Dharavi women take to street vending to feed families

There has been a significant increase in street vending during the pandemic. But the hurdles these vendors face have not reduced.

“When my 12-year-old daughter queued up to collect food, I decided enough is enough,” says Khatoon Shabana. From March 2010 to 24 March 2020, Shabana cooked and served meals to Dharavi’s cottage industry and mini-factory workers. But when the workers left for their villages during the lockdown, Shabana’s bhishi or home mess service also shut down.

On the day when Shabana’s daughter waited in line to receive food packets, Shabana resolved to find another way to earn money. “Someone suggested that I sell bananas,” Shabana recalls. The idea was appealing but her family was skeptical. “My husband said no one will buy the bananas. But I had to try,” she says.

The next day, Shabana invested her meagre savings in buying a bunch of bananas and positioned herself near a neighbourhood hotel. “All the bananas were sold by the end of the day,” she says. Six months later, Shabana continues to sell the same amount of bananas on the roadside, without adding any new fruits. Her basket remains handy and lightweight to allow a nimble-footed departure when a policeman comes calling. But it is deep enough to hold dozens of bananas that earn her Rs 100-Rs 150 a day, at least three times less than what she made through her bhishi.

Till May-June 2020, women in Dharavi stayed at home and endured recurring lockdowns to flatten Dharavi’s COVID-19 curve, but in the past few months they have stepped out on the streets. Not for a job in factories or domestic work, but to sell fruits or vegetables. As Dharavi’s economy remains sluggish, women are relying on the precarious but swift job of a street vendor.

Rukhsana Shaikh, senior community leader with LEARN. Photo: LEARN

Setting up on the street

The women in Dharavi are primarily involved in three kinds of jobs, says Asiya Shaikh, a Dharavi resident and accountant with LEARN, a non-profit that works with women informal workers in Dharavi. “Domestic work; home-based work which can be running a bhishi, tailoring, or tikli-moti or sequins-embellishment work on clothes; or jobs in micro-factories to perform tasks like cutting and packing.”

COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown has significantly impacted all three forms of livelihoods. If there is work, it is sporadic, and offered with a steep price cut, Rukhsana Shaikh, a senior community leader with LEARN, says. “If bhishi earned women Rs 600 a week from one person, it’s now down to Rs 300. Tikli-moti work would give them Rs 400-500 a day, it is now barely Rs 100-150. Even tailors have to stitch both salwar and top for only Rs 100,” Rukhsana adds. 

As the lockdown relaxed across the city but work remained dried up, people opted to sell vegetables from their homes or in their neighbourhoods, Salma Shaikh of the Azad Hawkers’ Union says. “There has been a significant increase in street vending during the pandemic,” she adds. But this provisional job isn’t without harassment.

Khatoon Shahani has been making Rs 100-150 a day by selling potatoes and onions. But her earnings are not secure. COVID-19 has stopped a lot, but not the practise of collecting hafta. Any day, Shahani says, the police can demand hafta or ask her to stop hawking because she doesn’t have a license. Shahani is not inclined to this work, she says, but does it because there is no other choice. After years of doing tikli-moti work at home, the clothes and their embellishments have stopped suffusing her room.

“Seth ko kaam nahi mil raha, mujhe kaise milega,” she says. How will I find any work if my boss is without work? And so, every morning, Shahani brings potatoes and onions from the Dadar market to sell in her neighbourhood. By 10 am, her 12-year-old and 10-year-old sons sit by the vegetables while she alternates between home chores and street vending.

Fending for themselves

In October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Pradhan Mantri Street Vendors’ Atmanirbhar Nidhi Yojana, which aims to provide loans to street vendors affected due to COVID-19. But Salma is doubtful any street vendor in Mumbai has received the credit despite filling the online application form. How is the scheme being implemented, who is receiving the benefit, who isn’t, under what conditions, in how much time, we don’t have the answers to these questions, she says.

The scheme is also only for those street vendors who’ve been in the business before March 24, 2020, which leaves behind many who have recently started working as street vendors.

But as more and more urban poor try to safeguard their lives through street vending, questions about who is recognised – and supported – as a street vendor in the city become important.

Representative image. Elgroot, Pixabay

Who is a street vendor?

In 1997, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) along with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) conducted its first survey of street vendors. It identified that 15,000
street vendors
had licences among the 1,03,000 identified street vendors. BMC also issued pautis or fine receipts which would become a way for street vendors to demonstrate a history of their existence and legitimacy. While the state imagination of a street vendor is of a licensed worker, the challenges in receiving a license have triggered questions around low-income workers right to the city.

Between 2009 and 2014, a national policy on urban street vendors was adopted which prescribed the creation of Town Vending Committees (TVCs). BMC created its TVC in 2013. When the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, was enforced in 2014, BMC conducted another survey. It issued 1,28,443 forms to vendors but as of 2018, only found 23,265 applications to be eligible. But whoever was made eligible has also not been issued licenses yet, Salma says.

There has been long-standing criticism of the manner in which BMC conducted its survey and decided a street vendor’s eligibility. As part of its 2014 survey, BMC sent letters to vendors asking them to submit documents in time, but “many letters came back undelivered,” a report by Centre for Civil Society found. “This is precisely what a census-like survey would have avoided.”

The required documentation, too, has been quite unyielding, according to Salma. It’s against the many low-income workers who lose their papers in scuffles with the police or municipality, while shifting homes, or during Mumbai’s annual water-logging episodes.

Under the PM’s new street vendor scheme, even those vendors who were surveyed and have their names on the surveyed lists are eligible and will be granted a provisional certificate. But its on-ground implementation still need evaluation.

In November 2020, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray decided to conduct a fresh survey of Mumbai’s street vendors. This could take into account the many workers who have been forced to become street vendors because of COVID-19.

But Salma questions the point of this survey. “Those who were made eligible in the previous survey haven’t received licenses or designated spaces to hawk,” she says. “Surveys are not enough, the government needs to move towards resolution.”

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