Saturday, July 13, 2024

Street vendors of Shillong: What is their story?


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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

What do we do with the street vendors in Shillong? This question has plagued urban administrators since the time of Mukul Sangma. It was during his tenure as the Chief Minister that the Meghalaya Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, was passed to regulate people conducting business by the side of the streets. This Act was announced through a notification on December 8, 2014. What was surprising about this act was that a national law on street vendors had already been passed by Parliament in the same year. This is the 2014 Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, which came into effect in May 2014. Made under the concurrent list of the Constitution, the Central Act would have precedence over the State Act if both were found to be in conflict. Despite this, the Government of Meghalaya brought out its own State Act, which removed many of the progressive sections from the Central Act. This brought the government into conflict with the street vendors, who had by then organized themselves into the Meghalaya and Greater Shillong Progressive Hawkers and Street Vendors Association (MGSPHSVA), created in June 2016 to campaign for the rights and welfare of the street vendors in the state.
There were rounds of discussions with the government, but they could not arrive at a consensus. The government wanted to remove the street vendors from the commercial areas (which was a violation of the Central Act since existing markets cannot be declared as no-vending zones), and at one point, the street vendors were banned from conducting their business. The government stationed security personnel with automatic weapons to prevent the vendors from sitting on the roadside. In many cases, wares were confiscated, and vendors were asked to come to court to get them back (more on this later). In the meantime, for three days street vendors protested in front of the place where they worked, holding their details written on a placard, asking the administration to come and do the survey as mandated by the Central Act. According to the Central Act, nobody can be evicted until an in-situ survey has been conducted to verify the credentials of the vendors. The government again tried to violate that by calling for people to apply for vending licenses from the Municipality. Realizing that such an approach had the risk of giving licenses to those who are not street vendors, MGSPHSVA boycotted the exercise and continued with the protest. The case finally went to the High Court, where the deliberations that happened and the kind of documents produced will itself require another article. Suffice it to say that the case was set for a long haul.
In August 2022, the new state government, led by Conrad Sangma, decided to repeal the 2014 State Act. A decision was made to adopt the Central Act, which had been the demand of the street vendors from the beginning. However, six years were wasted in which the street vendors had to struggle to make a living. I was personally involved in all of this through Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR), which was instrumental in organizing the street vendors and leading the legal challenge supporting MGSPHSVA in court. Analyzing the difference between the Central Act and the State Act, conducting workshops with street vendors to explain the difference between the two, and coordinating the protests were some of the responsibilities I shared with the other members of TUR. One thing that has always stuck with me from this experience is the human stories that I encountered during the process. I am going to share some of these stories.
One story that was particularly heartbreaking was that of a lady who was asked to appear before the court to retrieve her wares, after they had been confiscated by the officials. We happened to meet her during one of the hearings. She told us that she used to sell food sitting on a footpath in front of a government office. People from the office would often come and buy food from her. One day she was asked to shut down her business, and her goods were confiscated. To retrieve it, she was told to appear before the court. The irony was that the people who did this to her were the same people who used to buy food from her. Carrying her child on her back, she reached the court. There, she was told that there was no case against her and she did not have to come to court. Imagine the cruel joke played on her just because she was a poor woman whose only crime was trying to earn a living through honest means.
During one of the meetings with street vendors, we met a young man who was selling garments on roadside. This young man must have been in his mid-20s, but he had already been in the business for a long time. He told us that, through his small business, he was able to send his brother to school. A similar story was told to us by another elderly lady, who informed us that she was able to provide for her children’s education by doing business on the roadside. One of them is a boy who later completed his graduation and helped TUR and MGSPHSVA give free tuition to children from underprivileged families.
According to the Central Act, the total number of vendors in an area cannot exceed 2.5 % of the population of the ward, zone, town, or city. Based on this calculation, we found that the total number of street vendors that can be allowed to do business in East Shillong, North Shillong, South Shillong, West Shillong, and Pynthorbah was 3473. This means that for more than six years, 3000+ people were able to pay their rents, buy medicine, get married, have children, send them to school, and hope that when they die one day they can do so with dignity and respect. This is the biggest achievement of the movement, and the street vendors are still fighting to maintain those gains.
At the time when the struggle was at its peak, there were some distressing moments as well. Since street vendors come from poor backgrounds, many of them stay in low-income areas that are ethnically mixed. Time and again, such locations are the target of miscreants who want to intimidate the non-indigenous population of the state. During the 2017 anti-railways agitation, one such location was subjected to a petrol bomb attack. One of the houses attacked belonged to a member of MGSPHSVA who was staying there with her children. The attack left one of her child seriously wounded, with burn injuries on both hands and face. This was not a planned attack on the family, but they became collateral damage from the hate politics that has for long infected the state. In fact, one of the ways in which the movement was targeted by those who were against the street vendors was by trying to paint a communal picture. There were allegations that the majority of the street vendors belonged to the non-indigenous community, and the business allowed such people to settle in the state. Like the claim of illegal immigration, this was also a complete lie. MGSPHSVA is the largest organization of street vendors in Meghalaya, and it keeps a complete record of all the details of its members. The documents showed that nearly 80% of the street vendors were Khasi, mostly women. Most of those who were not Khasi had an EPIC from Meghalaya, while only a few had an EPIC from outside the state. I personally came across an incident that showed how racism was being used to target the movement.
During the three days when street vendors were standing in different locations around the city waiting for the administration to come and take their names for registration (mentioned above), I was standing with a group outside the Reliance Shopping Mall in Khyndailad. People would come and ask us about the problems, look at the placards, and continue on their way. My group comprised people who were of non-indigenous origin. One Kong came to us and expressed her support, but at the same time, she kept asking about the residential status of those standing. When somebody answered that he or she has an EPIC from outside Meghalaya, Kong would get agitated. The paranoia of being overwhelmed by outsiders was so intense that oppression of the poor was not only tolerated but also applauded.
One thing that some may have noticed is that I have not given any hint about the ethnicity of the street vendors whose experiences have been narrated. Some of them are Khasi, while others are non-Khasi. I will not tell who is which. This is because I want to do an experiment. For those who have stayed on reading till this point, I would like them to assign ethnicities to the street vendors. If you are a Jaibynriew-loving Khasi who feels that only Khasi should have any rights in the state, disparage the pain and suffering of someone you believe is a non-Khasi. For those who you think are Khasi, feel sorry for the problems they had to go through and get angry at the government for having put them through all of it. However, just make sure that you hate the right person, because you could actually be cursing a Khasi, which will be quite ironic. As for those who believe that street vendors, whether Khasi or non-Khasi, should not be allowed to do business, feel free to hate all of them. This particular group doesn’t have to feel guilty about being racist.
The street vendors, who have fought a long battle, will continue to stand their ground. To be fair, this government has been accommodating of their concerns, and things are moving in the right direction. However, through their experience, the street vendors have learned to be vigilant, and they will remain so until they get their rights as provided to them by the Constitution. Hopefully, they get this soon and are allowed to live with dignity and respect.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)


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