Residents need street vendors in Chennai, to buy fruits, vegetables, and even small ornaments or jewellery. The latter need residents to buy their wares because that’s how they make both ends meet. On the face of it, residents and vendors share a symbiotic relationship in Chennai. But conflicts between these two groups seem to erode their relationship, undermining the chance of peaceful co-existence and creating a contentious issue out of street vending in principle.
Vendors claim that evictions could affect their livelihoods. Residents claim that the latter occupy footpaths and improperly dump waste, among other issues.
Citizen Matters organised a panel discussion, bringing both vendors and residents of Chennai together to discuss their claims to the city’s street spaces.
Street vending in Chennai
“The government says that around 60,000 street vendors can be allowed in Chennai. But there are more than a lakh vendors,” says C Thiruvettai, President of Chennai Street Vendors Association. Many people try to escape poverty by vending on the streets of Chennai, instead of begging.
Vendors lament that despite increasing numbers, their business has dwindled significantly in recent years.
“A few years ago, people used to come until even midnight to purchase for Diwali. These days I hardly see any street shoppers beyond 7 pm,” says Srinivasan, a vendor in Purasaiwalkam. “We earn a meagre profit of Rs 200 or Rs 300 everyday these days.”
E-commerce also impacts their businesses, says Krishnamurthi, another vendor in Purasaiwalkam. “We are earning an honest living by vending on the footpaths. This money prevents vendors from resorting to illicit activities. So, the government must support us.”
The struggle for vendors to continue selling from the space the occupy at present is manifold. The vendors reveal that banks do not easily give loans to them, making their survival harder. Political interventions including bribery also affect their businesses, especially if the vendors are starting out in a new area.
Residents inconvenienced by unregulated street vending
Be it Pondy Bazaar, Sowcarpet or Pantheon Road, many people from different pockets of the city come to these areas and shop. “This is because it looks organised while shopping. But our problem is when we are unable to walk on the roads because of vendors setting up their stalls or carts there, especially in a high-traffic area,” says Nithya, a resident of Velachery.
“The government has earmarked some zones for vendors in Chennai. But there should be space for that. In our area, busy traffic spaces and footpaths are given off as vending zones. It is hard for both residents and vendors in Chennai. People cannot walk, and the vendors cannot hawk,” says Geeta Padmanabhan, a resident of Thiruvanmiyur.
In another instance, vendors started hawking on a newly constructed footpath, making walking very hard, says Nithya. “When we raised the complaint to GCC, the vendors cleared. But they came back again within a week.”
Among other issues, residents also note that vendors do not adequately dispose of waste in Chennai. “They do not know where to dump the excess water or oil. Sometimes they open the manhole of stormwater drains and pour the oil, choking the drain,” notes Geeta.
Residents do not deny that vendors give character to the city, but they say that they have equal claims to city spaces as a vendor selling their wares on a footpath.
Do vending zones in Chennai work?
The Corporation of Chennai started introducing vending zones to regularise vending, but it comes with issues. They do not always understand what the vendors want, says the President of the Chennai Street Vendors Association.
“In those zones, people rarely come to buy our wares, plus there is no demand. We can make some money only if we sell in areas where there is some footfall. So, we do not sell our stuff there,” says Krishnamurthi. “If not, our businesses dwindle further.”
“If we ask the vendors to sell their goods in other places, without thinking whether they would be able to make a living or not, we are risking their livelihoods,” says Thiruvettai.
“Their interests and livelihood must be protected since they offer wares and goods at very reasonable prices to the economically underprivileged people in Chennai. If we do not protect the business of the vendors, then others’ lives will also be affected,” says Thiruvettai, since vendors form an integral part of a city’s economy.
Are vending committees the solution for street vending issues?
In 2014, the Union Government directed that vending committees must be set up with vendors, RWA representatives and city corporation officials, as per the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act of 2014. “It was set up to safeguard the survival of street vendors,” says Thiruvettai.
In 2016, the Tamil Nadu government implemented it. However, the vending committee in Chennai was disbanded by the Madras High Court in 2022 because it was found to have existed unconstitutionally.
“To protect our interests, the government must bring back the vending committee in the city. If not, the authorities do not consult with us while taking decisions about us and where we should do business,” says Srinivasan.
Geeta suggests that the civic body decentralises vendor regulation at zone or ward levels. “People sitting in Ripon Building may not always know what is happening in Purasaiwalkam or Velachery. This will save trips to the courts to resolve issues.”
Ward-level consultation to regulate vending will be more effective, remarked an audience member, because even zone-wise consultation will not address the issues between residents and vendors at hyperlocal levels. This will also ensure transparency in the regulation process, apart from publishing the list of vendors in each ward.
At present, GCC is conducting a survey to identify spots for vending zones, says Corporation officials, adding that the idea is to identify proper spaces and facilities for these issues to be formally sorted out.
Residents want vending zones to be set up after consultation with both residents and vendors so that both can co-exist in peace.
Vending associations and Resident Welfare Associations along with GCC must work together to realise the potential of vending for the city’s economy and find common ground between vendors and residents.
Watch the complete discussion here.