Occupational hazards that exist for women in the street vending work
5 minutes read
Street vending as a profession has been in existence for centuries and our history textbooks are a testimony to this fact. In all civilizations, there are accounts of wandering traders who meandered the length and breadth of the subcontinent, selling a diverse range of commodities. In current times, street vending is one of the most visible occupations in the informal economy. However, as opposed to the overall flourishing status of the wandering traders of the bygone era, street vendors in the modern age are rarely treated with the same measure of dignity and tolerance. Trading from the pavements is rife with uncertainties and street vendors often bear the brunt of excessive surveillance and harassment by authorities in urban areas.
Street vendors form an essential part of the popular urban imagination. We guage their arrival by a series of sounds we associate with them—the rhythmic peddling of their carts, their resounding chants and their methodical repetition of them. Despite the gender-based discrimination in the industry, women vendors have a significant presence in the urban landscape.
In India, women constitute about 40% of the total vendors with nearly 30% of them being the sole earning members in their families.
Vendors are regularly subjected to victimisation, harassment, marginalisation and are pushed from one area to another. The occupational hazards in the street vending industry are layered and manifold. These are coupled with sub-standard and unregulated employment conditions which have wide-ranging detrimental effects on the lives of street vendors.
Vying for space in hostile cities
Exclusionary practices govern the position of street vendors in India. The following dominant exclusionary practices are witnessed in urban spaces. At one extreme are large-scale, violent evictions where street vendors are forcibly removed from public space. In less brutal cases, some vendors are relocated, but often to more marginal locations with low pedestrian footfall and/or inadequate facilities. Finally, there is lower-level, ongoing harassment of vendors by predatory state officials. Among the reasons for their regular evictions are urban gentrification, construction projects and other capitalistic ventures.
Street vendors are often relegated to the margins because they are viewed as “backward” and are hence “undesirable” in the urban setting. The tone of local laws is in tandem with the political and public discourse that blame street vendors for the dirt, disease and congestion in urban spaces. The structural issues underpinning their condition are largely ignored.
The lives of vendors are characterised by routine exploitation and extortion on the part of multiple authorities. Seizing of goods and bribery is also not uncommon. Vendors are subjected to immense pressure by officials and sometimes hostilities escalate to a significant extent, thus resulting in riotous situations, loss of property or monetary loss. Harassment emanates from a lack of official recognition of the rights of street selling and vendors’ lack of political and economic power. Instead of regulating vendors, municipal corporations treat them as a nuisance and as irritants. Vendors also bear the brunt of handling conflicts with other vendors and pedestrians due to several constraints that exist in working spaces. The risk posed by road traffic and speeding vehicles also looms over them.
Given the nature of their work, urban vendors are prone to a plethora of health issues which originate from factors such as air pollution, noise pollution, harsh weather and poor sanitation and hygiene. The physical and verbal abuse which they are at the receiving end of, also impacts their well-being. Compounding this problem is the fact that 61.3% of the street vendors in India do not have health insurance. Studies conducted on the occupational health of street vendors reveal that across the country, they are faced with an acute lack of proper infrastructure, social security and healthcare facilities.
There is also a dire lack of easy accessibility to toilets and safe drinking water. The lack of toilets has uncontestable gendered consequences in that it reduces the mobility and agency of women street vendors. Reportedly, the lack of sanitation has not only contributed to women feeling ill at ease, but has also led to them suffering from kidney diseases.
Street vending is labour-intensive and this makes women relatively more vulnerable to health issues. The perpetual squatting on pavements makes them susceptible to headaches, body pain, back aches, etc. Apart from these issues, women also reportedly suffer from chikungunya, heat boils, and decreased appetites.
Burgeoning Informality and Uncertainty
Inadequate licensing systems creates a hostile environment for street vendors in which predatory state and non-state actors can take advantage of them. The issuing of a license would provide a street vendor with legal status, a semblance of an identity and permission to avail appropriate hawking zones. Due to the cap on the number of licences permitted, corruption becomes endemic. Additionally, the laws and regulations governing street vendors are complex and inaccessible to street vendors. More often than not, they are not translated to local languages. Further, local authorities rarely take into cognizance the opinions of vendors before making decisions that impact their livelihoods.
The outright unpredictability of their livelihoods also operates against street vendors. Vegetables, fruits and flowers are generally the domain of women street vendors. Their constant mobility exposes them to risks from passing vehicles and pedestrians.
The digital gender gap makes women street vendors susceptible to inferior treatment. While their male counterparts are often equipped with digital wallet platforms like Google Pay and Paytm, women still rely on cash payment.
The bargaining power of women is also usually lower while dealing with negotiations related to paying fines and relocating. Organising together and partnering with NGOs alleviates their concerns to a great extent on this front.
A Story of Resistance
In the light of rampant state action against street vending activities under the pretext of declogging city roads for traffic, several street vendors and organisations working for their welfare have risen in protest. For instance, in response to the “anti-encroachment drive” that was in full swing in Delhi in 2018, a delegation of street vendors led by National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) national coordinator Arbind Singh met Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal. Slogans were raised against their harassment and the threat of intensification of agitation was posed to the authorities if municipal action against them did not cease.
That said, several institutional steps have also been taken to improve the living conditions of street vendors. The enactment of the National Street Vendors Act (2014) has led to the strengthening of the rights of street vendors. It guarantees protection from eviction, issual of certification and the prevention of harassment by the state machinery. With committed civil society organisations that advocate for street vendors, there is scope for alleviation of their distress.
- NASVI: Overview of street vendors- A little history
- 14th World Bioethics Congress, 2018: Occupational Health And Safety of Street Vendors of Delhi and Hyderabad
- Institute for Social and Economic Change: Female Street Vendors in Bangalore City – Channamma Kambara and Mutharayappa, 2018
- WIEGO: Street Vendors and Legal Advocacy: Reflections from Ghana, India, Peru, South Africa and Thailand, 2019
- MoLJ: The Street Vendors (protection of livelihood and regulation of street vending) Act, 2014
- The Statesman: Delhi: Street vendors protest eviction drive, meet L-G Anil Baijal, 2018