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Organising for the Rights of Street Vendors in India: SEWA's Experience

SEWA was initiated in the basement of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad in 1972 with only 320 members and today it has grown to be the countries largest womens' trade union with more than 2,12,000 members in the unorganised sector.

SEWA has been involved in organising the street vendors, for many years. There is a proliferation of street vendors in the cities because of poverty and unemployment Despite the useful services they render to the society, they are looked upon as hindrance to the planned development of the cities, both by the elite Urbanities and the town-planners. These street vendors are subjected to constant mental torture by the local authorities and are harassed in different ways, which at times often lead to riotous situations. Moreover, there is hardly any policy consistent with the needs of these vendors. In spite of their valuable contribution to the urban economy and also in the distribution system of goods and services, little attention has been paid to the services offered by them. Vendors are either overlooked or looked down as something to be controlled or as an eyesore to be removed. Their activities seem to conflict with the image of a modern city, which is often equated to Western cities. The street vendors are referred to as "illegal encroachers" and "criminals". The assumption is that these street vendors are anti-development, anti-social, and lack aesthetic sense.

Elaben the founder member of SEWA who has visited different cities in the country feels that the socio-economic and legal conditions of the street vendors are similar throughout India. In 1988, as a member of the parliament, she had presented a resolution in the upper house, demanding formulation of a National Policy for the street vendors in India and thereby make them an integral part of the urban policies and planning. She also suggested appropriate measures to protect their existing livelihood and for provision of available space to sell their goods in the urban areas. The government should give them legal status by issuing licenses and providing exclusive hawking zones. These vendors are not demanding any subsidy or jobs from the government, but simply asking for " Do Tokri Ki Jagaah" (place for keeping two baskets ).

The resolution put forth by Elaben was hailed by all members present in the upper house, but did not gain much support from the political parties. Elaben was not a member of any political party but an independent member of the parliament. Actually , the success of SEWA in securing space for the vegetable vendors in the Manekchowk area in Ahemdabad in 1984, has motivated and inspired SEWA to lobby for the street vendors at the national level.

In 1982, SEWA filed a petition against the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation(AMC), in the supreme court for acquiring space for the 327 vegetable vendors in the Manekchowk area of Ahmedabad city. First, they got a stay order form the Court against removal of these vendors. In 1984, the vendors won the case against the AMC and 327 of them got license to vend in Manekchowk.

In 1995, SEWA took the campaign for the Legal rights for street vendors to the International arena, with the meeting of vendors of 11 mega cities of the world organised in Bellagio, Italy. The meeting passed an International Declaration demanding policy and space for the vendors. This declaration urged upon the governments to set up appropriate, participative, non-formal mechanism with representation by the street vendors, voluntary associations, local authorities, the police and others. The emphasis was also on providing them with meaningful access to credit and financial services. The basic aim of the Declaration was to recognise the street vendors as a special group in plans for urban development by treating them as an integral part of the urban distribution system. The stress was laid to issue guidelines for providing supportive services at the local levels.

In the context of the International Declaration, SEWA continued its efforts to mobilise the street vendors by contacting various groups working with the vendors throughout the nation. In 1996, SEWA began a census survey of the vendors in Ahmedabad and other major cities, with the coordination of locally recognised voluntary organisations.

In September 1998, SEWA organised a National Workshop on the Legal status of Street Vendors in India. Street Workers and their organisations from 14 cities all over the country participated in the workshop. The aim of the workshop was to develop an Action Plan for the street vendors in the context of the Bellagio Declaration. The outcome of the workshop was the setting up of the National Alliance of Street Vendors with representatives from unions and NGOs which will pressurise the government to announce a "national policy for street vendors"

The Alliance has a long charter of demands for the government. On the list are the formulation of laws to protect the livelihood of street hawkers, including the designating of land on town planning maps for them to hawk their goods. They will also be pushing the state government to order a survey of street hawkers. It would also urge the central government to set up a special welfare fund with contributions from street hawkers for their relief in times of natural disasters.

Dear Readers,

In order to strengthen their demands at the national as well as the International level, SEWA, is requesting for Statistical information on street vendors from other Asian country. If any organisation / individual have the required information, please send them to the CAW secretariat or forward it directly to:

Manali Shah,
Self Employed Womens Association
SEWA Reception Center
Opp. Victoria Garden