No Manna for the Laity

The flood gates have opened. With more than 8 per cent projected GDP growth in FY ’08 and a 25 per cent bonanza in its organized retail industry, India is growing. But, as the ego-puffed upper crust manages to peep over the wall of globalization, the hyperventilating unorganized sector that it stands upon goes forgotten. The small vendors, having a 90 per cent presence in the market (and being the lifeblood of traditional Indian retailing), are on their way to the dogs.

Thousands of small shopkeepers are beaten to death every year on account of their failure to pay the weekly “hafta“. Rickety shops, erected by the sweat of the brow are demolished. Shopkeepers are arrested under “suspicious grounds” (which the police have never been kind enough to define). Their children are withdrawn from school and sent to pick rags. The rumbling stomach teaches them to steal, rob and even kill for food. The poor family, in moving from a cemented house to a slum, shifts its allegiance from honesty to dishonesty, from honour to crime. Seeing all this, one may question the whereabouts of the protectors – the police. Interestingly, the police are behind the very lines of the criminal spotlight, collecting compulsory “trade taxes”. Statistics reveal that in Delhi, illegal rent collection from street vendors amounts to over Rs. 400 crore. The policy makers busy appealing to the World Bank for a like amount have a case here! But for that our pin-stripes have to rise from their plush cushions, stop talking about poverty and actually see, touch and feel the pain of the poor. The poor, here, have a designation. They are the small retailers. The micro aspect of our economy. Marble and A/C malls are comfortable. Argeed! But are they the real India? With due respect to globalization, they represent our country on an international economic forum. But can they represent India better than an Indian? There are local retail hyper-markets as well – this is true. But are they selfless enough to draw the small shop keepers under their wing by spending lakhs on the training of their brethren who never had enough money to educate themselves? The small retailers of the country are today being treated as “second-cousins” to the retail boom. The boom which represents the economically privileged of the society, the boom which employs 1 literate manager at the cost of 50 street vendors (who till now had provided affordable services to the majority of the urban population).

Help in such a situation has come from an unlikely source- the Bhubaneshwar Municipal Corporation, Orissa. Guided by the “human-faced” brain-wave of the Municipal Commissioner, Smt Aparajita Sarangi, BMC has earmarked areas for 30 vending zones for small traders to carry out their business. The idea comes as a blessing to the vendors who can now bid goodbye to constant court orders, threatening municipal postures and daily demolitions as well as to the dandy lovers. But, with the critics fast translating the philanthropic drive as a sinister signal to end hawking in urban areas , the picture is not flawless. Inadvertently, one wonders about the bureaucracy for whom good of the “small man” is an unfinished agenda. How will the administration and stakeholders mock the enormity and gobble government dough ? Thus, as New Delhi, the States of Indore, Bihar, Mumbai, Assam and even International vending associations of USA and Europe gear up to copy paste this pioneering concept, fear of potential corruptive exploits stay . Moreover, a people-centric “mobility plan” instead of the “traffic-plan” would have automatically integrated the street vendors. But one can excuse that possibility as it commands sensibility of high order. Today, the majority of Indians entrusted with the onerous work of legislation, protection and rehabilitation are riding high on the global wave. The aftermath makes them too dizzy headed to think about much. In this regard, Kolkata has a splendid example to offer. In 2007,the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, banned hawking as a cognizable and non-bail able offence with imprisonment or fine or both. The 1,50,000 street vendors in Kolkata were not rehabilitated nor were they upgraded to earn their livelihood. The legislation was pointless and was received with what it deserved : apathy. The solution doesn’t lie in hard-lined legislation but harmonic reorganization.

The laudable initiative by BMC, Orissa gives some fat competition to the ‘CSR motive’ flaunted by the corporate retail giants. Couldn’t their billion-dollar departments manned by deep pocket big-brains come up with some solution to the dead-lock , maybe not as fund-swallowing as their advertisements, but certainly as impacting? The big talks of ‘Inclusive Growth’ are held as hostages for the country to ride the global wave by making mince meat of the small retailers. Unfortunately, it is India Shining & Bharat Drowning, all over again.

Bhavna Tripathy

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