Summer is usually peak business season for Duraimurugan M T, a juice seller near Kathipara Junction. But as the lockdown forced him to shut shop, the sole breadwinner of the family, with no clue as to how he was going to feed his family of four, slipped into depression. “I could not focus on anything. I was depressed over not being able to provide for my family,” Duraimurugan recollected.
What did not strike him then was that the street vendor card he had obtained from the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) before the lockdown would help him sail through.
A volunteer decided to extend financial support to registered street vendors with cards in his locality and Duraimurugan was one of the beneficiaries. He received enough money to buy dry rations and vegetables for his family for two months. “The Street Vendors’ card gives us an identity. A lot of organisations have helped vendors with cards during the lockdown,” he says, heaving a sigh of relief.
The vendor card also made him eligible for the central government’s Pradhan Mantri Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi scheme that provides affordable loans of up to ₹10,000 to more than 50 lakh street vendors, who had their businesses operational on or before March 24th. Duraimurugan feels that the loan amount could help him restart his business.
However, a far more common story in Chennai is that of Vimalamma, who used to sell butter biscuits on the suburban trains. Categorised as a mobile street vendor according to The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, Vimalamma should also be having a card that entitles her to these benefits and more. But not only does she not have one, in fact, she knows nothing about it.
The lockdown period proved to be nothing short of hell for Vimalamma, who struggled to get even two meals a day. Her 10-year-old daughter lives with her parents in a small village near Villupuram, and she could not help them either.
“I had borrowed a sum of Rs 20,000 from loan sharks on which I have been paying heavy interest. I sold my household utensils including a mixer to pay the interest,” she laments. If only she had the vendor’s card, Vimalamma could have availed a loan from the bank or received help from the various organisations and donors who came forward to help the community.
What are street vendor cards?
Issued by the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), street vendor cards provide authorisation for members of the community; it helps them to have a legitimate space for their business. Availing government schemes meant for the community, securing the right to vote in the elections for Town Vending Committee (TVC) are among the few benefits that a card ensures. Any street vendor doing business in a designated space by GCC can apply for a card from the civic body.
Sadly, cardholders constitute just 37% of the street vendors of Chennai. According to C Thiruvettai, President, Chennai street vendors association, there are at least one lakh street vendors in the city and only 37,000 of them possess cards. “There is no data about the rest of the street vendors. This constrains organisations and volunteers from reaching out to all deserving beneficiaries,” Thiruvettai says.
In these times of crisis, where street vendors face the double onslaught of unemployment and poverty due to COVID-19, vendor cards could have helped them secure bank loans at nominal interest from the banks, as well as access other benefits.
Why were cards not issued?
Non-issuance of cards and lapses in the formation of Town Vending Committees (TVC) play an important role in the suffering of the street vendors. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 mandates every city to formulate TVCs with different stakeholders: Inspector of Police, Health Inspector from Chennai Corporation, members from street vendors association and a local activist. TVC is also a representative body for issuing the vendor cards.
The Madras High Court’s direction to remove encroachments from public spaces and a push from the citizenry to streamline vendors prompted GCC to form TVCs in 12 out of 15 zones in Chennai, two years ago. Earlier, this year, GCC steadfastly issued cards to the vendors. But, it made a huge mistake by ignoring mobile vendors such as Vimalamma and failing to sensitise many other street vendors about the cards.
According to a survey conducted by IRCTUC, only one vendor out of 100 in Chitra Nagar, Kotturpuram was aware of the vending cards.
“It is a Herculean task to identify vendors. It has to be done in a systematic way in all the 200 wards. Before COVID-19, cards were issued only to those who approached the civic body,” the official adds, admitting that the whole procedure was done in an ineffective manner. But is it such an impossible task?
No, say experts. “GCC should institutionalise a social auditing mechanism — a participatory exercise through which they can reach out to the community to sensitise them and learn their views about the policies,” says Vanessa Peter, a social activist and a policy researcher, IRCDUC, “This alone can make a policy effective at the ground level. When the GCC can do such audits annually for the homeless, it remains a mystery why street vendors are ignored.”
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. But except for Zone 5, which met twice in two years to decide about the eviction procedure on NSC Bose Road, no other TVCs have met till date.
“COVID-19 has hit our economy badly. The committee could have had a consultation now at least virtually to arrive at a solution. The issue is widespread: thousands of street vendors in Chennai became jobless and homeless during the pandemic,” says Thiruvettai.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India has instructed all the state governments to allow identified street vendors to carry out their businesses during the lockdown. However, this is not implemented. The Traffic Police and the Corporation had not allowed the vendors (even those with cards) to sell during the lockdown.
“We could not adhere to the central government rule because allowing the vendors to function would result in crowds and lead to faster spread of the disease,” said Kannan, traffic police.
A close analysis of the issues that have arisen during the crisis suggests that a basic solution to the problems of street vendors can be found in the vendor cards. To that extent, a lot lies in the hands of the GCC, which must carry out a widespread sensitisation drive about the importance of these cards.
However, having said that, it might not be easy for the civic body to implement it now, amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Till then, as discussed in an earlier article, community effort can go a long way in easing their distress.