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The Street Vendors Act and the right to public space in Mumbai

Lola Salès


Since the reforms of the 1990s, informal street trading has played an ever-growing role in India’s urban economies. In March 2014, a new federal law protecting the rights of street traders (Street Vendors Act) was adopted, which recognised the legitimacy and legality of their activities through a process of regularisation. This legal arrangement was intended to introduce new modes of governance applicable to public space, which would include street vendors, a marginal population that would now enjoy new opportunities of contributing to the urban future. Nevertheless, hawking is an activity still criminalised by the authorities in Mumbai. It is against the background of widespread competition for urban space and resources that we will analyse the social, political and spatial organisation of street trading and its development, together with the conflicts that arise from it. This article explores the ordinary practices, the social, political and spatial “tactics” and “strategies” employed by street vendors to access and capture public space, at the time of the introduction of the Street Vendors Act. It will examine the different forms of law in practice in the streets of Mumbai, i.e. the transgressions, the fixes and the negotiations, but also the new applications of legal tools in these conflicts. Through these questions, we will consider the new forms of exclusion, focusing on the role of the spatial dimension in these processes.

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John Crisp kindly translated this article.


1Informal street trading, here defined as the temporary and insecure occupancy of the street (Bhowmik 2000), provides a living for large numbers of India’s city dwellers, while supplying the population with essential day-to-day services. Since the reforms of the 1990s, such businesses have played an ever-growing role in India’s urban economies (Bhowmik 2000, Bhowmik and Saha 2011). The city of Mumbai has undergone major economic, social, political and spatial reorganisations. It is against the background of widespread competition for urban space and resources that we will analyse the social, political and spatial organisation of street trading and its development, together with the conflicts that arise from it.

2In March 2014, India adopted a new federal law protecting the rights of street traders (Street Vendors Act), which recognised the legitimacy and legality of their activities through a process of regularisation. This act was the culmination of collective mobilisation and “bottom-up” legal activism on the part of the vendors’ unions and associations (Bhowmik 2007, Bandyopadhyay 2016). It altered vendors’ legal status, since each municipality would be required not only to grant licences to registered hawkers, but also to establish Town Vending Committees. These committees would be responsible for defining areas where street selling would be authorised (Hawking Zones) and for settling conflicts between the different actors like vendors, residents, shopkeepers, municipality. This legal arrangement was therefore intended to introduce new modes of governance applicable to public space, which would include street vendors that would now enjoy new opportunities of contributing to the urban future.

3Despite the new law, hawking is an activity still criminalised by the authorities in Mumbai. Street vendors, who represent more than 300,000 workers, are at the heart of the conflicts relating to public space, envisaged as a workplace, a living place, an essential economic resource, but also as a space of movement, of recreation, for idling or consumption, and even as an urban amenity. Moreover, for many, public space represents an informal “spatial rent”, created by corrupt practices, in particular for the municipal authorities, which levy a “tax” on illegal street businesses (Anjaria 2006, 2016), but also by clientelist and criminal practices for other kinds of actors who exercise informal control over street space (Salès 2016). These ubiquitous informal activities therefore establish a social and political order created by day-to-day practices, ordinary legal practices and multiple relations to the state. This set of practical norms is reflected in the organisation of public spaces. Moreover, the geographical notions of centrality, connectivity and proximity, considered at all scales, seem to play a crucial role in the organisation of these activities as this article will demonstrate.

4This article will explore the ordinary practices, the social, political and spatial “tactics” and “strategies” (de Certeau 1990) employed by street vendors to access and capture public space, at the time of the introduction of the Street Vendors Act. To this end, it will examine the different forms of law in practice in the streets of Mumbai, i.e. the transgressions, the fixes and the negotiations, but also the new applications of legal tools in these conflicts. Through these questions, we will consider the new forms of exclusion, focusing on the role of the spatial dimension in these processes. This research looks more generally at “the right to the city” in Indian cities, by investigating both the processes of inclusion and exclusion of inhabitants in their access to urban resources (Zérah et al. 2011), and also the forms in which law is institutionalised in the city (Jouve et al. 2009). It explores the production of urban citizenship by analysing the different ways in which urban change in the public space, by day-to-day relations to the state (Morange et al. 2017) or by bottom-up struggles and activism (Harvey 2008).

The hawkers of Mumbai and their day-to-day relations to the state

A long history of criminalisation

5There is nothing new about conflicts between street vendors and municipal authorities in Mumbai. Already in the second half of the 19th century, hawking was seen as an “obstruction”, a “problem” and “threat” to public order by the colonial authorities, as well as by some of the urban elites (Anjaria 2016). Municipal bylaws and regulations were introduced, at a time when the British were trying to combat the impression of breakdown in urban order associated with industrialisation, migration, epidemics and social and communal riots (Kidambi 2007). Before this, there was no real link between the notion of “outside” and of public space (Freitag 1991, Chakrabarty 1992, Kaviraj 1997). The introduction of these regulations represented a redefinition of the legal status of “public” and “private”. The “outside” became a “public” space under the jurisdiction of the colonial state. This new demarcation between public and private had the effect of depriving the working classes of a form of common pool resources, removing access to their collective use (Anderson 1992). It was also at this time that a system of licences was introduced, authorising a minority of street vendors to pursue their business. With these initiatives, such workers became categorised, perceived as a “floating” and potentially dangerous population (Kidambi 2007). Moreover, the open markets and bazaars came to be seen as dangerous places that demanded management. The Bombay City Improvement Trust, an urban master plan established in 1898, provided for the development of more fluid public spaces and of modern markets, modelled on the hygienist recommendations of the time (Dossal 1991).

6Despite the creation of a modern police force in the 19th century, the indigenous town remained largely unregulated. The municipal authorities and the police were not omnipotent and were unable to control street vending (Chandavarkar 1998). The colonists relied on the local elites to govern the city. The power of these Indian elites grew from the 1880s onwards, with the empowerment and indianisation of municipal governments (Aijaz 2008). In the press, these elites were already complaining about the illegal obstruction of the street. The police also relied on neighbourhood scale intermediate actors, such as gangmasters, moneylenders, religious leaders and goondas (hired thugs) to control these workers, who were perceived as “undesirables” (Masselos 1976). As a result, the capacity to control public spaces varied considerably from one neighbourhood to another. This phenomenon reveals corrupt practices of long standing, but also a series of possible arrangements between the vendors and the state (Kidambi 2007).

Street vending in the era of the neo-liberalisation of urban policies

7Mumbai has experienced profound transformations in its economy, with the transition from a commercial and industrial city to a financial capital dominated by a service economy. Since the 1980s, it has also seen transformations in its employment structure and in the organisation of labour, with a growing number of people working in the informal economy, referred to by the authorities as the “unorganised” sector (NCEUS 2007). The closing of the factories, and in particular the cotton mills, in the late 1980s (D’Monte 2002), drove a proportion of workers into the informal economy. In addition, for permanent or temporary migrants, street trading is an economic resource, a way of accessing work and integrating into the city. Nonetheless, hawking in Mumbai continues to be an activity criminalised by the local authorities, since almost 95% of street vendors are unlicensed (TISS-YUVA 1998, Anjaria 2006). So as well as being informal, a category recognised by the law, these hawkers are illegal. In the 1980s, the municipal authorities set up a system of daily receipts (pauti) that were issued to street vendors on payment of a small sum. This system was banned in 1998, when the conflicts over public space became more intense. After that, no new licences were granted to hawkers (Anjaria 2006).

8More generally, Mumbai, an Indian megacity with growing aspirations for global city status (McKinsey 2003), is experiencing major spatial reorganisations and new land and real estate pressure in an urban context where informal occupations seem increasingly undesirable (Rajagopal 2001). Neo-Marxist inspired literature is interested in the exclusionary effects created by the competition between and redefinition of the uses of metropolitan areas (Brenner et al. 2009, Harvey 2008). It interprets the evictions, demolitions, discriminations and violence suffered by the poor populations (slum dwellers, the homeless, street vendors) as consequences of the neo-liberalisation of urban policies (Banerjee-Guha 2009, 2010, Bhan 2009, Dupont 2011, Goldman 2011). However, as Jonathan S. Anjaria notes on the subject of the criminalisation and exclusion of the street vendors, the story is one of continuity between the liberal period and the earlier periods, rather than any real change (Anjaria 2016).

9Finally, Mumbai is undergoing a reorganisation in its governance, with increasing participation by part of civil society through resident associations, which essentially represent the upper-middle-class. Originally created to improve urban services (Zérah 2007, Baud and Nainan 2008), they increasingly operate in defence of public spaces and seem particularly active in operations to eradicate all forms of informal street use (Anjaria 2009). Their normative conceptions of public space and participation are contributing to a redefinition of the notion of urban citizenship in India’s cities (Fernandes 2006, Nair 2005), sometimes employing the rhetoric of “bourgeois environmentalism” to legitimise anti-poor measures (Baviskar 2015). Partha Chatterjee explores the process of gentrification in Indian cities by analysing, firstly, the conception of public space promoted by the urban elites that define themselves as legitimate citizens and, secondly, the state’s discriminatory treatment of working-class populations. These urban working classes may not be recognised as full citizens, because their living environment and activities are often seen as outside the law and their political sphere as organised crime (Chatterjee 2004). These resident associations militate for a transparent and accountable state, within an ostensibly “apolitical” framework (Sharma 2014). To this end, these resident associations use the English-language media, social networks and legal tools to promote their claims. Their highly educated membership helps to make them more effective and professional. However, they also have a special relationship with the bureaucracy. Their activities are facilitated by personal connections with the administration, whose members are regularly invited to their meetings. Moreover, these organisations have also experimented with partnerships with the municipality for the management of urban services, and also for the development and governance of some public spaces, since the municipal authorities have given them responsibility for managing of certain green areas (Salès 2016).

Strategies or tactics? Small-scale corruption, arrangements and collective organisation of street vendors

10In order to investigate the day-to-day practices of street vendors, we use the notion of “tactics” to describe the methods employed by people, who do not have their own space and who have constantly to adapt to that of others, and the notion of “strategies” to refer to the methods available to territorialised actors, who do possess a certain power to act (de Certeau 1990). The continuing legal status of the street vendors helps to maintain a regime of widespread structural corruption at metropolitan scale. This regime of corruption seems to be sustained by a set of strategies pursued by the public authorities and by certain actors who enjoy control over the street. In order to understand the day-to-day relations between the urban working classes and the state, illegality should not only be seen as a method of repression but also as a social and spatial resource that provides public actors with an informal source of revenue, as well as a method of governance in its own right. For Ananya Roy, informality constitutes an aspect of urban power relations and an instrument of accumulation and dominance for the public authorities. According to her, informality creates an arbitrary state of exception (Roy 2009). In fact, here, illegality is a way to differentiate between hawkers, and to create a hierarchy between those who have the right to sell and those who do not, making the latter highly dependent on the whims of the authorities.

11Corruption can be defined as the illegal use of public office for private ends (Blundo and Olivier de Sardan 2001). In order to operate in public space in Mumbai, street vendors are obliged to make unofficial and illegal payments called hafta (which means “weekly” in Hindi) to the municipality and the police (Anjaria 2006, Bhowmik and Saha 2011). This small-scale corruption is irregular and varies between individuals, periods and vending locations. For Anjaria, small-scale corruption creates a space of possible interaction and negotiation between the hawkers and the municipal authorities. According to him, the day-to-day experience of the street vendors is characterised by a certain relationship with the state, even if that relationship is ambivalent (Anjaria 2011, 2016). Nonetheless, most of the street traders still see corruption as a form of injustice, a feeling that is often referred to by union representatives when formulating their claims. It is not necessarily the amounts of hafta that they object to, nor the illegality and irregularity of these practices, but rather the fact that these forms of corruption do not guarantee lasting access to public space or real protection against campaigns of repression (Salès 2016).

12Informal street vendors are increasingly organising into groups, unions and associations, with the result that the processes, whereby these insecure operators are territorialised within public space, are being redefined. Hawkers were long ignored by the union movement, which was more interested in labourers and farmworkers. Street vendors were perceived as too fragmented – halfway between the entrepreneurial lower-middle-class and the Lumpenproletariat – for class consciousness to arise (Bandyopadhyay 2016). However, politicisation is beginning to emerge at both national and local level. In Kolkata, the street vendor unions, affiliated with the big Communist and Socialist union organisations, formed a particularly powerful federation (Hawkers’ Sangram Committee) as far back as the 1950s. Still today, street vendors are more organised in Kolkata than in Delhi (Schindler 2014) or Mumbai, though the latter has numerous small unions. In the 1980s, these unions took to the courts (Supreme Court and High Courts) against a more general background of “judicialisation” in Indian politics (Bhan 2009). Through legal acts, petitions and Public Interest Litigations (PIL), a procedure whereby the poorest populations can obtain access to justice through intermediaries better acquainted with the legal system (Sen 2012), the unions pursued collective rights claims brought by the street vendors. In 1985, the Bombay Hawkers’ Union decided to sue the municipality in a case that attracted great media attention. This union drew on fundamental constitutional rights, in particular the “Right to Livelihood”, to demand regularisation of their activities.

13While they did not win the case, the High Court recognised the need to regularise informal trading. These court cases were therefore the start of new forms of action, at both local and national level. The 2000s marked a turning point at national level, with the appearance of national federations such as NASVI (National Alliance of Street Vendors of India) and NHF (National Hawkers Federation). These federations form a national network that encompasses trade unions, civil society organisations, NGOs, human rights activists, academics and elected officials. It was therefore through pressure from the unions and these national organisations that a policy for the regularisation of street vendors was formulated in the 2000s, culminating in the adoption of the Street Vendors Act in 2014. What we see here at national level is therefore an example of bottom-up mobilisation, ultimately institutionalised through the promulgation of the act. By means of their day-to-day tactics of negotiating with the different urban authorities and their strategies of collective organisation and recourse to law, the hawkers succeeded in creating political territories (Steck 2003, 2006, Jacquot et al. 2016). While some of their actions are “silent” and seem like individual forms of resistance (Bayat 2000), others have been collective and have challenged the actions of the authorities on legal grounds, turning street vendors into political actors in their own right (Lindell 2010).

Presentation of the methodology: the role of space in establishing a social and political order

14This article is based on a field survey conducted between 2011 and 2016 by means of observations and 175 interviews with street vendors, trade unions and vendor organisations, but also with resident associations and shopkeepers in the formal sector, local authorities, political parties, municipal officials, developers and police officers in Mumbai. In order to understand the changes in the tactics and strategies employed by the street vendors to be able to occupy public space at the time of the introduction of the Street Vendors Act, we need to compare the decisions taken at national scale with their implementation at local scale. In most of India’s cities, there are already blockages and irregularities in the implementation of the law (Narang and Goyal 2017). While a great deal of research into the informal sector in India has been undertaken through the study of networks and workplaces (Breman 1996, De Neve 2005, Harriss-White and Sinha 2007, Picherit 2009), our approach focuses on the microscale of the street, which is a specific type of workplace. We use the geographical analysis of public space in order to examine the day-to-day practices of street vendors, the establishment of a social and political order, as well as the construction of their urban citizenship. By studying a highly visible informal activity, we will try to analyse a space that encompasses multiple actors, going well beyond the productive sphere (municipal authorities, residents, users, political parties). Here, the capture of space structures economic activity, the social and political relations to work. The legitimisation of these activities would therefore seem to constitute a central issue in a context where state control and regulation are particularly relevant.

15We also wondered how the geographical situation of the public spaces at different scales influenced the organisation of informal trading, and the ways in which hawkers appropriate the street. We therefore chose to do fieldwork in several different large informal markets situated in the central districts (Fort and Dadar), the inner suburbs (Bandra, Andheri and Kurla) and the outskirts (Borivali) of Mumbai (see map 1).

Map 1: Areas of fieldwork in Mumbai

Map 1: Areas of fieldwork in Mumbai

Source: Salès (2016)

16The historic district of Fort is home to the main municipal offices and tourist areas. The Dadar district is one of the busiest shopping areas in the city and an area of conflict because of serious street crowding. It is a place where land prices have risen substantially as a result of policies to redevelop the old working-class estates. Bandra and Andheri, located in the north-western suburbs, are wealthy districts marked by the existence of a network of highly active resident associations, but also by the presence of poorer populations living in slums. Kurla is a big market to the east of the city, in a much more industrial and working-class district. Finally, Borivali is the most peripheral of the fieldwork zones, more recently urbanised and with better connections to the outer suburbs.

17We therefore concentrated on transit areas of citywide significance, i.e. spaces of interconnection between local trains, buses, and public and individual transport. We conducted our surveys in the streets around the main stations, but also in the kinds of interstitial urban spaces that attract street vendors. These areas are the most conflictual because they are very crowded and very blurred regarding their legal status. We started with the following hypothesis:

18According to the geographical situation of the fieldwork zones, their inner city or peripheral location, their connection to transport networks, the wealth of nearby commercial or residential areas, there would be differences in the intensity of the conflicts, in the actors involved and in the practices of the street vendors.

19We therefore needed to analyse the influence of the centre-periphery (north/south) gradient and the gradient between the well-off districts to the west and the working-class districts to the east. However, this spatial differentiation between informal situations was also apparent at a smaller scale, within the districts themselves, depending in particular on the proximity of the transit spaces, the residential areas or the more formal commercial hubs. Levels of conflict were also affected by temporal factors, both day-to-day (rush hours and down times, day and night) and annual (religious festival seasons, elections, monsoon, etc.), which we had to take into account in our four sessions of fieldwork. In addition, at national level, we were able to observe the three-year timeframe of the introduction of the Street Vendors Act.

20By means of this geographical approach to informal trading via public space, we are able to examine the relations between vulnerable populations and the state, politics and the idea of citizenship, in terms of concrete practices. While these issues have often been considered from a spatial perspective, through study of the slums (Bautès et al. 2011, Dupont 2010) or of urban services (de Bercegol and Desfeux 2011; Landy et al. 2013; Zérah 1999), these day-to-day relations to the state and to the political sphere do not take exactly the same form when the issue is workspace. People do not necessarily work where they live, or where they vote, and this is all the more true in metropolitan contexts. This spatial perspective enables us to explore the role of grounding – whether geographical, social or political – in these processes of appropriation of public space.

Practices, tactics and strategies of hawkers in the era of the Street Vendors Act

Hierarchy in the occupancy of public spaces at all scales

21In Mumbai, the spatial organisation of informal trading reveals that hawkers vary in their capacity to acquire and maintain trading pitches and are highly dependent on intermediaries (Salès 2016). Studying the hierarchy in the occupancy of the street seems to be an appropriate prism through which to interpret the inequalities between street traders, based on their status (entrepreneurs, employees, owners or tenants of their pitch), how long they have been there, their geographical origin, their community, their caste or their gender. This hierarchy is represented in public space, even at a very fine-grained scale. While most hawkers are exposed to the sun, to noise and to pollution, some with better locations use street furniture to create themselves more permanent pitches. They may be able to negotiate a parasol, access to electricity or a seat, through bribes or contacts, but also through the assertion and recognition of their legitimacy. The most insecure street traders sell directly on the ground, sometimes on the road, have no allocated space and may be forced to move. Many authors emphasise the need for social and economic capital to access the informal business sector. More than this, however, in order to access a relatively fixed pitch, street sellers need spatial capital (Lussault 2003), in other words spatial resources, both material (locations, mobilities) and immaterial (official or unofficial right of occupancy), which they can use to develop strategies and access other social goods.

22Some hawkers, admittedly a minority, possess licences. Although this legal document does not provide protection from abuses and corrupt practices, it does maintain systems of spatial rent, notably in central areas and wealthy neighbourhoods (Fort, Dadar and Bandra). On Fashion Street, near the Fort district, the Street vendors obtained pitches and licences as a result of action by the unions in the 1990s. On this central street, which attracts many tourists, these pitches have become proper little stores, sometimes employing more than 10 people. Rents on this street can be over Rs.100,000 a month (approximately $1,500). In addition, possession of the old receipts (pauti) issued by the municipality is still a way for the vendors to prove the age of their stalls. These receipts are used to negotiate with the authorities, but also to prove one’s legitimacy to the other street vendors.

Picture 1: Fashion Street, street vendors who have licences and employ workers

Picture 1: Fashion Street, street vendors who have licences and employ workers

Source: author (2014)

23Some street vendors who have been operating for a long time see themselves as “owners” (malik) of their pitches, which they can “sublet” to other vendors. The age of the stall, which can implicitly reflect duration of presence in the city, is a way to guarantee a certain form of legitimacy, even without a licence. It is a recurrent condition for being able to sell in the central markets, but also at a more granular level, in the areas near the stations. In Dadar, a street vendor originally from Uttar Pradesh can pay almost Rs.10,000 a month in rent to a Maharashtrian malik, i.e. someone from the Mumbai region who has “inherited” the pitch from his parents. These pitches therefore become a sort of asset that can be passed on, giving some street sellers social and spatial status, but also significant revenues. These are rarely seen as forms of extortion, but rather as rent (bhaada), since the ownership and personalisation of public spaces is rarely challenged here. Such individuals might be called public space landlords. The rents can reach considerable levels, forcing the most vulnerable street traders (migrants, lower castes, women, the elderly…) to move or to occupy isolated corners of the urban fabric, which are less profitable and more dangerous.

Picture 2: Hawker without a “pitch” (Borivali)

Picture 2: Hawker without a “pitch” (Borivali)

Source: author (2014)

Picture 3: Hierarchy between vendors (Dadar)

Picture 3: Hierarchy between vendors (Dadar)

Source: author (2015)

Picture 4: Precarious working conditions (Dadar)

Picture 4: Precarious working conditions (Dadar)

Source: author (2014)

Picture 5: Vendors who create their own workspace (Borivali)

Picture 5: Vendors who create their own workspace (Borivali)

Source: author (2015)

24Long presence is not the only way they maintain the legitimacy of their pitch. In the most prized locations, one must also be recognised by the line walah, an intermediary who collects the hafta, i.e. the kickbacks, whether regular or not. In addition, it is sometimes necessary to be recognised by the local leader, who is generally a street vendor with greater “seniority”. By taking on the role of protector of a street, it is this leader – often working with a trade union or a political party – who goes to negotiate at the municipal office when traders have their goods confiscated. These leaders can sometimes double up as thugs (goonda), arbitrarily demanding payment of protection money. In cities where contacts are a social capital that is essential for access to urban resources, clientelism is a source of practical mediation between informal workers and the state (Berenschot 2011). However, this phenomenon also reveals the ambivalence of a system of asymmetric personal relationships. Moreover, the vendors themselves maintain strong social control over the street. In spaces that are still marked by status illegalities, the street vendors collectively define what is permitted and what is forbidden. The “owners” of the pitches can therefore sometimes be extremely hostile (pressure and physical violence) to new arrivals.

25This raises the question of the role of castes, communities and geographical origin in social relations, traditionally seen as fundamental to the world of work in India. On the ground, individuals say little about caste membership. Membership of the lower castes is still an obstacle to access to informal entrepreneurship (Mhaskar 2014). There are few lower caste people and Muslims in the food selling business. However, the role of community and caste varies according to local conditions. In Bandra, Andheri and Kurla, for example, the street vendors are mainly Muslim, which is explained by the strong presence of Muslim communities in the surrounding slums. As for geographical identity, this seems to play a much bigger role in access to pitches. The “owner” street vendors who occupy the central areas or the best locations are often from Mumbai or from Maharashtra, as is the case in Dadar where they represent 80% of the vendors interviewed, as compared with only 53% in Kurla and 32% in Borivali. A 1998 study clearly showed that, across the whole city, there was only a small proportion of recent migrants (arrived less than five years earlier) in the street vendor population (4%) and even fewer in the centre (2.5%) (TISS and YUVA 1998). Geographical identity has been sharply politicised in Mumbai around the antagonism between Maharashtrians and non-Maharashtrians, with the emergence of nativism and the creation of the Shiv Sena party in the 1960s. In the central areas, street vendors emphasise this Maharashtrian identity in order to assert their legitimacy.

Towards new day-to-day relations with the state: emergence of collective organisation and new uses of the law

26The collective organisation of the street vendors and their struggle for recognition of their rights are leading to a redefinition of their day-to-day relations to the state. In Mumbai, there are numerous street vendor unions, often small, although the majority of vendors are not unionised. With deindustrialisation, the rise of identity-based populist parties and the informalisation of labour, there has been a decline in the big traditional trade unions (Heuzé 1989). Most of the street vendor unions are not affiliated to the national federations, with the exception of the Mumbai Hawkers’ Union (formerly Bombay Hawkers’ Union), which is still a large entity. This union is affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, one of the main national union confederations created at Independence, which represents municipal workers, but also taxi and rickshaw drivers. This union employs traditional methods of protest such as strikes and demonstrations (morsha) (Heuzé 2011), and continues to be run by professional union activists who do not come from the street vending sector. Azad Hawkers’ Union, created in the 1990s and affiliated to NASVI, is another of Mumbai’s big unions. It claims to be independent and entirely organised by street vendors.

27In addition, there are numerous small organisations and local unions. The latter are often set up by former union leaders, by social workers or by community leaders. Moreover, some political parties have created a union branch for street vendors, such as Bhartya Kamgar Sena (affiliated to Shiv Sena), which is primarily present in Dadar, the historical bastion of the party. Starting in the 1980s, the populist Maharashtrian movement began to use methods such as strikes, street activism and welfare schemes to assert claims on the grounds not of class but of cultural identity, deploying a clearly anti-Communist rhetoric (Heuzé 2003). This union propagates a “son of soil” ideology to promote Maharashtrian and Marathi-speaking populations in their access to employment and urban resources, to the detriment of populations seen as “migrant”, against a more general background of rising intercommunal violence (Hansen 2003).

28What we find therefore is a fragmented union landscape, with little impetus towards convergence between the different organisations. Broadly, a certain mistrust can be observed among local unions towards the big union groupings or national organisations. While the trade unions and organisations operate essentially at local level, they have changed the way they do things since the 1980s. The traditional strategies of activism such as morsha or sit-ins still exist, sometimes giving rise to exchanges of activists between unions, but their importance is declining. With the Street Vendor Act as a new benchmark legal framework, there is greater recourse to rights and to the law. Apart from legal measures (PIL, petitions), these unions regularly use the “Right to Information” to track their claims, as well as to monitor the implementation of the act. One organisation leader in Andheri explained that he requests a copy of all documents about decisions relating to street vendors, to use them in legal cases and in negotiations with the local authorities, but also to apply a form of pressure on the powers that be. It could be said that an “epistolary jurisdiction” has been established between the street vendors, the administration and the law. In his work on the main street vendor union in Kolkata, Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay introduces the notion of “archiving from below” to describe this process of information storage that is no longer confined to the state alone, but also takes place among social movements, enabling them to structure their struggles (Bandyopadhyay 2009). However, it is above all at local scale that the unions operate in unofficial negotiations with the municipality and the police. The small local unions thus become essential intermediaries. In the most highly prized locations, membership of these unions is seen as a way to obtain or to secure one’s pitch. The union membership card, often shown with pride, becomes a way for the street vendors to prove their embeddedness and their legitimacy.

An urban citizenship with variable geometry

29The application of the Street Vendors Act has not taken place without pushback, structural obstructions and irregularities at local level, confirming political informality as a mode of governance in Mumbai. Prior to its introduction, the act is interpreted at the level of the States of the Union, then in municipal regulations. Once the act has been transposed to the local scale, the municipalities are required to register the street vendors, to give them licences and to organise elections for the establishment of the Town Vending Commitee (TVC), which has the task of determining the Hawking Zones. In Mumbai, the municipal authorities organised registration of the street vendors in July 2014, well before the finalisation of the act in the State of Maharashtra, which only took place in 2016. Moreover, the location of the hawking zones was decided unilaterally by the municipality, well in advance of the establishment of the TVC. Ultimately, therefore, the first census was invalidated, but during the three years it was in place, the generalised system of corruption and evictions continued. According to some street vendors, the repression was even heavier during this period of legal uncertainty, except at election times.

30The 2014 census took place under irregular and questionable conditions: during the monsoon, without informing the vendors, without pre-existing market surveys. In all, only 90,000 street vendors were able to begin procedures to apply for a licence, out of the 300,000 estimated by the unions. This registration of hawkers was a particularly lucrative operation for the municipal authorities, especially in the central markets, since many of them had to pay to be registered. In order to register to apply for a licence, applicants had to provide a number of documents giving evidence of identity and residence. These documents were often difficult to obtain for hawkers living on the street or in illegal slums, but also for recent migrants or unmarried women. They frequently had to go through intermediaries, agents or brokers (dalal), who are often paid. The difficulty of proving one’s identity in the city is often highlighted in the literature (Dupont 2010, Landy et al. 2013). It prevents people accessing public programmes, whether food aid or rehousing schemes for slum dwellers. This “conditional” territorialisation of poor populations (Dupont 2010) also applies to the street vendors in their quest for legitimacy.

31Proving length of occupancy is an additional difficulty for all the street vendors, but even more so for those considered to be “migrants” or “foreign” to the city. Those who were already trading at the time when the receipts system was in place and who had kept their receipts used them to prove the legitimacy of their business. In fact, the trade organisations and unions encouraged the hawkers to keep all official documents relating to them, in particular fines. For Bandyopadhyay, while this “archiving from below” constitutes a form of resistance for the street vendors vis-a-vis an oppressive state (2011), it is nevertheless paradoxical, or even exclusionary for certain categories (2016). Indeed, this process constructs a new normative order in which the “legitimate” hawker is the one who is in possession of numerous official documents and has access to the state, even if indirectly through intermediaries. Conversely, a street vendor without documents and without sufficient social and political capital becomes “illegitimate”. This process of identification therefore reveals differences between the street vendors in their capacity to assert their legitimacy in public space. Moreover, the support of certain influential local actors and the need to go through brokers in order to register or to supply the required documents creates conditions favourable to the development of new clientelist practices, fully integrated into local political mechanisms.

32In a context of delays in the implementation of the act and of multiple evictions, the competition between the street vendors became part of a rhetoric of exclusion, employed in particular by local political parties. This rhetoric drew on the antagonism between Maharashtrians and non-Maharashtrians, which had been heavily politicised by the nativist parties. For a long time, the Shiv Sena party adopted no clear position on street trading, sometimes favouring repression, sometimes defending the common Marathi man. This inter-caste party, which includes Brahmin, middle castes (maratha) and lower castes (Heuzé 2003), now advocates a policy of tight control over the granting of licences. In this respect, the 2017 municipal elections are a good example of this exploitation of tensions. During the campaign, the debates focused on a clause in the act formulated by the State of Maharastra, which introduced a condition requiring people to have been domiciled for more than 15 years in the State in order to obtain a licence, something that was in no way stipulated in the Street Vendors Act at federal level. Under pressure in Mumbai, the Congress Party overtly opposed this residency clause, which it claimed was inconsistent with constitutional law, which guarantees all Indian citizens the freedom to settle where they want. One interpretation of this position is that Congress was seeking to woo migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Northern India. Conversely, Shiv Sena, which dominates the State of Maharastra in coalition with the BJP, saw the domiciliation clause as an essential instrument for controlling migrants from other States, since it was unable to impose dedicated quotas for people from Maharashtra. Finally, Shiv Sena won the elections, and the 15 years residency clause required for eligibility for a licence has been maintained for the present. The nativist parties also exploit street level tensions between the hawkers. Members of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a party that arose from a split with Shiv Sena, have no hesitation in using physical and symbolic violence against street vendors they perceive as “illegitimate”. In April 2015, for example, in Jogeshwari in the north of Mumbai, certain MNS affiliated street vendors beat up hawkers from Bihar and destroyed their stalls. Certain food vendors originally from Uttar Pradesh were also suspected of selling non-vegetarian products, in a context where Hinduness (hindutva) is assuming considerable importance in Indian society. Here, fantasised perceptions of the other have the effect of crystallising claims over space.


33In the era of the Street Vendors Act, informal trading at different scales in Mumbai’s public spaces still seems to be structured by a number of practical norms. The ordinary practices deployed to transgress and bypass the law, the arrangements based on corruption and contacts, constitute tactics whereby these vulnerable urban actors are able to occupy spaces over which, for the present, they have few rights. These practices vary according to the location of the selling points at the scale of the city, the neighbourhood and the street. In the city’s central markets (Fort, Dadar), in the wealthy districts where there are multiple conflicts over street trading (Bandra, Andheri), around the main stations, and at a more granular level, in the busiest and safest locations on a street, the hawkers need considerable spatial capital in order to access public space, understood here as an urban resource. This spatial capital depends on legitimacy, which in turn is based on length of occupancy and on an identity constructed around a real or fabricated local association with the city and with the region. It also depends on relations with a range of intermediaries who reveal the plurality of the powers that structure urban governance.

34Since the 1980s, however, the street vendors have themselves developed strategies, at both national and local level, founded on new uses of the law and of collective organisations, though the latter remain fragmented and embedded in the ultra-local scale. A number of difficulties has beset the implementation of the Street Vendors Act. Nonetheless, there are indications of a paradigm shift. Previously, the street vendors paid bribes in order to survive in spaces where they had no rights. Today, they continue to pay unofficial taxes and remain highly dependent on their network of contacts. However, these sums are used to access rights and to negotiate the terms of their occupancy of space within a specific legislative framework. Nonetheless, these strategies accentuate a form of hierarchy between street vendors. Indeed, the process of regularisation is still discriminatory, because it helps to generate disparities between vendors and to produce different gradations of urban citizenship. With the implementation of the act, these distinctions are sometimes exploited by local political parties, but also by the municipal authorities, with the effect of redefining the identity of those who have a legitimate right of access to public space. The spatial perspective therefore seems to constitute an appropriate prism for the analysis of informality in Indian cities and through which to understand the tensions between the normative aspect of public spaces and the diversity of their uses, their forms of appropriation and their governance.

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List of illustrations

Title Map 1: Areas of fieldwork in Mumbai
Credits Source: Salès (2016)
File image/png, 898k
Title Picture 1: Fashion Street, street vendors who have licences and employ workers
Credits Source: author (2014)
File image/jpeg, 240k
Title Picture 2: Hawker without a “pitch” (Borivali)
Credits Source: author (2014)
File image/jpeg, 240k
Title Picture 3: Hierarchy between vendors (Dadar)
Credits Source: author (2015)
File image/jpeg, 236k
Title Picture 4: Precarious working conditions (Dadar)
Credits Source: author (2014)
File image/jpeg, 168k
Title Picture 5: Vendors who create their own workspace (Borivali)
Credits Source: author (2015)
File image/jpeg, 284k
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Electronic reference

Lola Salès, The Street Vendors Act and the right to public space in MumbaiArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 17-18 | 2018, Online since 18 August 2018, connection on 02 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lola Salès

Lola Salès is a Ph.D candidate in Geography at the University of Paris Nanterre (laboratoire Mosaïques – UMR LAVUE), associated to CEIAS. Her work focuses on public spaces conflicts in Mumbai regarding street vendors and right to the city in Indian metropolises. Email:

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