To Raise Vendors’ Incomes, Focus on Reducing the Negatives

| 03/08/2013 8:15am
Sally Roever | WIEGO

In this guest blog post, Sally Roever, WIEGO’s Sector Specialist for Street Trade, argues that while clearer rules, better incentives and more supportive programs are important for street vendors, just as important is reducing the penalties they face as informal workers.

Jyotiben and her husband Arbindbhai sell vegetables from the sidewalk along one of eight new model roads in Ahmedabad, India. From about nine o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock in the evening, they sit on overturned plastic crates amid huge mounds of fresh ginger, peppers, garlic, cilantro and green beans. Their eldest son sets out from the sidewalk in the morning to sell vegetables from a pushcart, and a daughter-in-law vends from a nearby spot on the pavement.

They are vending on a road where vending is prohibited: Ahmedabad’s new model roads are part of the city’s transport modernization plans, and street vendors are not part of its vision of a modern city. Every day they are at risk of eviction, of having their goods confiscated, of being harassed – but the citizens who buy their vegetables need them to be there, and only on a main road can they maintain their livelihood.

In comparison to the vendors on her immediate right and left, Jyotiben’s vending enterprise seems relatively promising — while her neighbors sell only potatoes and onions, her plot on the sidewalk offers a far wider range of goods, and her energetic charm and inter-personal skills attract customers. Unlike a formal supermarket, Jyotiben offers her clients the possibility of conveniently buying very small quantities of the fresh vegetables and herbs they need and can afford for the day’s meals. After nightfall, Jyotiben operates a brisk business under a battery-powered bulb, with both middle-class and poorer clients stopping on their way home.

Through this enterprise she and her husband average about 150 rupees ($2.80 USD) in daily earnings.

Like 79 percent of India’s urban employed population, Jyotiben is part of the informal economy. Among these workers, over one third are own-account workers who operate small-scale enterprises, bearing all the risks of entrepreneurship without any of the protections that larger businesses enjoy. Street vendors, who make up 11 percent of total urban employment in India, face particularly acute risks because they work in public space.

Theoretically, Jyotiben is better off than many. She is registered as a street vendor, she belongs to a trade union (the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA), and she holds an identity card with authorization to occupy a space — just not this space on the sidewalk of the model road. Jyotiben and her fellow vendors have been authorized by the city to work on a street around the corner. That space, it turns out, is unsuitable: On one side of the road, the sidewalks are too narrow and the property owner harasses any vendors who attempt to work there; on the other side, men working in the street refuse to move, even though they lack permission to use the space.

The vendors know their days are numbered on the section of sidewalk that sustains their livelihoods. Recently, the municipal corporation offered another alternative, an off-street plot of land that is well located and could accommodate plenty of vendors. SEWA agreed that its members would move to this new space, but they couldn’t in its current condition: the land is uneven and full of rocks, cows and garbage. The city acknowledged the need to clear the plot to make it suitable for vending, but did not act. And so, the vendors remain on the model road, where they are subject to eviction at any time.

Mainstream theories of informality tell us that street vendors like Jyotiben remain informal, and therefore unproductive, because they seek to avoid the costs of formalization. But these vendors have sought out formalization, and have willingly taken on costs to do so. Their problem lies in the extralegal behavior of the state itself. Instead of investing what little time and money they have in expanding their businesses, many vendors spend it trouble-shooting a system that won’t make space for them.

In an example from a few weeks ago, a group of SEWA organizers went to the police station to register a complaint regarding abuse of authority. One night in January a police officer had come to the sidewalk and made a show of power by smashing the lights that the vendors rent for 10 rupees each day. The SEWA organizers explained patiently to the policeman that they each had to pay 60 rupees – more than one third of their average daily earnings – to replace the broken lights, an abuse they could ill afford. The policeman responded that it wasn’t his problem; that was an issue for the traffic police, and his division wasn’t responsible for traffic police. On the way out, the vendors saw the same vehicle that had brought the abusive police officer to their sidewalk, sitting in the station parking lot.

Policy interventions designed to support workers in the informal economy often center on the idea of “increasing the positives.” These involve clearer rules, better incentives, or more supportive programs, for example. But for many informal workers, “reducing the negatives” is equally important. In the case of street vendors, a significant majority – in Ahmedabad as in other informal cities – bear risks associated both with their place of work (in public space) and with their employment status (as own-account workers). Without the legal status of a workplace, many vendors stand little chance of earning their way out of poverty. Instead, they must constantly recover from the losses imposed by city authorities who confiscate merchandise, destroy owned or rented property, and implement (or improvise) eviction orders.

As SEWA and the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) have argued for many years, offering street vendors legal status in a location that is economically unviable won’t work. Good policy – for street vendors, for city governments and for city residents – requires granting street vendors access to natural markets, under reasonable and fair regulations that the vendors themselves can help enforce. But good policy won’t happen without the participation of strong, democratic organizations of street vendors. India’s National Policy on street vending recognizes vendors as providers of affordable and convenient services to the urban population. Now city authorities must recognize the vendors’ associations as allies rather than adversaries.

Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s participation in an Exposure-Dialogue Programme (EDP) co-sponsored by WIEGO, SEWA, and Harvard University that took place in January 2013 in Ahmedabad. The author spent two days living and working alongside Jyotiben (not her real name) and her family. The real names of the host and her family members were changed to protect their identity.

Sally Roever is WIEGO’s Sector Specialist for Street Trade. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley (2005) with specializations in research design and comparative politics. She is currently based in Washington, DC.