Maharashtra government told the Bombay High Court earlier this month that allowing hawkers to set up their business on the streets could lead to further spread of the novel coronavirus in the state. It opposed the idea of relaxations for hawkers and said that it won't allow them to resume the roadside businesses for some more time. This was in response to a PIL by a Pune citizen seeking permission for the hawkers to run their businesses.
Following this stand by the government, several hawkers’ associations across the state are contemplating their future course of action.
According to Maharashtra Feriwala (Hawkers’) Association, there are around eight lakh hawkers in the state. They sell items ranging from food and fish to toys and clothes. This parallel economy has been stalled completely in the last three and a half months owing to the lockdown in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
"Has the number of patients gone down since March? Has COVID disappeared? Then, why are you not allowing hawkers to resume? Put restrictions on us, but having a carpet ban on the business is hurting lakhs of people," said Shankar Salavi, veteran trade unionist and leader of Mumbai Hawkers’ Union.
Ashok Kambale, a street vendor from Mumbai, sells footwear and is the only breadwinner in his family of four. Both his sons study in municipal schools. "I haven't opened my shop since the beginning of the lockdown in March. Since then, there has been no earning. I am completely dependent on my in-laws these days for survival," he said.
Kambale was hoping that the ‘Unlock’ phase would allow him to restart his business, but is now disappointed. "I have two sons and I don't know for how many days this will go on. I have already lost the summer season and pre-monsoon season. This lockdown is literally breaking us down," he said.
Meanwhile, many jobless workers from the unorganised sector have resorted to selling vegetables or fish in the cities. As these items fall under the ‘essential commodities’ category, there is no curb on the movement of the street vendors selling vegetables. Rakesh Kisave was a helper in a garment shop in the Mangaldas market. His shop has remained closed and he has been out of work since April. By the end of May, Rakesh started selling vegetables in the Byculla area. "Everyone is now selling vegetables or fish. There is not much profit in it. We are barely surviving. Once the market is reopened, we will go back to our shop," said Rakesh.
According to the Mumbai Hawkers’ Association, there are over 2.5 lakh hawkers in the city that has now become India's second most affected city by the pandemic.
While the Maharashtra government is allowing restaurants to run at 33% capacity in the second phase of ‘unlock’, hawkers are still waiting for a clearance.
"Without protest in some or other manner, we don't think the government will allow us to open. Right now, there are genuine challenges in arranging a protest. But we are working in various ways including the battle in the court as well as conveying our issues to the press," said Salavi.
The state government does not have an exact number of hawkers affected across the state. It had earlier, in 2014, decided to register the street vendors. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s data had pegged the number at 99,000. However, only 15,000 of these were found to be eligible for a license. All hawkers’ unions had rejected this data and later, the BMC had assured inclusion of the hawkers left out.
The state government had come up with a hawkers policy back in 2017, but that too couldn't help in finalising the list of the hawkers in Mumbai as well as in rest of the state.
Meanwhile, the state government is defending its decision to not allow hawkers. "It is for their health itself. Allowing hawkers will increase the risk of people to people contact. In cities like Mumbai and Pune, it will be more dangerous. So, the decision has been taken in the larger interest of the hawkers as well as buyers," said Minister of State for Home Satej Patil.
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