Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Tuesday announced a Rs 20 lakh crore package for the revival of the Indian economy. Wary of the fact that his government is seen to be pro-rich and has come in for criticism for not being able to take care of the poor, especially the migrant labour population, during the Covid lockdown, the Prime Minister was particular in assuring that the relief package would empower one and all and will not be “trickle down”. He claimed it would cover all sections from the word go.
Soon after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address, opposition Congress said the address “failed to address woes of millions of migrant workers.” While some details are awaited as the package details announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman would need to be deciphered, but the Prime Minister’s mention about for the street vendors must have come as a big relief for a major section of the urban poor and people who form a very important clog in our economy.
Relief for street vendors - a credit scheme of Rs 5,000 crore, was important, as the informal sector has been worst hit by the drastic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the government figures may differ, the social sector organisations working in the sector, claim that the informal sector workers constitute 93 per cent of the workforce.
During the lockdown several of these workers have been pushed towards destitution, as evident from the images and reports of misery of migrant population from across the country.
According to industry estimates around 44 crores workers in the country are in occupation such as domestic helps, daily wage workers, construction workers, brick kiln workers, manual scavenging workers, home based workers, entertainment industry workers, street vendors, auto rickshaw drivers, auto goods carrier workers, service industry workers particularly food and hospitality sector, restaurant workers, gig economy workers like delivery boys, radio cab drivers and waste pickers, and now not to forget the newspaper hawkers.
Of these, the street vendors form the biggest and most diverse group. It includes the vegetable and fruit vendors, the cooked food vendors, ice cream vendors, the general utility items vendors (those who throng the weekly markets), roadside barbers, tailors and cobblers among others. Except for those in the business of vending vegetables and fruits rest all have taken a big beating.
The challenge before the government, whatever the amount of money to be sanctioned for the rehabilitation of informal section, is reaching out directly and, as the Prime Minister himself said, not waiting for the trickle-down effect. In the past six years, the country missed on the opportunity to structure the informal sector by failing to implement the Street Vendors Act passed in 2014.
The fallout of lethargy of the state governments in implementing the Act is that today we have a big gap in the number of street vendors actually present and the numbers issued license. The situation is actually pathetic in metropolitan and big cities, where the local municipal organisations and the state governments have cared two figs for implementing the act.
According to figures issues by the National Association of Street Vendors of Indian (NASVI), in Mumbai alone there are 2.5 lakh street vendors, none with a license under the new act.
The story is same in the national capital, where there are 4.5 lakh vendors and none have a license. In Ahmedabad there are 1.25 lakh vendors, none with license, similarly Kolkata 1.5 lakh vendors and none with license.
The cities in the south are somewhat better with Chennai having issued license to 28,000 of its estimated 88,000 vendors. Bengaluru has issued licenses to 15,400 out of 1.25 lakh vendors. Hyderabad is similarly placed with license to 14,500 out of the 100,000 street vendors. The best performance is by centrally-administered Chandigarh, which has issued license to 21,622 vendors out of an estimated number of 30000.
What’s more worrisome, is the whack of the administration which comes raining down on the vendors as soon as a measure like lockdown is taken. On the same day that the Prime Minister mentioned about street vendors, a video clip of a vegetable vendor’s cart being upturned in Meerut was going viral.
“Include the vegetable and fruit vendors in essential service. Registered food vendors should be allowed to vend in colonies,” says Arbind Singh, national convenor of NASVI on the possible way out.
How else the government can reach out to this particular section, which has such substantive social presence and crucial to the revival of economy. We have some existing data with the government which could be put to use.
To establish 'ídentity', one could look at the data of those holding BPL and APL cards. Then such workers possessing ‘construction worker welfare board card’ could be identified for giving the benefits.
Similarly, street vendors possessing identity cards or licence for vending or surveyed, those booked for vending without license, trained by government organisations National Skills Development Council and FSSAI, could be made beneficiary. Auto rickshaw and goods carrier vehicle drivers possessing driving licence could be given the benefit.
The government could also use the data of the members of the various labour and trade unions to contribute to the making of its own data for beneficiaries. The challenge would, however, still remain to cover such workers who are not covered under any of the above-mentioned data bases or if covered migrate seasonally in search for livelihood.
The latter constitute as large number, as evident from the reverse migration from the urban centres. The government has shown the intent but must also showcase the wherewithal to implement the intent.