Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Slave Drivers and Street Vendors

While driving through Empress Road a petrifying scene attracted my attention that compelled me to pull up and watch over. It was really shocking. In a ding-dong fight the City officials were veritably frittering away the victuals and seizing the pushcarts of the luckless vendors. Under the supervision of a petty official behaving like a dummy god of the City government, the economic and physical assault of the vendors, destroyed their dignity and conviction only for being unlicensed.

The view reminded me of such instances as hackneyed during apartheid or colonial regimes. It clinched an argument that the same Pakistan that is earnestly engaged in war against terrorism, at street level follows Machiavelli.

City officials regularly quell vendors to mental and physical pressures. At times this has led to riotous situations, loss of property, and monetary damage. A major problem is that master plans prepared for our cities do not collocate space to vendors. The planners blindly imitate the western concept of marketing, ignoring our traditions and the needs of the unemployed youth, particularly in the wake of rising crime and terrorism. No wonder, weekly markets struggle to survive; natural markets are ignored. The policy statements of the local, provincial and federal development authorities talk of making provision for trading and commercial activities, which unfortunately is interpreted as doing so for rich traders and big businesses.

We have taken no notice of the ignorance of City workers, their misuse of authority and inadequacy. Consequently, their treachery, lust, covetousness, and every kind of inhumanity and cruelty, continue unabated.

Street vendors are those millions who come to cities as economic refugees hoping to provide basic necessities for their families. They provide a wide array of commodities to the urban populace at reasonable prices. They can be divided into two major categories—(a) mobile vendors who own pushcarts or simply move around with their goods in hand and (b) stallholders who set up khokhas in public places on a more or less regular basis.

The variety seen in the goods and, yes, the services provided by these innovative professionals is staggering. It is difficult not to associate these people with the culture and traditions of the city.

The type of goods they sell makes an interesting study – from daily needs like vegetable, fruits, fish, meat and snacks to occasional needs like ready-to-eat food, toys, and used garments. It would be hard to find an urbanite that doesn’t purchase something from these vendors. The middle and lower class consumer specifically prefers to purchase from them, though even well heeled citizens purchase many commodities given reasonable prices.

Vending has been a profession since time immemorial, with street vendors an integral part of our urban history and culture. Shopping and marketing, in a traditional sense, has primarily been informal. Social interaction is integral to our markets in contrast to the mechanized and sterile concept of shopping favored by modern market and super market structures.

Street vendors exhibit remarkable entrepreneurial skills. Purchasing of commodities is no easy task with constant market fluctuations. Merchandise has to be in sync with both consumer tastes and paying capacity. As most vendors deal in perishables, the goods have to be sold at the right time.

The municipal corporation laws, based on 19th century British rule, are outdated and detrimental to the peaceful conduct of business by vendors. Instead of regulating vendors, city governments treat them as a nuisance; their policies and actions are aimed more at removing and harassing them rather than at regulation. The rich traders have encroached sidewalks, footpaths and even roads, which the same authorities ignore. Why? The law only seems for the poor who are unable to grease the palms of the incompetent functionaries.

Every government in Pakistan comes with tall claims for poverty alleviation but unemployment continues to exist. Street or sidewalk vending provides self-employment and small business ownership opportunities to the downtrodden. Entrepreneurship is an exciting opportunity for the poor to realize their full potential while becoming financially self-supporting. Our planners remain oblivious to the role of vendors who are victimized, harassed, marginalized and deprived.

The city has today become an engine of growth, the main job provider. Just the same, they remain ill prepared to address the problems of poverty. Planning and governance continues to be the preserve of the politician-mafia-bureaucrat nexus. Poorly tailored policies if at all exist are badly implemented. Instead of creating an enabling environment, government policies are wrecking the livelihoods of these people, depressing their incomes and thwarting their entrepreneurial potential.

There is unabated official and social hostility towards the informal sector of street vending, even though the formal sector has ceased to grow, having reached saturation point. As the cost of creating jobs in this sector is very low, it needs to be integrated into the context of the overall macro-economy. However, we must first remove the obstacles in its functioning.

There is no institutionalization of a process to enable vendors to sell their commodities peacefully. A holistic approach targeting all the stakeholders demands changes in anti-vendor laws, a pro-vendor policy, creation of institutions to enable participation of vendors in urban governance, changing the mindset of the planners, the police and the society at large, and building the capacity of the vendors.

Pakistan’s social system must cater to the needs of its members to enable them to survive; it must have effective means of allocating and distributing resources. The government should thus formulate a policy by (a) giving vendors legal status and issuing licenses at nominal yearly fee, (b) setting up of mobile teams for spot licensing (c) promoting and developing the natural market system, (d) making street vendors a special component of the plans for urban development by treating them as an integral part of the urban distribution system, (e) setting up appropriate, participative, non-formal mechanisms with representation from street vendors, NGOs, local authorities, the police and others. Asif J. Mir, Organizational Transformation