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A decade-long problem relating on hawking on the Chennai street resurfaced recently. The Madras High Court directed senior retired and serving IAS and police officers to appear personally for committing contempt on the issue of continued presence of hawkers on NSC Bose Road opposite the court complex, opening a new chapter in a long-running tug-of-war in Chennai.
While NSC Bose Road became emblematic of an urban crisis that plays out everyday in the Chennai street and indeed much of India, successive governments in the State and the Union government have avoided implementing solutions that they have themselves enshrined as law.
Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice D. Bharatha Chakravarthy of the High Court were annoyed that in spite of clear judicial orders, including a 1995 directive from the Supreme Court making NSC Bose Road a ‘no hawking zone’, there was no progress. The bench wants to rule afresh on June 23 on the matter and on the commission of contempt by officials. If there is compliance with orders by the date of the hearing, the appearance of the officials can be dispensed with, the court said.
The fate of NSC Bose Road, at one time the epicentre of chaos in an old quarter of the city because of unregulated hawking, a scrum of cars and two-wheelers, and lack of circulating space, could be very different. The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) could take a fresh approach to hawking as provided for in the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014.
In all these years, governments have done their best to drag their feet on regulation by rendering the provisions of the law virtually defunct. The basic mechanism by which the Street Vending Act is to be operationalised is a Town Vending Authority and Town Vending Committees (TVC). In Chennai’s case, this is a stillborn effort, and the High Court recently held the TVCs illegal since they had not been formed as provided for under law. Rather than the GCC Commissioner, it was an Executive Engineer who was named to head it.
While NSC Bose Road became emblematic of an urban crisis that plays out everyday in the Chennai street and indeed much of India, successive governments in the State and the Union government have avoided implementing solutions that they have themselves enshrined as law
The street vending law provides a great deal of protection to vendors, starting with enumeration of members, opportunity to vend in designated places, procedural steps for levying penalty, return of seized materials, representation for vendors in TVCs through election, restraints on police and other authorities and a grievance redress machinery.
But Governments are less than enthusiastic to enforce the law. This was laid bare by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development in 2021 headed by Jagdambika Pal, when it reported on the implementation of the Act.
Some of its findings were:
- TVCs had not been constituted in several States, making street vendors prone to eviction.
- Only 1,341 towns among 4,315 towns in the States with a scheme notified under the Act had framed plans.
- In places where ID cards were issued, not all eligible vendors got it.
- Integration of vending plans with Smart Cities Mission projects, and consultation with TVCs was not happening.
As the free-for-all continues, and hyper motorisation overruns cities and towns throwing motorists, pedestrians and hawkers in an impossible maelstrom, courts have been responding to individual cases, laying down norms including for the Chennai street.
The Delhi High Court ruled in January 2022 that the hawker or street vendor did not have a right to put up a permanent structure, staking claim on public space. Unlike in developed economies, the unwritten norm in India is that a hawker stakes claim to a specific spot, with a built structure, often keeping his wares at the same spot. This is found in some places in Chennai too. Such vantage spots that completely take over pavements are valuable to hawkers, creating a rent system in the absence of legal designations. This benefits local politicians, police and civic officials and special interests. The Vending Act provides for selection of hawkers through draw of lots where the demand exceeds possible spaces available at a given zone.
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While the Act defines street vending and confers on vendors and hawkers the right to use pavements, footpaths or sidewalks, among other spaces, it does not specify the extent of the walking space to be secured to meet any technical standard, leaving it open to interpretation. Vendors are classified as mobile or stationary, based on the type of vending they do, but the size of their vending spaces is not precisely measured or defined.
NSC Bose Road may be a “no go” zone, but the court may consider an alternative plan of ensuring full pedestrian access, and then choosing a small number of hawkers by draw of lots
The Delhi HC order was challenged but the Supreme Court did not take a different view. A bench of Justices M.R. Shah and B.V. Nagarathna observed that a hawker had no right to the hawking spot. “Any hawker can be permitted to hawk in the market only as per the hawking policy and not de hors the same. The petitioner, being a hawker, has no right to insist that he may be permitted to keep his goods and wares at the place where he is hawking overnight”, the Bench observed.
Resolving a conflict
Another law dealing with public spaces, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, mandates that persons with disabilities shall have “accessible roads to address mobility necessary for persons with disabilities.” This means safe and clear pavement space. Again, only an elected TVC, with representatives from among the disabled, can reconcile the two imperatives.
During an interaction earlier this year, the leader of the National Federation of Hawkers, Shaktiman Ghosh, told this writer in Chennai that the conflict between pedestrians and hawkers was the product of rampant and unplanned motorisation, whereby pavement space was being squeezed out to make way for vehicles. This is a common occurrence in Chennai and other Tamil Nadu cities, with the media also calling for “road widening” to facilitate traffic flow at the expense of other road users who are not motorised.
Five years after the Street Vending Act was passed, the Bombay High Court also frowned on the demands of hawkers. “No statute nor any judgment can be read as recognising absolute, unconditional and unrestricted right to hawk on [a] public street. By their very nature, public streets are meant for vehicular and pedestrian movements and rather they are dedicated to the use of public. They are the property of the public. They cannot be used nor occupied by anybody in a manner causing inconvenience to the members of the public,” the court said.
A way out of the conundrum is for governments, including Tamil Nadu, to apply themselves to the task of identifying proper vending spaces on every Chennai street and that of other cities, without shortchanging pedestrians, including children, the disabled and the elderly. This will involve a shift away from making facilities solely for cars and two-wheelers to park on the street, and designating places where parking is possible within confined spaces, on payment of fee. Expanding footpaths and identifying grounds for vehicle parking in market areas may be inevitable.
NSC Bose Road may be a “no go” zone, but the court may consider an alternative plan of ensuring full pedestrian access, and then choosing a small number of hawkers by draw of lots, and with permissions that are valid for only a few hours, and with no permanent structures to be put up. This could be the model for T. Nagar, Mylapore, Triplicane, Anna Nagar or Kodambakkam and the generic Chennai street too. After all, hawkers also contribute to GDP growth, and serve an important requirement for citizens buying perishables and small articles.
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