Chennai Corporation plans polls for street vendor committees, but how fair will they be?

The election of town vending committees could go a long way in regularising the business of street vendors and earning them a place of dignity. But the Corporation's lackadaisical attitude has left 50% of them ineligible to vote.

A tiny kiosk on the congested DF Road in Mogappair bustles with customers on any week day. R Dakshinamurthy, the owner of the kiosk stall wears a smiling face, as he infuses tea leaves in the aluminum container and lets it brew for a few minutes. His happy face turns anxious whenever a police official walks towards the stall or passes by.

Dakshinamurthy is an unauthorized vendor, who has been running the kiosk since three years ago, braving the constant threat of extortion from police and opposition from civil society. He is among the 27,050 vendors waiting for biometric cards from the Chennai Corporation that would give these street vendors a chance to work legitimately and fearlessly.

“The problems of an unauthorized vendor are aplenty: police demand money and citizens ask us to relocate, as we encroach upon their walking space. Owning a card would solve these problems, as we could then set up shops in places allotted by the government,” says Dakshinamurthy.  The corporation officials have taken his picture a year ago, but are yet to issue the card. Despite multiple visits to the corporation office and submission of the required letters of recommendation from the street vendors’ association, he does not have a biometric card even today.

This card will not only help him to have a legitimate space for his business, where he can work with dignity, but will also guarantee him the right to vote in the upcoming elections to select a Town Vending Committee (TVC).

Election of TVCs

After four years of procrastination, the Chennai Corporation has taken the first faltering step towards regulating street vendors, by initiating the process to elect Town Vending Committees (TVC) on September 20th. The committees, comprised of Corporation officials and vendor representatives, would act like grievance cells and help address the problems of the fraternity.

But how fair would be this election be, if only 50 per cent of street vendors can vote in them? Secondly, elections would be held only in nine zones, leaving out five important zones having a lot of commercial spaces.

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act of 2014 provides for setting up of TVCs for each zone or ward in each local authority to decide on determination of natural markets for them, identify vending zones and carry out surveys among street vendors. The absence of such committees has led to the eviction of many street vendors without rehabilitation, and made them more vulnerable to harassment.

The proposed structure and functions of a TVC

Each Town Vending Committee is to be comprised of 15 people, with nine officials from Chennai Corporation and the traffic police, the remaining six being vendors with due representation from General and SC/ST categories, persons with disability and women. The six members will be elected once in five years by the authorised street vendors themselves, while the nine officials are to be selected by the revenue department of Chennai Corporation. 

One of the primary responsibilities of the TVC would be to earmark prospective business zones without hindering the pedestrian movement. The never-ending dispute between street vendors and pedestrians over footpath space can thus be settled through the formation of TVC.

According to the rules formulated under the law,

  • The TVC should meet once in two months to note the grievances of the fraternity and propose solutions
  • Vendors cannot set up shops in any part of the city without the knowledge of the town vending committee
  • The committee should work towards protection of livelihood of street vendors
  • The committee should help the vendors to obtain loans
  • The TVC will ensure that vendors do not set up business in no-hawking zones.
  • Street vendors should pay a minimum of Rs 250 up to a maximum of Rs 3000 to the corporation, based on the market value. The TVC should ensure that these payments are not pending.   

A pavement off Ayanavaram Main Road in Chennai is the work place for Senthamarai, who makes mats from old sarees. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

An unjust election

The present problem lies elsewhere. In order to contest or to vote in these elections, vendors should possess a biometric card identifying them as a legal vendor. The major setback for the election is the fact that only 50 per cent of the vendors have biometric cards, while many more are not even aware of such facilities.

“As per statistics from the Corporation, only 19,341 vendors out of 39,217 vendors have biometric cards. The civic body took photographs of 27,050 vendors a few months ago, as part of the process to issue the cards. But the cards still lie on the shelves of the offices of the Corporation,” says C Thiruvettai, President, Chennai street vendors association.

The official in charge at the Chennai Corporation said that many vendors did not turn up for the enrolment despite being sent a notice. However, most vendors we spoke to said that they had not received the cards even after completing all formalities.

No end in sight

Another issue is that the elections have been scheduled for only nine out of the fifteen zones in Chennai Corporation. Zones having good commercial presence — Tondiarpet, Royapuram, Teynampet, Kodambakkam, Adyar and Alandur — are, for the present, excluded from the list.

J Elumalai, a 40-year-old tailor has made the footpath at Sundar Nagar of Ekkaduthangal his workspace. He earns between Rs 300 and Rs 400 every day by stitching and altering the clothes, but is a distressed man as citizens have been asking him to evict the place.

“We are always treated as encroachers, but in reality, we are only struggling to make a meagre income. If there is an allotted place anywhere in the city where I can get business, I am ready to move. All I need is to work in peace, without any restrictions,” Elumalai said. Having faced citizens’ ire, Elumalai has been shifting from one place to the other over the last three years. “It has become routine to move out, once conditions turn hostile,” he rues.

A line of unauthorised shops behind Olympia Tech Park of Ekkaduthangal. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

Many juice makers, vegetable sellers and tailors from the six excluded zones share the same concern as Elumalai. They strongly object to the Corporation not holding elections for a TVC in their respective zones. A senior corporation official however assures us that the upcoming elections in nine zones are being held on trial basis and given their smooth conduct, elections for the rest of the zones would follow at the earliest.

Street vendors lead an unstable life, under the constant risk of eviction and extortion of money by local goons and police. Most of the hawkers in Chennai city are migrants from the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, who came to this city in search of a livelihood. Due to the non implementation of the Street Vendors Act, their lives are on the edge. An unplanned and unbalanced election cannot be the solution to their miseries. As they rightly ask, “The imminent elections could have acted as reason for the corporation to issue our biometric cards on priority, and they still haven’t done that. Why would they hurry up after the elections?”

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