Can Bengaluru’s street food vendors tide over COVID-19 lockdown?

The compounded effect of the lockdown, cholera-related evictions and the subsequent negative publicity about street food, may deal a severe blow to the thousands of street food vendors in Bengaluru.

Siddhakka, a street food vendor aged around 70, has been working in the Peenya Industrial area for 14 years. She had come to Bengaluru due to drought and agricultural distress in her home village. Her daughter, who was deserted by her husband, had no means to earn as she lacked proper education. She has been entirely dependent on Siddakka, and lives and works with her. Food vending is the only livelihood for this mother-daughter household.

The current 21-day nationwide lockdown has made people like Siddakka, who already live on the margins, more vulnerable. A telephonic survey of informal sector workers, conducted by various labour unions this March 20-21, highlighted that among them, street vendors would be the worst hit by the lockdown.

Food vending is mostly a household-level activity – all members of the household are involved with various stages of production. Hence when a vendor loses his/her job, it’s a loss of livelihood for an entire household.

Worse, these households have no diversification in terms of alternative livelihoods, and so there are serious concerns about their ability to cope. For migrant street food vendors, the situation is even more dismal – with no means of sustenance in the city, they will be forced to go back to their home villages where resources may be meagre but there may be hope for some social support.

The lockdown is just one of the many shocks the street food vending community has endured in recent times. In early March, they were evicted after cholera cases were reported in the city. And there have been several evictions before this, all in violation of the Street Vending Act, 2014. Given this, it’s doubtful if Bengaluru’s street vendors can fully rebuild their livelihoods after the lockdown.

Street food vendors weakened by random evictions

An eviction could mean uncertainty or even permanent job loss for vendors. Take for example, the food vendors on HSR Layout 18th Cross. Over the last decade, HSR Layout 18th Cross had evolved into a vibrant food street as many vendors set up their carts, either on their own or on the suggestion of their friends and family. Both residents and authorities had informally recognised this as a space for vendors. Many vendors working in other parts of HSR Layout had also been asked to relocate to 18th Cross.

The vendors were confident of their livelihood, and their space on this street felt secure. As one of our interviewees, a street food vendor, observed, “in spite of so many food carts, there were enough customers for all of them to earn a living”. (We conducted the interviews as part of an ongoing study on street food vendors in Bengaluru, supported by Azim Premji University.)

But around January 25, BBMP held a sudden eviction drive here. Officials prohibited vendors from parking their food carts on the street, and had bulldozers ready in case anyone defied orders. At the time, over 50 street vendors were selling a variety of food here, with a strong customer base from different sections of society.

As per a report in the Times of India, this was a planned eviction of illegal footpath encroachments by the BBMP. But the vendors had a different account. Rajanna, a food vendor on another street in HSR Layout and also the State Secretary of the street vendors’ association Karnataka Rajya Rastebadi Vyaparigala  Mahamandali, said no notice had been served to vendors. “Previous day, all were operating as usual and closed their carts in the night. When they came back in the morning, the authorities had organised ‘Swachchatha’ (cleaning) programme, then no one was allowed to keep their carts.”

Girish, a food vendor at 18th Cross for the last eight years, said that on the day of the eviction, the officials told them it was a ‘cleanliness drive’ as drainage/sanitation work was being undertaken in HSR Layout, and that the eviction was temporary. However, ever since the eviction, vendors have not been allowed to use the space.

Girish recalls that, in his eight years as a vendor on that street, he had never witnessed anything like this. He says, “Earlier they used to take the cart along, and after we paid Rs 1000 as fine, they’d give it back. At times they asked us not to park our cart here, as it created problems for people, and said they would give some other place. But never did they break/thrash this way.”

He says none of the officials were ready to talk to them after the drive, “The food inspector says, ‘go and get permission from the Joint Commissioner’. I did put up my cart two days after this commotion, in the evening at 7. The authorities came and took my cylinder, and threatened to file an FIR against me.”

Even a month after the eviction, many vendors were unsure about resuming work, and struggled to find alternatives. Keshav, one of the vendors, narrated his situation in a somber voice, “(Prior to the eviction) we had good business and everything was fine. It is very difficult (now) to set up business at a new place.”

Authorities didn’t allow the vendors to even keep their carts on other streets, says Keshav. Stripped of his livelihood, he was forced to look for a new job. “For 15 days, we went in groups and met the local MLA and other people, but no use. So I dropped the plan for the food cart,” he says.

Why street vendors’ evictions in Bengaluru are considered arbitrary

Street food vendors are covered under the Street Vending Act 2014 (SVA 2014), which aims to give vendors the right to public space, along with other benefits. But there have been many glitches in implementing the Act. To begin with, the State has not even formally identified street vendors or issued them licenses.

The Act specifies that every city has to form a Town Vending Committee (TVC), with representation of elected street vendors and members from various state authorities. It is the responsibility of the TVC to ensure that surveys are conducted covering every street vendor, and that a certificate of vending is provided to them. No street vendor can be evicted or relocated before this process is completed.

But in Karnataka, till date, no TVC has been formed. Due to pressure from the State and civil society groups to complete the survey by October 2019, BBMP formed an ad hoc TVC to conduct the surveys. But a recent article in Deccan Herald pointed out that only 25,000 vendors were surveyed, of an estimated 2.5 lakh vendors in the city.

Civil society groups have expressed serious concerns about the planning and execution of the surveys, and gross under-identification of the number of vendors. Of the 25,000 vendors surveyed, only 14,000 finally got licenses.

Street food vendors’ eviction also affects other low-income groups

Eviction of street vendors also has an impact on other sections of urban poor, who are directly or indirectly dependent on them. For example, the street food vendors of HSR layout were providing food at low cost to other informal sector workers like construction workers, delivery boys and taxi-auto drivers.

With the evacuation of food street, these groups have lost their food security. An auto driver from the area said, “No one is allowing the poor to lead a fair life. I stay in this area itself. I always used to have lunch there. It was like home-cooked food. I like their biryani, chicken kebab and egg rice. But what to do, I don’t know where they are now.”

Evictions on account of cholera

In early March, Bengaluru had a spurt of cholera cases, and the authorities, without any causal evidence, singled out street food vendors to prevent the spread of the disease. BBMP undertook a massive drive to evict vendors from all wards of the city. BBMP Commissioner also advised people to stop consuming road-side food as it was not ‘clean’.

Those who had been food vendors for many years, suddenly found themselves deprived of their livelihood. Such condemning of street food vendors as carriers of an endemic without much information or proof, and their sudden eviction, have been criticised and considered illegal by various civil society groups in the city. It also highlighted the prejudices against these food vendors of being unclean and unhygienic.

Our interactions with street food vendors brought out a different narrative. As one of the food vendors, Shikha says, “In the restaurants, they add soda powder to the rice, we do not do that. We do it very neatly (hygienically) because we eat the same food. It (the hygiene) will also affect the number of customers we have.”

There are some associations of street vendors in Bengaluru and Karnataka. But they do not have a strong association like the hotel owners’ association, and do not have the means to counter evictions.

Can vendors survive the lockdown?

Even before vendors could cope with the cholera-related evictions, most public spaces started closing down from March 13 in the wake of COVID-19. The entire country eventually locking down since March 25, and the formal sector being advised to ‘work from home’, translated into loss of livelihood for most informal sector workers.

The vulnerabilities faced by vendors like Siddhakka are common to almost all the vendors we interacted with. In such times of uncertainty, most vendors have no fallback option. Further, repeated shocks to their livelihoods exhaust vendors’ meagre resources, weaken their ability to cope and recover, and increase their precarity.

While the State has announced economic packages in the form of cash and food transfers for the poor, a large proportion or the urban poor, primarily those involved in the informal sector, will inevitably be left out.

The economic package for the poor on account of the lockdown may help some consumption smoothing, if at all, but not rebuild their livelihoods. Given the dysfunctional implementation of the Street Vending Act 2014, street food vendors are at risk of being deprived of these benefits as they do not yet have formal recognition from the State.

The lockdown could not have been avoided, but street food vendors may not have the ability to withstand it. Even when the lockdown is lifted, it is to be seen if the customer footfall is restored to pre-COVID-19 levels. The compounded effect of cholera-related evictions and Covid-19 and the subsequent negative publicity about street food may deal a severe blow to what was a thriving livelihood option for many.

[Co-authored by Annapurna Neti and Roshni Lobo.]

[Note: Names of street food vendors have been changed to protect their identity.]

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