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Hawkers Struggle to Cope With Inflation and Bribery in Kolkata

Facing threats of eviction and allegedly forced to pay regular bribes to authorities, street vendors in Kolkata are trying to put up a fight through unions.
Hawkers Kolkata

Kolkata: Birendra Sau from Samastipur of Bihar works as a hawker by selling paan and stationery items from his cart at AJC Bose Road near Ripon Street in Kolkata. Customers of stationery items are decreasing day by day, he tells NewsClick, adding that on average, he earns a profit of Rs 300- 400, from which the police allegedly take Rs 100; with the rest, he runs his home. His cart is dilapidated as cracks have started to appear on its wooden structure; it was donated to him by a local NGO.

Sau stays at Behala in South West Kolkata in a rented accommodation whose for Rs 4000 per month. He says his family of four, including two sons, somehow survives by consuming pulses and rice every day from the allotted ration. The hawker feels somewhat fortunate as the police and Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) vehicles, which confiscate the wares of hawkers in no-vending zones, do not regularly visit AJC Bose Road.

Other hawkers at Gariahat, a no-vending Zone declared by the KMC, are not so fortunate. "Vending or no-vending zone, we have been selling our wares here for years, some even for the last 45 years," says Bapi Karar, who sells women's undergarments at Gariahat. He said that his business is flourishing even after paying Rs 300 per day to the local hawkers' body and the police's "usuli", an under-the-table commission that earns the hawkers an unofficial license to work and operate in the no-vending zone.

Speaking to NewsClick at his tiny tarpaulin-shaded shop in the busy Gariahat area, Karar adds, "In Gariahat, we get a profit of Rs 1000 per day on a minimal scale, and every month, we make about Rs 15000."

However, of late, there has been a dearth of buyers, the hawker complained. He explained that although the undergarment market is an essential segment, inflation is eating away at people's incomes.

Among the seasonal fruit sellers at Garia crossing in South Kolkata is Shovana Baidya. She claims that apart from police bribes and KMC's pressure, often their fruits get confiscated by the authorities. On average, she earns a profit of around Rs 200-300 by selling fruits on the road. On a good day, it can climb to Rs 500, Baidya says, alleging that she has to give Rs 50 to the police as bribe per day to be able to sell on the road.

During the past waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shovana was in financial distress as there were hardly any customers, and she could not set her cart on the road due to added restrictions. 

Though Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had promised the hawkers a one-time lump sum of Rs 2500, she has not received that amount. Their dues were taken by people in proximity to the ruling party, she further alleged.

Satyaprakash Ghosh, a leader of the Kolkata Street Hawkers' Union, one of the largest such bodies in the city, says that at Kalighat, street vendors are being evicted for the beautification project of Kalighat Temple premises. In the area, which is a stone's throw away from the chief minister's residence, the authorities are constructing a skywalk. Those with permanent shop structures have been rehabilitated in a nearby park, but those selling their products from impermanent structures are facing the heat of the corporation, he says. The KMC is neither letting the vendors set up stalls on the road, nor is it providing an alternate space for them to sell their things, Ghosh added.

On June 15, the hawkers' union plans to present a deputation to the Kalighat police station against the eviction and also demand payment of Rs 10,000 monthly to the hawkers whose livelihood have been interrupted due to the development project undertaken.

Talking to NewsClick, Gopal Das, Secretary of Kolkata Street Hawkers Union, says that the conditions are pathetic for an average hawker in the state. Anti-encroachment drives are being taken up in the name of development without giving permanent places to the hawkers. "We are for developmental works, but that should not mean that hawkers are treated shamefully. The organisation also sent a letter to Debasish Kumar, the concerned MIC (mayor in council)of Kolkata Corporation, calling for forming the town vending committee in a bipartisan manner," Das says.

A nine-point charter of demands was also forwarded to him, which includes the following: 

1) Maintaining peace and tranquillity in all the streets of the state.

2) Start central Street Vendors Act 2014 in the state after discussion held with all registered hawkers unions.

3) Following court directives in the state, Street Vendors Act, 2014 should be implemented by constituting town vending committees and all registered unions should be made a party to the committee.

4) There should be no hawker eviction without rehabilitation according to the Street Vendors Act, 2014 and high courts directive on this matter.

5 ) All the Hawkers should be provided with vending licenses and identity cards should be issued in their names. 

6) Following the legal route, a hawker survey should take place in the city after the constitution of the town vending committee.

7) the hawkers should not be harassed in the name of removing permanent structures on road. 

8 ) All the hafta and usuli practices should immediately stop.

9) The chief minister should not back down on her promises made to the hawkers of the state, and a gazette notification regarding the same should take place.

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