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Conditional’ Citizens? Hawkers in the Streets (and the Courts) of Contemporary India

Kunal Joshi


Street vendors have often been seen as archetypal examples of informality in cities—constituting what Chatterjee (2004), for instance, has called political society—indispensable to the city, but continually having to negotiate the law, their claims to citizenship perpetually tenuous. Using Chatterjee’s framework as a guide, I look at how the movement for street vendors’ rights has evolved in India over the last few decades. I have studied the legal as well as political struggle waged by various street vendors’ groups over the last decade, which eventually culminated in a national law legalizing street vending in India in 2014. That this law was passed amid increasingly strong aspirations for (hawker-free) 'world-class' cities on the part of the middle class is in itself significant, but shows, more importantly, how the Indian street vendor, far from seeking exceptions to the law, is increasingly demanding to be let in to the governmental gaze of the state. Although there have been many problems with the implementation of the bill since its passage, I argue that by institutionalizing a right to vend, the campaign which led to the bill has created new possibilities for vendors to negotiate with the state at all levels.

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This project emerged out of my graduate work (MA) at the King’s India Institute, and I wish to thank my supervisor Louise Tillin for her invaluable guidance throughout the process. I also wish to thank the editors and the two anonymous reviewers for their astute comments, and to IFRA for organizing the conference on “Urbanisation and Street Vendors” where this paper took its final shape. Special thanks also to Shri Ram ji from NASVI for our very helpful conversations, and to Ahona Palchoudhuri for her help in editing the paper. 


1Deemed illegal as per city master-plans and most municipal by-laws, street vendors in India seem condemned to perpetually negotiating their survival with the law, while necessarily remaining outside it (Bhowmik et al. 2011: 100). They are, and have traditionally been, prime targets of the police and municipal officials, who derive a substantial portion of their monthly income from bribes collected from such vendors. While vendors do take recourse to the court, the primary way in which they encounter the state is through personalized interactions with its local functionaries. Prime targets of these officials, street vendors have devised a number of innovative solutions to survive on the street in addition to paying bribes, such as using receipts for fines paid (‘paotis’) in courts as documentary proof of their existence, or moving the courts even when they are sure to lose in order to buy “valuable business time” (Rajagopal 2001: 107-8).

2There is a trend in the literature, which seeks to understand these personalized interactions as characteristic, even constitutive of life for the urban poor, most notably Partha Chatterjee’s framework distinguishing civil and political society. Chatterjee (2004) argues, as I show, that while the former comprises ‘citizens’ who bear rights which are guaranteed by law, the latter is a zone of informality, made up of ‘populations’ whose claim to legality is always on shaky ground. Despite necessarily existing outside the rule of law, the poor use their relationship with the state to continually negotiate their terms of survival, their claims to citizenship always ‘conditional’ on the success of their negotiations. According to Chatterjee (2008: 61), the hallmark of these negotiations is exceptionalism: in the same way that the squatters “do not demand that the right to private property in land be abolished [,]…when the state acknowledges these demands, it too must do so not by the simple application of administrative rules but rather by a political decision to declare an exception” (Chatterjee 2008: 61).

3Such characterizations – of the politics of the poor as insurgent, to use James Holston’s analogous term (Holston 2008) – provide a valuable starting point to understanding the fissures in contemporary urban politics and the precarious negotiations that occur in the margins of the state. Following Lemanski and Lama-Rewal (2011), however, I argue that the politics of street vendors – who have historically attempted to negotiate these claims with the state in both political as well as judicial forums, often appealing to the higher judiciary – might call into question any straightforward divisions between ‘civil’ and ‘political’ society. As I will show, the recent movement led by the National Association of Street Vendors in India (NASVI, henceforth) does precisely this. As opposed to seeking to escape the eyes of the state and operating under the logic of exceptionalism, this campaign has sought to reposition street vending as an essential part of India’s aspirational ‘world-class cities’, and in so doing, might have succeeded in securing a far less precarious position for the Indian street hawker today.

4I will first provide a brief historical overview of urbanization in India. Such a sketch is necessarily schematic – it is impossible to craft a single narrative for the historical development of ‘the Indian city’ – but I hope that it will nonetheless serve to foreground the social exclusion that street vendors have been facing in Indian cities over the last few decades. Next, I will examine how street vendors have negotiated with the law, by looking at how the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on street hawking has evolved over the last few years. The decades of litigation and judicial rulings not only help in understanding the significance of the current moment in the (legal) history of street vending, but also call into question the claim that street vendors necessarily negotiate ‘outside’ the law. Finally, having shown that street vendors are finding it increasingly difficult to negotiate citizenship rights in political as well as in judicial forums, I show how they have responded, and attempt to analyze the resultant movement and its impact on urban politics.

Against All Odds: A Brief Overview of Exclusion in Indian Cities

5For the purposes of this paper, a street vendor or a hawker – the words are used interchangeably in the Indian context – may be defined as someone who sells goods without necessarily having either a permanent shop or a fixed location at which this transaction occurs. While street vendors might be classified along many different axes – according to the wares or services they sell, for instance, or their degree of mobility – they are united in the harassment that they regularly face from the authorities. The roots of the current exclusion faced by them, and the urban poor more generally, may be traced back to colonial times. The British approach to urban planning in the late 19th century was largely influenced by post-Enlightenment ideas of rationality, private property, public (and private) space, public health, and notions of citizenship and civic consciousness. While these were ostensibly projected as objective ideals of urban planning, they were simultaneously also “inflected by cultural markers”, which included “elements of aesthetics, racial difference and class biases” (Sharan 2006: 4907). Through the prism of these ideas, then, the existing habits of native Indians could only be seen as “a leading source of danger, dirt, ill-health, congestion and spatial disorder” (Mehra 2011: 59). In response, the British set about the task of remaking urban India to fit an idealized image of Europe, which was, needless to say, free of the chaos that hawkers represented, at least in the planners’ imagination. While these new ideas of the urban were incomprehensible to the bulk of India’s residents, they managed to greatly impress the “middle-class educated elite”, who alone “had the right combination of a sense of inferiority to the British and cultural self-confidence to embark on a course of systematic emulation” (Kaviraj 1997: 92, Anderson 1992: 32).

6After Independence, while the declaration of the constitutional guarantees of civil and political equality nominally ensured that everyone became an equal citizen of the country, there was little substantive change in the distribution of power between rich and poor, with the urban elite still firmly in control of the state and the institutions of civil society (Chatterjee 2001: 174). There was, however, a drastic change in the way in which urbanity came to be negotiated in the decades immediately after independence. In contrast to the exclusion that preceded it, this period has been described as one of great optimism, with many campaigns to remake the Indian city, precisely so that it could accommodate its poorest residents and realize the constitutional aspirations of social justice. Ostensibly, cities in India were to be built “according to a radically different set of imperatives” from those that shaped colonial cities (Sharan 2006: 4907). Thus, with the rise of the idea of urban planning in the 1950s, the focus of the state shifted to creating not only ‘modern’, but also equitable cities. Of course, it bears mentioning that a majority of these schemes were unsuccessful – with, say, subsidies meant for social housing often diverted to the middle classes – but change was nonetheless in the air (Mehra 2011: 60).

7Where legal attempts to do so might have failed, there was widespread social cognizance of the idea that the poor needed to be accommodated, and it was this idea that led to various ‘para-legal’ arrangements which came to characterize urban governance in this period (Chatterjee 2004: 74). Despite the state’s recognition of its limited ability to guarantee benefits to the poor, all planning efforts in this period nevertheless “took it for granted that large sections of the poor would have to live in the city without legitimate title to their places of habitation”, and municipalities often provided slums with access to basic urban services like electricity, and sanitation (Chatterjee 2004: 135). This urban inclusiveness in the 1960s and 1970s was always tenuous, and constantly under strain with ever-increasing urban populations. With the first stirrings of neoliberalism in the 1980s and consequent deindustrialization, it began to unravel. As Appadurai (2000: 629), taking Mumbai as an example, puts it, “jobs became harder to get. More rural arrivals in the city found themselves economic refugees. Slums and shacks began to proliferate. The wealthy began to get nervous.”

8There had always been an anti-poor trend simmering beneath the surface, and it was to boil over with as a result of two structural changes which occurred in the early 1990s. The 1991 economic liberalization not only empowered the middle class economically, but also introduced them to the idea of the post-industrial, ‘global’ or ‘world-class’ city. As growing numbers of educated, upper-middle class workers in the ‘new’ economy increasingly found themselves a part of global capital-flows, they began to compare their urban surroundings not with other Indian cities, but with other ‘global’ cities like Shanghai or Singapore (Bhattacharya and Sanyal 2011: 43), which came to dominate the middle-class imagination through an “intensified circulation of images… through cinema, television and the internet as well as through… international travel” (Chatterjee 2004: 143). As a result, the middle classes now intensified their demands for a ‘clean’ environment “free from the ‘nuisance’… created by the presence of the poor and their squalid living conditions” (Baviskar 2007: 392). At the same time, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) provided for the mandatory constitution of urban local bodies, which, despite many provisions for equitable distribution of power, eventually came to be dominated by the middle-classes (Singh 2012, Harris 2005), and gave them the power to act on these desires. Thus the new city, eerily recalling the cities of early colonial India, strove to be slum and squatter-free.

9With the middle classes not only dominating the newly created democratic forums where citizens could participate in urban governance, but also maintaining hegemony over the idea of ‘public interest’, it was in the operationalizing of these demands that the poor were systematically excluded from the process urban governance. Since the passage of the 74th CAA, and particularly in the last decade, ‘citizen’-led organizations have been playing an increasingly important role in urban governance. As has been comprehensively shown by Singh (2012), and Harris (2005), in the case of Bombay and Delhi respectively, these citizens’ organizations are mostly constituted by the middle-classes, and are clearly partial to their interests. Apart from their increasing economic influence, it is this ‘elite capture’ (Kundu 2011) of the institutions of urban governance which has allowed the elite to express their private concerns using notions of ‘public interest’, leading to a monopolization of the idea of the common good. Simultaneously, while these middle class-led ‘civil society’ organizations have increasingly come to define the public interest, the interests of the urban poor are often marginalized as parochial or self-serving (Anjaria 2009: 402).

10In this new paradigm of urban governance, which has pitted the interests of the middle classes directly against those of the urban poor, hawkers have been among the worst affected groups, with the problems of urban space often “devolved entirely onto street vendors” (Rajagopal 2001: 106). In the new discourse of the ‘world-class’ city, the use of urban space has come to be defined increasingly rigidly. Thus, with footpaths becoming ‘mono-functional’, or the proliferation of gated communities across cities, the figure of the hawker is increasingly seen as a ‘public nuisance’ or a security threat (Anjaria 2006: 2142). It is undeniable that hawkers, with their wares often sprawled across the footpath, do inconvenience pedestrians. However, in a context where the footpaths that they supposedly encroach on are largely non-existent, and where goods from ‘formal’ shops are equally likely to be spilling over onto roads, we find that it is not only the actual inconvenience which hawkers cause to pedestrians that provokes the sharp response against them – hawkers threaten the new urban order in more fundamental ways. As Rajagopal (2001: 94) has argued, with the “ability… to weave through the heterogeneous zones of the city without necessarily having the right to reside in them”, the figure of the hawker represents an existential threat to the middle class, representative of a chaos which could undermine the entire disciplinary grid through which they seek to make the city legible.


Street Vending in the Supreme Court

11In contrast to political dealings on the street, the conventional view of the judiciary holds that the court, focused on questions of constitutional legality, is comparatively apolitical. But as I go on to show, there are clear parallels in how the court has historically dealt with social rights and the way these rights have been negotiated on political terrain, with the Supreme Court often choosing to arrange “a workable modus vivendi” rather than articulating constitutional “high values” (Mehta 2005: 170). Thus, a more general trend in state-citizen relations begins to emerge, with the state treating the poor as “exception[s] to the universally applicable rule” instead of attempting to accommodate them within the rule (Chatterjee 2008: 61). However, as I show, the same processes, which result in social rights for street vendors being ‘conditional’, to use legal theorist Madhav Khosla’s term (Khosla 2010), also allow for the court to be more responsive to the inaction of other state bodies, and has, over the years, allowed the movement for hawkers rights to transcend mere political society.

12Before moving to the case-law pertaining to street vending, it is important to contextualize it in the light of some recent trends in the Indian jurisprudence on social rights. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to address the many different trends in Indian jurisprudence (see, for instance, Sathe 2001, Suresh and Narrain 2014, or Bhuwania 2016 for a comprehensive overview), it is important to note that the late-1970s saw the advent of Public Interest Litigation (PIL), and the birth what has been called the “PIL-era” of the court. PIL may be thought of as analogous to what has been called ‘social action litigation’ in other parts of the world, and marked the beginnings of what is often pejoratively called ‘judicial activism’ in the Indian judiciary. As part of this trend, there was a move away from the more procedural aspects of the law in favor of the ‘spirit’ of the Constitution, and the Supreme Court was reinvented as a champion of the poor (Ramanathan 2014: 40). While the court was at times held to be guilty of populism or overreach, there was broad consensus on the fact that it had come up with a number of procedural innovations so as to be able to better pursue the interests of the poor. This, however, was to change significantly in the next decade, as the Supreme Court allegedly underwent a “structural adjustment” (Baxi 2010), with many having made the case that the judiciary has become increasingly anti-poor in its rulings in recent years (see Bhushan 2004, 2010, Ramanathan 2002, 2006, Ghertner 2008), as “the slum-dweller, the working classes and the dam-displaced were exiled to the margins of the court’s concern, or outlawed altogether” (Ramanathan 2002). While these dominant narratives have been widely contested (Gauri 2014, Krishnaswamy and Khosla 2014), this alleged ‘neo-liberal’, ‘anti-poor’ turn in the Court’s jurisprudence appears to mirror the simultaneous growth of exclusionary practices of urban governance, and both of these have affected the lives and livelihoods of street vendors, as I go on to show.

13Starting in 1967, four landmark cases have changed the court’s position on street vending. The first published case pertaining to the rights of street vendors to sell their wares in India appears in 1967 – Pyare Lal etc. vs. New Delhi Municipal Committee and anr. (1967) – where the court ruled firmly against legalizing street vending. This was to change completely in the next set of judgements (both passed during the heyday of what has been described as the ‘activist’ period of the court). These were the famous Olga Tellis and Bombay Hawkers cases, both filed against the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1985. In the Olga Tellis judgement, the court went so far as to rule that attempting to remove ‘encroaching’ street vendors would be contrary not only to their constitutional right to livelihood, but the right to life itself, contending that “no person can live without the means of living” (para 32). Of course, the court also deemed that these rights were not absolute, and could be restricted in public interest (para 37). If Pyare Lal can be seen as one extreme in the debate around the legality of street vending, then the Olga Tellis judgment marks the other. However, it was the next judgment which reached a middle ground between these two positions, and firmly declared street vending a legal profession – a precedent that has consistently been maintained in the 25 years since it was passed.

14In the case in question, Sodan Singh v. New Delhi Municipal Committee (1989), the court rejected the Pyare Lal judgement and ruled that municipalities not only could, but in the interests of fairness, ought to frame laws permitting and regulating street vending. Next, evaluating the Bombay Hawkers and Olga Tellis judgements, it ruled that while hawkers definitely had the support of the right to livelihood, “the right to carry on any trade or business and the concept of life and personal liberty…are too remote to be connected together” (para 20). The court also restricted street vendors’ right to livelihood by ruling that while they had a right to hawk, this did not extend to hawking at a particular place (para 32, emphasis mine). Far from seeing them as a nuisance, the court recognized that hawkers could “considerably add to the comfort and convenience of general public” (para 16).

15While there have been a significant number of cases on the issue since then, the court has always taken the legality of hawking, as defined in Sodan Singh, as a starting point. This evolving jurisprudence has led the court to make many innovative interventions in municipal policy. For instance, over the years, the court has delineated different guidelines for stationary and mobile hawkers (Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union 2003, para 18), made provisions for reservations for handicapped hawkers (Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union 2003, para 12), recognized the idea of ‘natural markets’ and made special provisions in this regard (Sudhir Madan 2007, para 30), and also, recognizing that hawkers were not necessarily aware of municipal and judicial proceedings, made it mandatory for municipalities to extensively publish and distribute multilingual advertisements and handbills with these details (Saudan Singh 1992, para 10). While one must not overstate the importance of these innovations, it must be noted that hawkers’ legal status has not been challenged in the judiciary, as in other cases (see, for instance, Ghertner 2008 for a comprehensive analysis of the recent antagonistic turn in the case-law pertaining to slum dwellers). Thus, there does not appear to have been any ‘anti-poor’ trend in the judiciary’s consideration of street vendors.

16Having said that, however, it is also important to note that where there have been no losses, there have hardly been any substantive gains, with most hawkers getting nothing more than a restricted right to vend. While the court has ostensibly claimed that it wants to “ensure that genuine squatters/hawkers are not denied their daily bread at the altar of technicalities” (Saudan Singh 1992, supra note 17, para 10), it has displayed no concern for the fact that its rulings cater only to a tiny fraction of the total number of ‘genuine hawkers’. In fact, it has repeatedly noted how the categories framed by municipal corporations ignore the bulk of hawkers, and yet, has confined itself to framing rules for the minority (Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union 2003, para 11; Patri Vyapar Mandal Delhi 2009). Despite all its rhetorical emphasis on mitigating deprivation and inequality, even in its most far-reaching judgments on the issue, Bombay Hawkers and Olga Tellis, the ‘right to vend’ issued by the court did not in any way affect the municipality’s ability to arbitrarily remove hawkers (Bombay Hawkers supra note 4, para 10), or make mandatory the provision of ‘alternate pitches’ upon such removal (Olga Tellis, supra note 3, para 57 ).

17However, if one looks beyond the impact that the court has had by way of direct judicial relief, a structural feature of the Court stands out, which is especially relevant when it comes to concerns about citizenship and the broader movement for a national right that we will discuss in the next section. As De (2010) points out, not only does the court offer judicial redress, but the very act of approaching it for such redress “requires people to submit to a state institution…and become citizens through participation in a constitutional exchange”. Thus, while the court may not have had much of an impact on the policy pertaining to street vending, it can nonetheless be seen as having empowered street vendors to push for greater reform. This was said to me in as many words by one of the national executives of NASVI: despite all the political support that they have received, he contended that it was only the Court which treated street vendors like citizens (Ram 2016). Thus, in the mere act of taking recourse to the judiciary, street vendors are not only seeking relief but are also asserting their place as citizens, alongside the middle-class activists who oppose precisely such a characterization.

Negotiating Adversity: The Rise of NASVI

18As we saw, while the court has made valiant efforts to expand the scope of its powers in the face of a bureaucracy, which was unresponsive at best, and actively antagonistic to the needs of street vendors at worst, one finds that in the final analysis, there still remains a vast discrepancy between the social justice claims that it has articulated and what it has actually achieved. Despite having adjudicated to this effect, it has clearly not succeeded in providing street vendors with a justiciable right to practice their profession, a fact which is compounded by several other features of our “overburdened and understaffed” judiciary (Mehta and Shankar 2008: 178), such as the considerable expense which litigation entails, or the severe delays in getting cases resolved. As a result, it becomes easy to see why street vendors would prefer to obtain temporary relief by bribing police and municipal officials over seeking lasting solutions in the court. However, as we have seen in the last section, street vendors have increasingly been finding it hard even to negotiate temporary relief, given the ‘anti-poor’ trend which appears to be sweeping much of metropolitan India. Thus, although they still take recourse to their traditional strategies of negotiating with police and municipal officials by forming small groups (Chatterjee 2004, Anjaria 2016), they have been facing greater opposition from the urban middle classes than ever before.

19While it might appear that this simultaneous adversity in the court as well as on the street would have served to deter street vendors, their response to it was to launch a campaign unprecedented in its scale as well as its scope. So far accustomed to mobilizing in small numbers for the mere privilege of survival, since 2003, street vendors have led a nationwide campaign under the leadership of the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) in order to get passed a national law to regulate street vending – a struggle which succeeded in 2014, with the passage of the Street Vendors Act (Special Correspondent 2014). While space-constraints prevent me from providing a detailed history of the movement, I shall nevertheless attempt to highlight its main features over the next few paragraphs, before trying to analyze it through the prism of political society.

20Conceptualized in 1998 under the aegis of the NGO named Self-Employed Women’s Association, NASVI was formalized as an independent organization representing street vendors in 2003 (NASVI 2014b). In addition to its member-organizations, which were mainly hawkers unions and NGOs, it worked in partnership with various academics and international organizations as well. Its activities from the very beginning extended well beyond petitioning the government to ‘declare exceptions’ for street vendors, collaborating, for instance, with academics to publish multiple studies of hawking across India (NASVI 2012a), or with various other member organizations to directly provide education and insurance services to street vendors (Bhowmik 2006). NASVI also worked hard to enhance the perception of street vendors among the public. The internet, while formerly exclusively used by middle class organizations to mobilize against hawkers (Anjaria 2009: 394) proved vital to this attempt, with NASVI maintaining a regularly updated website, as well as pages on Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, recognizing the stiff resistance faced by vendors of food, it sought not only to dispel doubts about the hygiene of such food, but also to establish ‘street food’ as genuinely modern, participating in (and organizing) a number of street food festivals, as well as organizing well-publicized programs to train vendors to cook food hygienically (NASVI 2014b).

21Despite the success of all these initiatives, however, the emphasis of the movement was always on legal reform. NASVI’s initial campaign was focused getting the government to frame a ‘National Policy’ on street vending, which was drafted in 2004, and revised in 2009. However, NASVI quickly realized that these policies, which were mere guidelines to state and local governments, stood little chance of being implemented. As a result, the aim of the movement shifted to getting a national law passed. To this end, aside from helping draft the bill, NASVI also monitored its progress through Parliament, presenting amendments and modifications to a parliamentary standing committee as required, as well as organizing demonstrations outside parliament in order to speed up the process (NASVI 2014b). Not only did hawkers seek aid from national political leaders, which in itself was unprecedented, they also did not hesitate to agitate directly against national political parties when they felt that the bill was being held up in parliament. One such protest against the BJP – the chief opposition party at the time – was particularly memorable. At one point, groups of vendors surrounded national party offices and raised the slogan “‘Chai Chai bolte ho, chaiwalon aur rehri walon ke pet par lat marte ho’ (‘you talk of tea but attack the livelihood of tea vendors’)” (Staff Reporter 2014a), referring to their prime ministerial candidate’s claims about his humble origin of tea seller. Remarkably, the bill was passed within a week of this protest (Special Correspondent 2014), with the BJP suspending all opposition, despite having refused to let the bill even be tabled a mere two days before the protest (PTI 2014). Finally, as a result of their efforts, the national law was passed in February, and came into effect on 1 May, 2014 (TNN 2014).

22At first glance, NASVIs entire campaign appears not only to break from the way street vendors have organized protests in the past, but also calls into question the very notion of ‘political society’. Street vendors have traditionally mobilized in small communities to negotiate the law, necessarily lying outside it. This has been true even when street vendors have taken recourse to the court, with their objective having been survival rather than securing citizenship rights (Rajagopal 2001: 108), with such assertions left mainly to the upper middle classes – the members of civil society. While Chatterjee’s division between civil and political society is illustrative of the kinds of differentiated citizenship which operates in urban India, street vendors appear to have transcended this distinction altogether in the process of getting a new law passed. While not quite a civil society movement, given their final objective, as also the scale at which the campaign was conducted, it was clearly not merely insurgence either. Unlike moments of insurgency, or campaigns consigned to political society, theirs was not an attempt to escape the gaze of the state: indeed, the national law sought to do exactly the opposite, by making registration and licensing mandatory for street vendors (TNN 2014). Simultaneously, it was a move to establish their right to public space by subverting the prevalent spatio-legal order and challenging the middle class’ monopoly over the idea of public interest.

23However while street vendors, emboldened by the court, might be asserting their status as citizens, it is very important to understand that their demand to be regulated by the state cannot be seen merely as a submission to its authority: theirs is simultaneously a profound attempt to recast the state as well. Seen thus, this act of seeking to make themselves visible to the state may be thought of as an attempt to reaffirm for themselves what Hansen has called the “myth of the state” in the face of the structural violence which they are faced with on a regular basis – the idea that there is in fact a care-giving state which they now want to be a part of (Hansen 2001: 222). But then again, while they are certainly giving in to the state’s project of governmentality, they are also attempting to fundamentally challenge the categories into which they are to be interpellated. Until now, as far as street vendors were concerned, the ‘legal order’ was defined not by the state, but by officials who were more interested in getting their weekly bribe than in maintaining the rule of law, and was thus premised on the continued legal ambiguity of their profession. If one were to take this to be an example of these lower bureaucrats establishing/expressing their sovereignty, à la Carl Schmitt (Roy 2009: 81), then NASVI’s demands mark a fundamental change in the conception of the state—with the discretionary power of the lower bureaucrat taken away from him, the sovereignty of the state is now recentralized in the law.

24In addition to changing their legal status, NASVI has also attempted to bring about a social transformation in the way street vendors are perceived in the city. Often, complaints, which are essentially about the appearance of street vendors (in stark contrast to the “manicured precincts of the modern department store”, which the complainers would presumably approve of) are refracted as concerns about hygiene, particularly in the case of vendors of street food (Rajagopal 2001: 99, 106). In order to challenge this, and thus the accompanying notions of street vendors as incongruous in a modern world, NASVI sought to repackage ‘street food’, not only as hygienic, but also as authentically modern. In addition to its vibrant online presence, as well as its various street food festivals, NASVI has attempted to cement this modern image of street vending by branding street food, as well as accessorizing street vendors with ‘modern’ markers of hygiene, such as aprons and gloves (NASVI 2014b). It is important to understand that this is not merely a tactical attempt to gain acceptance from members of the elite, but also a deeply felt need on the part of vendors themselves, as is borne out by their claims that such branding brings them ‘dignity’ (NASVI 2014b). That these events are increasingly being conducted in collaboration with state agencies, and as part of flagship initiatives of the central government, such as the Skill India program, heaps further legitimacy on hawking and NASVI (Goswami 2016).


25Over the last few pages, we have seen how the poor have often been denied citizenship rights in practice, despite being formally recognized as citizens. I have attempted to investigate how the poor negotiate their rights in both constitutional as well as political fora, concluding that they have failed to secure lasting social rights in either forum. In response to this failure, we have seen how they have mobilized on an unprecedented scale in order to get a national law passed, seemingly suggesting a way in which the poor could, in fact, claim lasting citizenship rights. It is tempting to see the middle class elite enforcing exclusionary spatial regimes with the help of the state, and street vendors subverting these regimes. But, as we have seen in the case of the movement for a national law, and more than that, in NASVI’s attempts to normalize street vending as an essential part of the modern Indian city, this is clearly an effort to belong in the ‘world-class’ city, and reformulate these regimes. Thus, while there is a reaction to the exclusion of the poor from public spaces in cities, the “subversive act of the street hawker” has not been an attempt to “circumvent the law… but to find a place within it” (Anjaria 2006: 2145).

26While a useful starting point for conceptualizing politics in post-colonial cities, the problem with binaries such as Chatterjee’s is that they imply both that the ideal, bureaucratic state exists, even if only for the elite (civil society, in this reading), and that the politics of the poor necessarily exceed these bureaucratic norms, their citizenship conditional on the success of failure of their proximate negotiations. As we see in this case, however, street vendors are the ones demanding an unambiguous law, not seeking exemptions from it. Simultaneously, the informality which is supposed to be characteristic of the ‘politics of the governed’ manifests itself in the Supreme Court – the very heart of the bureaucratic state: as Bhuwania (2016) laments in his recent book, the tragedy of ‘activism’ in the Indian judiciary was precisely its abandonment of legal procedure. Ultimately, though, as Das (2010) has argued, the law is not merely an instrumental means to an end, but is also often constitutive of social relationships themselves, a fact, which is especially evident when one considers those at its margins. While my analysis here can be seen as a first step, much more fine-grained ethnographic work, attentive to the particularities of the street vendors’ movement in different parts of the country – such as by Solomon (2015) or Anjaria (2016) – is required in order to trace how the law is weaved into the everyday life of street vendors.

27Three years after the passage of the Street Vendors Act, hawkers are still being harassed by the police and municipal officials. The existence of an extortionate lower bureaucracy, which perpetuates its own power precisely through such informal negotiations, virtually guarantees that ‘political’ negotiations with the police and municipal officials will long be a central feature of hawkers’ lives. However, that the tenor of the conversation has changed is undeniable. While vendors continue to negotiate locally with policemen and lower bureaucrats, street vendor organizations are simultaneously busy planning innovative national campaigns, tracking the implementation of the act across the country, responding immediately to violations, organizing periodic workshops for the vendors themselves, and organizing and participating in conferences with other national and international organizations (NASVI 2017a, b, c, d, e, f). Without overstating the importance of the Act, I would like to argue that what we are witnessing are indeed grounds for cautious optimism. That this is happening amid increasingly strong aspirations for (hawker-free) ‘world-class’ cities on the part of the middle class, is nothing short of remarkable.

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Court Cases Cited

Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation vs. Dilbagsingh Balwantsingh (1992) MANU/SC/0626/1992

Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation vs. Nawab Khan Gulab Khan (1996) MANU/SC/0051/1997

Bombay Hawkers' Union vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) MANU/SC/0027/1985

Gainda Ram vs. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (1993) MANU/SC/0523/1993

Gainda Ram vs. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (1997) MANU/SC/0819/1998

Gainda Ram vs. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (2010) MANU/SC/0862/2010

Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union vs. Municipal Corporation, Greater Mumbai (2003) MANU/SC/1008/2003

Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union vs. Municipal Corporation, Greater Mumbai (2007) MANU/SC/0901/2007

Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union vs. Municipal Corporation, Greater Mumbai (2013) MANU/SC/0927/2013

Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation vs. Navi Mumbai Hawkers and Workers Union, Nerul (2001) MANU/SC/0919/2001

Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) MANU/SC/0039/1985

Patri Vyapar Mandal Delhi (Regd.) vs. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (2009) MANU/SC/0553/2009

Pyare Lal vs. New Delhi Municipal Committee (1967) MANU/SC/0010/1967

Rajendra Kumar vs. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (2000) MANU/SC/2869/2000

Sarojini Nagar Market Shopkeepers Assn. vs. New Delhi Municipal Committee (1999) MANU/SC/1461/1999

Saudan Singh vs. New Delhi Municipal Committee (1992) MANU/SC/0489/1992

Sodan Singh vs. New Delhi Municipal Committee (1989) 1989 SCR (3)1038

Sodan Singh vs. New Delhi Municipal Committee (1998) MANU/SC/0098/1998

Sudhir Madan vs. Munic­ipal Corporation of Delhi (2007) MANU/SC/7678/2007

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Electronic reference

Kunal Joshi, « Conditional’ Citizens? Hawkers in the Streets (and the Courts) of Contemporary India », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 17-18 | 2018, Online since 27 February 2018, connection on 25 April 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.3383

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About the author

Kunal Joshi

Kunal Joshi is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He has been studying urban poverty in metropolitan India in various capacities since 2012. While still very interested in debates around the contemporary evolution of metropolises in India, his current work focuses on urbanization in small town India, specifically looking at a community of priests negotiating modernity in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh for his doctoral work. Email:

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