Saturday 24 May 2008

Sewa Nagar Project Part I: The Beginning

This is Part I of a three Part Series. Part II is available here. Part III is available here. See also: A Pictorial History of Manushi's Struggles or Vendors' Rights.

Ten years ago when Manushi got involved in the work for policy reform work for street vendors, we had hoped that we would help reform the system of vending licenses and provide a measure of livelihood security for nearly one crore persons in various urban centres of India who survive by vending and hawking on the streets. Ironically, even while we have had notable success in changing the policy framework at least on paper, today Manushi volunteers and staff are as endangered as the vendors and hawkers whose rights we sought to strengthen. After a series of violent attacks by mafia elements on me and several Manushi volunteers and staff, and because of threats against my life, I have been made to accept round the clock police security at the behest of the Lt Governor of Delhi.

Most ironical of all, there are particular parts of Delhi I cannot enter without risking my very life and without being escorted by four five policeman--namely: Sewa Nagar and Kotla Mubarakpur areas in the heart of New Delhi. All this because Sewa Nagar was selected as the site of a unique experiment through which Manushi undertook the responsibility for creating a self governing market for street vendors. This pilot project aimed at not only legalizing the status of street vendors by making them pay regular rent to the municipality but also help transform Sewa Nagar hawker market into a role model of civic discipline for the rest of the city.

As per the estimates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, there are over three lakh street vendors and mobile hawkers in Delhi. But less than 3000 persons have managed to secure vending licenses from the MCD and that too after prolonged legal battles in the High Court and the Supreme Court of Delhi. The situation is no different in other urban centres of India. The illegal status of more than 99% vendors makes them easy targets of extortionist mafias. In Delhi alone, vendors end up suffering an income loss of at least Rs 500 crores per year by way of bribes and confiscation of goods while being routinely subjected to systematic blackmail, terror and human rights abuses.

A key argument offered by municipal agencies and the police for not legalising the status of street vendors is that street hawkers cause obstructions for other road users and also spread chaos and squalor. To combat this official prejudice against vendors Manushi offered to take responsibility to show by example how:

  • Vendors can be accommodated in the city in an aesthetic and orderly manner.
  • Security of livelihood and avenues for upward mobility can be provided for the self-employed poor by giving them access to space for developing their entrepreneurial skills;
  • The existing system of payoffs, protection rackets run by politically connected mafias who indulge in routine human rights abuses to extract bribes can be replaced with fee based access to market space which enhances municipal revenues and curbs the growth of criminal mafias who parasite on the poor in urban areas.

We raised funds through personal donations from Manushi supporters, hired a team of architects and submitted a detailed plan of action to MCD. Each project member voluntarily signed an oath (Shapath Patra) on Rs. 10 stamp paper agreeing to abide by the following disciplines:

  • Pay a monthly rent of Rs.390/ to the MCD through Manushi;
  • Contribute towards the salary of the Cleaning Brigade specially hired to maintain cleanliness in the project area;
  • Stay within the agreed-upon Sanyam Rekha, (Line of Discipline) Hawkers who do notobserve this discipline agreed to be fined Rs.100 per violation of Sanyam Rekha.
  • Promise not to build any extra structures above or outside the stall area;
  • Promise not to sell or rent out the allotted stall.

Those who violate these disciplines are liable to have their membership cancelled and the stall sealed. Manushi also took the responsibility for redesigning the rehdis and vending platforms to improve their functionality, cleanliness and aesthetic appeal. We also arranged ICICI loans for vendors to pay for the cost of new stalls. Manushi also bore the cost of ensuring rent compliance from all those street vendors who opted to become part of the model market project.


Seeking Legal Sanction for Model Market Project

A majjor breakthrough in getting sanction for the pilot project occurred after the MCD got a pro-citizen Commissioner, Mr. Rakesh Mehta, who strongly backed this project. The MCD Commissioner approached the Supreme Court to allow the M.C.D. to undertake two pilot projects, one at Sewa Nagar and the second near CGO complex in collaboration with Manushi to try demonstrate by concrete example how vendors could be accommodated in the city landscape in an orderly and aesthetic manner. It would also create a model for rejuvenating our cities without throwing out the poor who would in fact become tax payers and contribute to city’s maintenance and infrastructure development rather than be seen as a nuisance.

The petition filed in the Supreme Court argued forcefully that the existing tehbazari system had facilitated massive extortion rackets and widespread human rights abuses. It admitted that the restrictive licensing policy had proved a dismal failure in controlling the number of vendors in the city, which keep increasing with the overall rise in population of Delhi. Therefore, there was need to evolve a more realistic system of licensing. The petition also informed the Court that if the pilot projects proved successful, they would provide a model for creating hawking zones all over Delhi

On April 10, 2003, Supreme Court gave a go ahead to MCD to execute two pilot projects with the following words of caution:

"…The implementation of any policy or project, howsoever well motivated it may be, depends on the bona fides and whole-hearted faithful implementation by the agencies involved in the execution. We only hope and trust that such projects and policies shall not be shadowed by corruption and red-tapism which, unfortunately, has become the order of the day…"

An Agreement was signed and registered between MCD and Manushi for the Sewa Nagar and CGO Complex Pilot Projects on April 7, 2004. Mrs. Ambika Soni supported the Sewa Nagar project with Rs 25 lakhs from her MPLAD fund to build the required civic infrastructure in Sewa Nagar, new pavements, stall platforms, park plazas, drains etc. Dr. Karan Singh sanctioned Rs 10 lakh from his M.P.LAD fund for the CGO complex project but the local police made it impossible for us to execute the project, despite clearance from the Security Wing of CGO Complex. MCD Commissioner could not do much about it because the land was temporarily under CPWD charge. They were hostile to the project and kept postponing transferring that area of land to the MCD.

The Sewa Nagar project started in October 2004 amidst violence and repeated assaults from the police and local extortionist mafia for the following reasons:

1). Since membership of the project gave them legal protection vendors who are members of the Manushi pilot project stopped paying monthly bribes.The local mafia was outraged at this.

2). Manushi refused to give in to threats, violent attacks and blackmail tactics of the local mafia including intervention by well known political leaders, who wanted a certain number of stalls to be handed over to the " their men" who act as local touts for bribe collection and play a "helpful" role in elections.

As a result, the new civic infrastructure was repeatedly damaged and the new pavements, drains and stalls were time and again vandalized during and even after construction. Project members were repeatedly subjected to violence, intimidation and life-threats to make them abandon the project. When the terror tactics failed, the mafia approached the High Court for a stay order on the basis of bogus and flimsy allegations. The High Court refused to grant stay. But the mafia dons keep filing more and more bogus objections to harass and tire us out.

Continue to Part II

[Written by Madhu Purnima Kishwar. Originally published here]

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