Murali says.
He adds that there is also a threat from shop owners who often try to evict hawkers placed near their shop, seeing them as a nuisance or as competition.
“We are not against the development of the city, but we want them to keep hawkers’ security in mind. In the past years, harassment from police and municipal authorities has gone down a lot, and we are thankful for that. But if they really want to support us, we need them to stop bringing in the demarcation of vending zones. And if we are relocated even temporarily, they should mention our preferred business location on our IDs so we can leave with a sense of security,” Murali says.