On the left-side are stalls with wooden stores while the right-side of the road does not have enough space to put up a makeshift gumti or shop.
Laddu Kumar was 10 years old when he joined this field of vending, as he had no choice but to earn for himself. Laddu is illiterate and socio-economically backward. His monthly salary, 10 years ago, was a mere Rs 150. “Elder brothers work as salesmen in general stores in main town area. They receive approximately Rs 7,000 a month. But I did not want to do it. I wanted freedom in my profession. There is no one to dictate you here,” says Laddu.
“Of course, there was financial problem at home. I was disinterested in studies too. Not all people can be bookish when the world around them keeps changing. That demands attention. I somehow had to earn,” he says.
There are some 30 cloth shops in Soa Babu Chowk of Bettiah town of Bihar. This area has been known for its signature shops selling affordable and durable clothes. The equation has been gradually changing since the opening of shopping malls in the town. The shopping complexes—currently a dozen in town—provide a wide range of items at cheaper prices, conforming with the rates offered by these vendors.
This year, Laddu, 25, took an informal loan of Rs. 1 lakh at an interest rate of 6% per month. He says that he has recovered only Rs. 40,000 in the Diwali-Chhath sale. He recently got his shop repaired with new wooden slab installations to store clothes; it cost him Rs. 15,000.
After four years into independent cloth vending, Laddu says, “With freedom comes uncertainty.”
“The sale has only decreased. It is definitely far from flourishing. Earlier, salwar suit of this kind [pointing to a cloth item kept on display] used to be sold at Rs 270 at my shop, which I would have bought for Rs 150. After 10 years, its cost has increased to Rs 200 while selling price I have to cap at Rs 290,” he explains.
While this reporter is talking to Laddu, some customers approach him, and bargain for an item. Laddu asks the customer: “How much do you want this for?”
“Not possible. Rs. 100. Last bid price.”
Unsatisfied customer leaves. Laddu exclaims: “This cloth [the item customer wanted to buy] has a cost price of Rs 80. Did I not tell him a reasonable price?”
Another shop-owner, Naushad Alam—as he leaves for Jungi Masjid to offer the evening prayers—tells NewsClick, “Malls have certainly affected our business. The sale at my shop has decreased by one-fifth. There was no impact of festivals here. Diwali and Chhath, or any other seasonal sale! It was a dry season for us.”
Alam’s helper, Maidul Khan, 19, is now looking after the shop. He will take intermediate exams in humanities this year. He is enrolled at Amna Urdu High School, but he cannot attend classes regularly because of his job. “I go to a coaching centre for an hour at 8 am, before coming to the shop. I am not good at English. I am going to fail if I do not attend coaching,” says Khan. He has to pay Rs 300 per month for the coaching.
Maidul works at the shop on a daily wage basis; he receives Rs 170 per day in return for a 10-hour shift. “I have no idea what I am doing. I have not decided yet what I am going to do after school. It probably depends on board results.”
Opposite Alam’s shop is Mo. Seraj’s stall—relatively smaller. While Alam and Laddu have wooden stores to protect the items, the stalls facing the street are put over a narrow drain; there is an additional raised platform which vendors have made themselves. Each of such stalls has the areal dimensions of about 1.5ftx6ft. These stalls on the Southern side of the road are in an open space; so, the articles are to be transported back to home or placed in others’ stores.
Like Guddu, Seraj, 24, also took a loan of Rs 1 lakh albeit at a lower monthly interest rate of 3%. He takes an auto-rickshaw to reach the market each day from his home in Mansa Tola locality; one-way-ride costs Rs. 15. Seraj has sold products worth Rs 600 today. He says, “A profit of Rs 150. I will close the shop in an hour. Let us see if anyone comes.” When asked about uncertainty in the business, he says, “I have studied till class VI. I learnt to be an electrician. I even worked in that field for two years. Then, I thought I will switch to this.”
Seraj belongs to the ‘below poverty line (BPL)’ category. He questions, “Will the government provide municipality shops to us? Conversely, they have tried to remove us. Top Municipality officials had come themselves. Where could we go? We came here again.”
None of vendors here know about the Street Vendors Act, 2014, nor the administration has informed them about their rights. Section 3 under Chapter II of Street Vendors Act, 2014 deliberates over the rights of a street vendor. Sub-section (1) mentions the provision for a mandatory survey by the Town Vending Committee to be carried out at least once in every five years. Sub-section (2) says that “The Town Vending Committee shall ensure that all existing street vendors, identified in the survey, are accommodated in the vending zones subject to a norm conforming to two and half per cent. Of the population of the ward or zone or town or city, as the case may be, in accordance with the plan for street vending and the holding capacity of the vending zones.” And, finally, in sub-section (3), it has been well described that “no street vendor shall be evicted or, as the case may be, relocated till the survey has been completed and the certificate of vending is issued to all street vendors.”
Advocate Indira Unninayar, who has fought several cases for the street vendors, while recently talking to NewsClick, had highlighted that the Act is commonly misinterpreted by the authorities. She said, “You cannot implement laws by beating people. Every concerned authority must be sensitised. There must not be any channel for miscommunication. Vendors are the eyes of the city. They must be protected.”
Dabilu Khan, 42, tells NewsClick that each vendor pays a daily vending fee of Rs 15 regardless of whether the area is mired in flash flood or vendors earn nil. After the sunset, the stalls here are lit up with LED bulbs. He, like other vendors, pays additional Rs 15 for the private power supply of a single bulb-connection.
“Demonetisation and GST were additional attacks on us,” he says. Dabilu recalls the evening when Prime Minister Modi had announced that the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes—which were in circulation then—would no longer be legal tender. “I had to return some loan amount, but none was ready to accept it, as the news spread like wildfire. The moneylender was also pressurising us. He also needed money. Almost a month was wasted in handling this crisis that had unfolded. How could I look after my stall? The government expected me to stand in the ATM queues for the national pride. […] I want the government to know [through this medium] that we do not earn to store money in vaults. We earn just to feed ourselves,” says Dabilu.
He continues, “When you announce radical decisions while sitting in your luxurious office, people like us with no recourse in remote locations of the country are affected primarily, dear prime minister!”
All the cloth vendors here receive their merchandise through Kolkata supply chain. None of the vendors is happy with GST slab of 5%. Moreover, they believe that the price hike is associated with it.
While the vendors pay fees to the contractors, there is no sense of security. Reports by local media—also verified by NewsClick—show that the administration has used police power and coercion to evict the vendors without any guarantee of relocation in the past six months.
“Ab jis garib ko dhaniya ka patta bhi kharid ke khana hai uske liye toh tabahi hi hai na… (This [inflation] is disastrous for those poor [referring to the landless] who have to buy even a coriander leaf…),” says Vinod Sah, 48, of Kargahiya Pachhim, who has placed his stall adjacent to Mo. Seraj’s stall. He has been selling clothes for the past 18 years.
“I used to make a daily profit of Rs 400 on average, some 10 years ago. It is almost the same now. On the other hand, prices of food items, among many other items, have increased exponentially. The price of sona masuri variety of rice has doubled over a decade. Its market value is Rs 40/kg,” adds Sah.
“I come from teli caste [OBC]. We are socio-economically backward. I just have 11 dhur of land on which I have built my home,” he says, clarifying that he has no agricultural land.
Vinod also works as a labourer in off-season. For him, off-season translates to rains or absence of a festival or a wedding season. He works mostly as a halwai or a confectioner; sometimes as mason. However, his old age is not allowing him to take up tough tasks anymore. Job of a confectioner earns him Rs 270 per day. “My daughter left school two years ago, as I was unable to pay fees of her private school. She resumed her education this year after I gained some financial stability.”
“It is better to stay to stay at home than to attend public school,” he opines.
While Vinod is yet to repay a loan of Rs 30,000 [at an interest rate of 48% p.a.], he somehow is determined to invest in his daughter’s private-school education. The fear of the future of four other kids still looms large.
The neighbouring shop is of one Raj Kumar, who earlier worked as a daily-wage labourer in a plywood factory before setting up kids-wear [0-3yrs] stall in 2005. He earns Rs 200, on average, per day. “I have two daughters and one son; they are in school. Who will not fear for their children’s future with this business?”
Raj Kumar’s friend Ram Awadh Prasad joins conversation at Raj’s stall. Ram, 48, alleges that his pan stall was removed by the municipality some three years ago. He now is forced to do random odd manual labour. “Why are they targeting helpless vendors? Cannot they see illegal parking in the Hospital Road area?”
Further, Raj Kumar adds, “Visitors of healthcare facilities of Bettiah MP and BJP Bihar President Dr. Sanjay Jaiswal’s family members regularly create traffic jams in that area. Who will address this continuing impunity?”
This reporter independently confirmed that the Hospital Road area remains congested due to vehicle parking on footpath or main roads, and rush. Dr. Jaiswal’s mother Dr. Saroj Jaiswal and his wife Dr. Manju Jaiswal have their full-fledged medical clinics in the same area.
Vendor Rajiv Kumar’s daughter-in-law represents a nearby ward in Bettiah Municipality. This region does not fall under her jurisdiction, so Rajiv cannot direct the political representatives of this ward to maintain cleanliness here. “On the eve of Independence Day this year, a sweeper came to clean this road. He was kind of in a hurry. It was visible that it was just a formality. I got into an argument with him. He quickly veered off this road,” narrates Rajiv.
He adds, angrily, “If you cannot perform your duty on normal days, we do not want to feel special on the days of national importance…” “Wares of worth Rs. 50,000 were damaged, as this whole area was submerged in rainwater in rainy season this year. They collect vending fees even amid the flash flood. Then, why is the drain system still poor?”
Moreover, Rajiv has a little disagreement with other vendors on the reason leading to an outflux of customers from this vendor-market over a period. He says, “Our target market is strong. That is not going to be influenced by these malls. Who buys from our shops? Poor people! Yes, those people who cannot even afford reasonable mall prices [or mass marketing].” “The real evil is interdependence of financial crisis across different businesses. We must understand that poor people here are mostly farmers. Either they are sharecroppers or small landowners. Both have been affected by floods and poor implementation of government policies in the recent years.”
Rajiv concludes, raspingly, “Will they commit suicide or come for shopping?”