For paanwalas of Bengaluru, bribes and eviction threats a constant reality

Paanwalas have their roadside stalls all over the city. Here's their regular tale of struggle and survival.

Hailing from Madhubani (Bihar), Binay Kumar Paswan, 40, came to Bengaluru ten years ago in search of employment. Today, he is self-employed as a paanwala, running his own stall near the outskirts of Sarjapur.

The venture is not without its challenges. For one, Binay is sometimes forced to change locations, depending on where space is available. He also faces other challenges in the street like harassment and demands for bribes from local authorities. But wherever he sets up shop, he has managed to eke out a living, especially during weekends, when business tends to be brisk. 

Binay works from 9 am to around 9 pm, and then returns to his small home near Billapura. His family consists of his wife, a daughter studying in 10th grade, and a son in 7th grade in a government school. He was able to enrol his children in the school on the basis of his Aadhaar card and voter ID as a migrant.

In his stall, Binay sells paan, tobacco and chocolates, spending Rs 60,000 per month to purchase the items from a wholesaler shop in Attibele on a weekly basis. He makes a profit of around Rs 20,000 per month. He has no license or permission of any kind for his stall. “Mere ko kuch pata nahi hai kahan se license ke liye apply karte hai (I don’t know where to apply for getting a license),” he says.

Street vendors make up a substantial part of the informal sector in most Indian cities. Most street vendors come from rural areas to urban spaces in search of employment, with many ending up as street vendors. 

The Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry figures put the number of street vendors across the country at 49.48 lakh. According to a 2017 survey, Bengaluru has about 1.5 lakh street vendors.

Street vendors, many of whom are migrant workers, peddling similar items, generally tend to belong to the same areas in their home state. For instance, paanwalas in Bengaluru mostly belong to two places: Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) and Madhubani (Bihar). They have their roadside stalls all over the city. From Sarjapur police station to HSR layout, there are around 140 paanwalas, who are from the same region in Bihar.

Always vulnerable

Life is tough on the street for these vendors as none of them have any kind of official permission for their stalls. As Binay says: “Police wale paise mangte hai, local gunda bhi paisa mangta hai, nahi denge to marte hai (police and local goons ask for money, and if I don’t pay they will beat me badly).” A tale repeated by another paanwala Bipin Kumar (45), from Varanasi, who says local cops demand a bribe of Rs 200. “If we do not pay, they fine us Rs 1,000 and evict us from the place,” Bipin says.

Read more: Street vending in RT Nagar: Migrant vendors excluded from prime spots

One legal issue street vendors face in getting a license is that they do not come under the definition of a natural market, which the Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation defines as “a market where vendors and customers have traditionally congregated for a longer amount of time for the sale and purchase of a certain set of items or services as determined by the local government”. But all attempts to include street vendors as part of a natural market have failed. 

So is there any official/legal definition of street vendors?

A street vendor is someone who sells goods or services to the public without a permanent structure, but from a temporary structure or a mobile stand or a head load. Street vendors mostly tend to occupy space on sidewalks or other public places, or tend to move their wares to different locations where they can find buyers for their products.

Few state governments have any policy to legitimise street vendors by giving them a license to at least sell from designated vending zones. But some local street shops have been given licensed pavement space, though it is not clear why local vendors have some paper to prove their legitimacy, but most migrant vendors don’t and have no clue as to why or how to apply for them.

Vendors like Binay have to fend for themselves. Binay pays Rs 2, 000 as rent, which is a kind of a bribe given to the unauthorised owner of the pavement space to run his stall, but he is not given any receipt for the payment. He has also paid Rs 6,000 as security money to money lenders to buy his supplies.

Local goons turn up regularly demanding free pan and cigarettes. “Ek lakh se zyada rupya de chuke hai sab ko paanch saal me magar daru pee ke aata hai paise mangta hai (I have given more than one lakh rupees, in five years, as bribe to local goons, but they get drunk come and demand money),” says Binay.

The economics of running paan stalls

Monthly expenditure 

  • Vending stall rent is Rs 2,000 to whoever claims to own that vacant space
  • House rent is Rs 3,000
  • Police bribe and challans are Rs 200 (weekly) plus Rs 500 (monthly): Rs 1,300
  • Local bribe is Rs 2,000
  • Cost of items like paan, tobacco, and chocolates is Rs 30,000
  • Monthly profit is approximately Rs 18,000-Rs 20,000
  • Cost of a paan is Rs 10
  • Cost of cigarette and gutka are between Rs 5 and Rs18

Binay says that the profit estimate from his stall would have been higher if he did not have to pay bribes to local police and pavement space clamiers to run his stall. He has to support his family with the meagre amount he earns. He says taking care of his family is expensive in Bengaluru.

Street Vending Act

The Centre enacted the Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending, 2014, to protect the rights of street vendors. It has been argued that street vendors be recognised as self-employed, not encroachers, but as an integral part of the urban economy who are providing services to the urban population

But as we look at the Act’s features and provisions, and its implementation, the number of vendors who have actually benefited from the Act is disappointing. In Bengaluru, as per a High Court order, the last survey of street vendors was conducted in 2017. But lack of clarity in their numbers resulted in the survey being dumped.

Read more: Pani puri vendor Ajay makes tidy profit for boss, but gets little for himself

It is the responsibility of the municipality to identify vending zones for the vendors. But few are aware of any plans to create vending zones for street vendors, like paanwala Mukesh, who hails from Madhubani (Bihar), in HSR layout. Also, few are willing to move out of their present places where they are reasonably sure of getting customers.

A paan stall near the outskirts of Sarjapur, Bengaluru
A paan stall near Sarjapur. Vendors say taking care of a family in Bengaluru is expensive. Pic: Udit Sha

According to the Street Vending Act, city municipalities are supposed to set up a town vending committee, which includes representatives of the street vendors who have a license (around 40% of the total), which will decide on vending zones and how many people are licensed to set up shop there. 

Given Bengaluru’s total population of approximately 9,621,551, it is estimated that the city has around 2.4 lakh street vendors (about 2.5% of the population as per census 2011), who will be eligible to operate in the vending zones. It is up to the urban local bodies to update this figure every five years, though there is no clarity on how this is to be done. Neither is it clear why vendors will move to vending zones far away from places where they are sure of getting regular customers.

Vendors also feel local vendors do not support them at all. “Humri kaun sunta hai? Kabhi kabhi neta log aate hai election ke time (Who listens to us? Nobody does. Leaders sometimes come during elections),” says Binay. And because of the lack of unionisation, they do not have a proper platform to raise their voice.

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