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From Margin to Mainstream: Informal Street Vendors and Local Politics in Kolkata, India

De la marge au courant dominant: vendeurs informels de rue et politique locale à Calcutta (Inde)
Tathagata Chatterji et Souvanic Roy


En lien avec la thématique du droit à la ville, un grand nombre de recherches sur les transformations urbaines en Inde et dans d’autres pays en développement ont montré la façon dont les aspirations des élites urbaines à constituer une ville globale se sont traduites par la marchandisation de l’espace urbain et par conséquent la dépossession des plus pauvres. Prenant ce cadre conceptuel comme point de départ, cet article propose une perspective alternative sur la consolidation politique du secteur urbain informel et ses implications. Au prisme de la mobilisation politique des vendeurs de rue à Calcutta en Inde, il s’agit de montrer que les syndicats ont permis aux vendeurs ambulants non seulement de résister avec succès aux conceptions d’un Etat hégémonique, mais aussi de devenir partie intégrante du cadre de gouvernance de la ville. L’article montre que les oppositions binaires entre économies formelles et informelles – et les personnes qui y sont associées - ne permettent qu’une vision partielle de relations stratifiées et en évolution, caractérisées par un haut niveau de coexistence et interdépendance entre elles, notamment à l’échelle du quartier. Les relations de pouvoir et les modes de relation entre les vendeurs de rue et les autorités étatiques ont changé au fil des années, avec un impact sur la qualité de vie dans le centre de la ville et sa durabilité à long terme. Une nouvelle structure spatiale fragmentée a commencé à se développer, en lien avec les classes moyennes et les segments de l’économie globalisée, se déplaçant vers les quartiers fermés aux franges de la ville. Ces changements ne constituent pas un phénomène isolé, mais sont symptomatiques de transformations urbaines plus larges, articulés à des changements économico-politiques au niveau étatique.

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1Recent studies on urban informal sector in developing countries are replete with examples of forced evictions of the squatters to fulfil the global city dreams of local elites and aspirational new middleclass. Informed by the ‘right to the city’ literature scholars had shown that such neo-liberal city building agenda to make urban space attractive for new investors, further marginalizes the poor and deepens socio-economic polarization. Moving on from there, this paper offers a different perspective, to discuss political consolidation of the urban informal sector and its implications. Mobilization under the banner of labour unions has enabled street vendors in Kolkata (Calcutta); to not only resist the designs of the hegemonic state successfully but to become a part of the city’s governance framework. The street hawkers of Kolkata are no longer battling relocation drives, but by leveraging their numbers, have become a formidable interest group courted by rival political parties during election times.

2Kolkata is a good example to explore the politics of vendor Mobilization and its larger implications. The city has a large community of street vendors with a long tradition of trade union activism. Moreover, it is one of the most densely populated cities of the world. With a 15.8 million population, it is the third largest urban agglomeration of India and the capital of the state of West Bengal in eastern India. At the core of this urban agglomeration, is the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) area of 181 with a density of 24860 persons per Population density of the extended metropolitan region of 1851 area or the KMDA (Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority) area is 8540 persons per (see Figure – 1).

Figure 1 – Map showing KMDA area and KMC area within it

Figure 1 – Map showing KMDA area and KMC area within it

Source Modified by authors based on map sourced from KMDA

3Kolkata’s linear urban form and high population density had enabled the city to have well developed public transport system – at least by Indian standards. Even then, inadequacy of road space is a matter major concern. With just about 6 percent of the city area available for roads, Kolkata is much more congested compared to other Indian big cities. Over the past two decades, the problem of road congestion had further worsened due to huge increase in motor vehicle usage as well as occupation of space by the street vendors. As the motorists dominate the carriageway and vendors occupy the sidewalks, the pedestrians bear the brunt – collateral damage in contestation over road space between middleclass consumerism and livelihood concerns of the subaltern in an increasingly polarizing metropolis.

4This article draws upon qualitative research involving semi-structured interviews with municipal officials, ward-level political functionaries and hawker’s union activists. Altogether twenty-eight interviews were conducted in May-June 2015. Each interview involved discussions for forty-five to ninety minutes. Most interviews were conducted in Bengali, (the local language) and then translated by the authors. Information thus obtained was triangulated through in-depth discussions with well known local academics and field observations. Secondary data were obtained from authentic published sources, such as, census, master plan, ministerial policy documents and websites of reputed news papers (e.g. The Telegraph, Business Standard etc.).

5The rest of the paper is organized as follows. The next section provides the theoretical backdrop though a brief discussion about the politics of space in contemporary Indian cities. The third section discusses vendor policy guideline framed by India’s national government. The fourth section then traces Kolkata’s gradual economic slide and informalization of the urban economy. The fifth section discusses the process of political Mobilization by the street hawkers. The sixth section concludes the paper by discussing the future implications for the city’s huge street vendor community.

Urban space and network politics

6According to Lefebvre, there are three interconnected `moments' or conceptual tools in the production of urban space: sanitized abstract spaces conceived by urban planners, architects and engineers; spatial arrangements shaped and mediated by the market forces; and the lived spaces of the people shaped by everyday spatial practices (Kudva 2009; Lefebvre 1991). This implies a mutually established relationship between space and power – between spatial practices and its governance mechanism. In the contemporary Indian city there is a dynamic but complicated relationship between the abstract and sanitised formal city and the messy reality of lived spaces in the informal bazaar city. It is neither a relationship that is fully antagonistic, nor fully cooperative. The degree of cooperation or antagonism is frequently shaped by the local political actors – whose responses are in-turn calibrated through the realities of competitive electoral politics in a democratic set-up.

7Ever since the beginning of the economic liberalization process in 1991, India’s major urban centres started to undergo fundamental changes. While importance of the big cities started to increase as drivers of the economy, but they also began to encounter greater environmental threats and social polarization (Ghosh 2010). IT-enabled back office services which spearheaded India’s impressive economic performance over the past two decades did not translate into proportionate increase in regular employment opportunities - and had come to be known as ‘jobless growth’ syndrome. A significant proportion of the economic activities in segments like retail, construction, real estate, tourism and transportation and micro-scale industrial processing – which account for about 70 percent jobs in the cities – are happening through unorganized sector (Ghani, Goswami & Kerr 2012; The Telegraph 2015b).

8Rapid urbanization, without adequate employment opportunities in the organized sector, had contributed to the emergence of a fragmented urban pattern. The formal and informal economies have started to manifest in clear spatial terms and a new twin-track economic geography have started taking shape in urban India. This is, at once, the geography of concentration and dispersal. Thus, when seen at the national scale, India’s economic growth is disproportionately concentrated in select metro cities and mega urban regions. Paradoxically, at the metropolitan region scale, there is a clear trend of the formal sector manufacturing industries, knowledge intensive services and middle class residents moving away from the core city to the urban periphery (Chatterji 2014).

9In the immediate post-colonial era of state-led developmentalism, urban planning agencies typically sought to justify building new satellite cities and industrial estates at the outskirts of the metropolitan regions, as the strategy to decongest the urban core. This well worn modernist planning approach rooted in the Garden City concept of Ebenezer Howard and Neighbourhood concept of Clarence Perry, received a new lease of life in post-liberalization India, to open up new spaces of capital accumulation through real estate development (Shatkin & Vidyarthi 2014). But the role of the state had changed, from being a provider to that of facilitators. The state agencies are encouraging development of master planned townships and Special Economic Zones, either by private developers or through the Public Private Partnership route.

10Moreover, the approach towards urban development had undergone a paradigm shift. Until the 1980s, cities were seen in negative light, as sort of a necessary evil. Informed by Gandhian ethos, anti-urban, rural-centric viewpoints dominated the mind-space of the political elites. But with the neoliberal turn, urban development has become a thrust area in national economic strategy – due to the sector’s perceived potential in creating jobs and attracting new capital investments. And, to fast-track such economic objectives, national and regional political elites have preferred the strategy of ‘bypass urbanism’ through greenfield development, avoiding the messier route of inner-city redevelopment (Bhattacharya & Sanyal 2011). We argue here, that ‘bypass urbanism’ at the outer periphery is not independent of the socio-spatial changes taking place in the core city areas. Transformation of the core and peripheral areas are closely inter-related and reinforce each other.

11Privately developed gated townships and high-security business parks, located outside the municipal boundary and much of it funded by speculative foreign and domestic investments, (Goldman 2011) are becoming the loci of the up-scale globalised segment of the urban economy. Whereas, core inner city areas are increasingly being occupied by retail, trading and other micro-scale commercial enterprises – mostly belonging to the unorganized sector. The new economic geography of urban India is thus, a complex system where the “organized sector is becoming less urbanized, the unorganized sector is becoming more urbanized” (Ghani, Goswami & Kerr 2012).

12This divided urban geography is also manifested in the way the people associated with the formal and informal sectors tend to access the state, to avail the basic services. The urban poor and the migrant communities tend to take the more directly political route by approaching local functionaries of the organized political parties to assert their claims to the city. Neighbourhood level political channels ensure protection to the informal traders, slums and squatter settlements against eviction drives and help them access civic facilities, by striking deals with lower level civic officials. In exchange, entire slum neighbourhoods or communities of the poor become captive vote-banks of their local protector.

13Partha Chatterjee, in his seminal work ‘Politics of the Governed’ (2004), termed this phenomenon of subaltern population associated with the urban informal sector, herding under the protective umbrella of the organized political outfits as ‘survival politics of the poor.’ Such survival strategies are usually disassociated from individual ideological underpinnings and are guided by short-term gains. Disenchanted with such ‘vote-bank’ centric patronage politics persuaded by the mainstream political parties during municipal elections, educated urban middleclass tend to stay away from electoral politics and instead take the apolitical route of civil society activism to press their claims to the city, Chatterjee (2004) observed

14Initiatives by the NGOs, Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) and other such civil society groups, representing middleclass and property owning citizens are usually mediated under the rubric of urban environmental improvement programmes (Lama-Rewal, Stéphanie Tawa 2009; Weinstein, Sami & Shatkin 2014). With the neoliberal turn of the Indian state, middleclass desire for better urban quality of life has found increasing traction with the political economic objectives of the regional political elites - to attract new corporate investments to their cities. But interventions arising out of such clean-up operations and mega infrastructure projects inter alia lead to removal of slums and encroachments and often end up hurting the poor. As Banerjee-Guha (2010) puts it, in the neoliberal city, the route to capital accumulation comes through dispossession of the marginalized.

15However, in a country like India, with a fairly robust democratic legacy centring on rhetoric of mass empowerment, contestations over urban space are not one sided. Benjamin (2008) termed the strategies of the marginalized informal sector actors to cement their claims over the city as ‘occupancy urbanism’. In the process of claiming their share in public services and safeguarding territorial claims, urban poor groups have opened political spaces to appropriate institutions and develop an economy that builds alliances with local political actors, lower level bureaucratic circuits of municipal government and the keepers of the law (Benjamin 2008).

16However, the neighbourhood level political and economic arrangements, which bind the informal economy actors to the local political and bureaucratic functionary, often come in the way of rolling out mega infrastructure projects and city building agenda of the upper-tier, state level, administrative, political and business elites. Thus, the neo-liberal 'developmentalism' promoted at the macro scale is at variance with the everyday transactional relationships at the neighborhood scale.

17Discussing the complexities which undergird the planning process in India, Roy (2009) argued that informality has become an integral component of country’s urban structure. Moreover, closer looks at the metropolitan cities reveal that, informality is as much a contribution of wealthy urbanites and state actors, as the urban poor. Urban public spaces and state owned properties had been appropriated for a variety of usage (such as: shops and bazaars, religious structures, community sports and cultural activities) in contravention of the zoning norms, by various categories of people, including state institutions, not just by the urban poor to meet their basic shelter and livelihood requirements (Roy, A 2009).

18Shatkin and Vidyarthi (2014) note that the shift in state ideology from welfare socialism built around Gandhian ethos, to utilitarian market capitalism championed by the global business class, had come about through fundamental change in the character of the Indian state. This in turn, had impacted the space relations at the urban scale. The social contact which shaped the urban communities in the post-colonial era, had wilted under the onslaught of market capitalism, growing regional economic competition and globalisation.

19For instance, traditionally the state in India took a rather soft approach towards urban informality; even though the urban middle class had long been seeking removal of slums and shanties, citing their adverse impact on environmental and aesthetic quality of life. But the recent decades are marked by vastly increased assertiveness of the newly wealthy urbanites. and an impatience at the failure of the state machinery to control urban space, or rather to bring back prime urban properties held by slums and squatter settlements within the ambit of the market forces.

20Chatterjee (2004) attributes this lenient approach of the earlier period, as implicit recognition by the state of its inability to generate sufficient jobs or supply affordable housing. Under the circumstances, the state apparatus either turned a blind eye or condoned petty violations and encroachments. It was reasoned that, hard action may trigger social unrest. But, nowadays, with metropolitan cities becoming gateways to global economy, urban land values and property markets had started sky rocketing, and more utilitarian thinking had started to prevail over moral ones, in matters of urban governance.

21Apprehending, that globalised new urban economic order would adversely impact livelihood of the low wage, unorganized workforce Chatterjee (2008) raised questions, whether Mobilization by the urban poor, trough their networks with the lower bureaucracy and political establishment, or collectively the ‘political society’ will provide the necessary framework for negotiating a controlled transition to the new urban order.

22Baviskar and Sundar (2008) sought to counter Chatterjee’s ‘political society’ argument, by citing the increasing involvement of the RWAs representing affluent neighbourhoods of in municipal affairs and even electoral politics of Delhi. They argue that it is the rich and the middleclass who are increasingly being able to perpetuate their claims over illegally encroached upon land and land-use changes.

23It is evident, that post-liberalization years had seen growing engagement of the corporate and civil society elites, and even ordinary middle class associations with the municipal state at various scales. For example, in Mumbai and Bangalore elite-led institutions sought to bring about systemic changes in the way city planning agencies functioned and bring greater focus on economic growth strategies, from their earlier preoccupation on land use control (Weinstein, Sami & Shatkin 2014). In Delhi neighbourhood associations progressively scaled up their engagement in civic affairs and eventually played a crucial role in formation of a new political outfit, which wrested power in the city-state in 2014.

24However, it needs to be noted here, that no single framework can fully capture the socio-cultural and economic diversity of a complex country like India (Sinha 2005). Taking cognisance of India’s diversity, Weinstein, Sami and Shatkin (2014) advocated for neo-liberalization to be viewed as a dynamic and flexible process, capable of accommodating and adapting to myriad local attributes – rather than through the narrow prism of homogenisation. We adopt a similar approach here, to build upon and further contextualise the ‘political society’ argument as originally postulated.

25We argue here that political Mobilization of the street hawkers of Kolkata have evolved from the stage of ‘survival politics of the poor’ in the classical sense the term, as Chatterjee (2004) defined, and now exemplify its logical next step. By strategically mobilizing their numbers they have become an integral component of the cities power metrics. The ‘occupancy urbanism’ or ‘insurgency planning’ are no longer transient phases to be wished away by globalizing cities in the developing world, but rather the ‘new’ normal around which rest of the planning activities need to revolve.

26We further argue that, it would be simplistic to see the contestations over urban space only through the lens of class binaries, or even in terms of adversarial relationship at all. It is an evolving and layered relationship in which at the neighbourhood scale often there is high degree of co-existence and interdependence between formal and informal economies and the people associated with it. The issue of the street vendors of Kolkata discussed in this paper brings out various dynamics associated with process and the changes that had happened over the past decade. These changes are not isolated phenomenon, but rather symptomatic with the process of larger scale urban transformation.

27But, before we move our discussion to Kolkata, the next section provides a brief background about national policy of street vendors.

National policy for street vendors

28A significant proportion of activities in economic segments like retail, construction, real estate, tourism and transportation and micro-scale industrial processing – which account for about 70 percent jobs in Indian cities – are happening through unorganized sector (Ghani, Goswami & Kerr 2012; The Telegraph 2015b). And well over 10 million people work as street vendors or hawkers. Street vendors comprise a particularly visible segment of the urban informal economy and their numbers are estimated to be well over 10 million (Kishwar 2005).

29From 2000 onwards, the national political leadership began to recognize the importance of street vending in generating self employment and as means for providing ‘affordable’ and ‘convenient’ service for many more people. Initially, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) came out with the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in 2004, which was substantially revised in 2009. Then the national parliament enacted the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act in 2014(MHUPA 2014; Sampath 2015). The Street Vendor’s Act and its predecessor policy guidelines seek to judiciously balance the livelihood rights of the street vendors, while at the same time ensure unhindered pedestrian and vehicular movement. The Act revolves around four key provisions:

  • There will be a survey of all existing hawkers

  • Instead of licences, certificates of vending will be issued to all existing hawkers identified in the survey

  • Vending and non-vending zones will be demarcated and all hawkers are to be accommodated in the vending zones

  • No hawker will be evicted from his/her spot unless and until the survey has been done and certificates of vending issued.

30At the heart of the legislation is the concept of Town Vending Committee (TVC). The mandate of the TVC is to operationalize the Act, organise the survey, decide on vending/non-vending areas, issue certificates and fees etc. It is envisaged that the TVC shall be chaired by the Commissioner of the local municipality and shall comprise of various stakeholders, including the street vendors, traffic police, RWAs, market associations, and the local planning authority. Since the street vendors are the most important stake holders, and issues involve their livelihood, the Act sought to safeguard their interests by mandating that 40 percent of the TVC’s composition shall be reserved for them.

31Notwithstanding, the progressive features of the Street Vending Act of 2014, scholars have expressed apprehension about its ground level implementation (Sampath 2015). Implementation responsibility for the Act lies with the municipal administration – which typically suffer from resource and capacity constraints, and are seen as the weakest link in India’s multitier governance hierarchy (Shivaramakrishnan 2011). Prejudices against the street hawkers run deep amongst a section of the municipal administrators (Sampath 2015).

32Moreover, elaborate rent seeking syndicates comprising of the lower municipal bureaucracy, beat police and neighbourhood level political actor have cropped up throughout the country. Over the years, these syndicates had developed huge stakes in perpetuating the ‘illegal’ status of the street vendors (Bhowmik, Sharit K. & Saha 2012; Kishwar 2005). Thus harassment of the street hawkers continues as everyday practice, even though the national government had become more sympathetic to their needs.

Kolkata’s economic decline and informalization

33Kolkata grew in economic, political and cultural importance during the 19th century, as the seat of the British Empire in India. It simultaneously became dominant node in the mercantile route linking distant forelands in Europe with Southeast Asia, and the gateway to a natural resource rich hinterland of the northern India. Spread of English language and ideas – especially amongst the Bengali Bhadralok community (predominantly, but not necessarily comprising of Hindu upper caste) -led to formation of a large western educated middle class -and a vibrant civil society in the city.

34Being the preeminent site of the colonial economy and administration, modern industrial manufacturing activities also started early in Kolkata. Jute mills began to be established from the 1850s. Between 1920 and 1950, the manufacturing sector substantially diversified into heavy engineering (e.g. railway wagons, containers, transformers, generators, automobiles etc.) and industrial chemicals (Goswami 1989). Supply-chain requirements of these industries contributed to downstream industrialization and the Kolkata region became one of the largest industrial agglomerations in pre-1950s Asia.

35Although Kolkata retained its position as India’s preeminent urban centre until the 1960s, but the economy of the city-region came under enormous strain since the 1940s due to several tumultuous socio-political events (Goswami 1989; Raychaudhuri & Basu 2007): refugee influx following famine (1943), communal riots (1946-47) and wars (1965 and 1971); loss of the jute producing hinterland (of east Bengal due to partition); national government’s policies (which deprived the region of its locational advantages in engineering industries); decline of the port (due to heavy silting in its approach); and finally escalation in industrial unrests and militant trade unionism between 1967-69 – leading to flight of industrial capital, shutting down of the factories and job losses. The city-region plunged into a protracted period of economic stagnation, from which it is yet to recover fully.

36In terms of Net Value Added, West Bengal’s share in India’s Industrial Production declined from 14.38 percent in 1971 to 6.29 percent in 1991, while employment percentage over the same period went down from 16.19 percent to 9.19 percent. This could be, to a significant extent attributed to governmental apathy (Raychaudhuri & Basu 2007). The Communist Party of India -Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Front coalition which was in power in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011, focused its attention to rural issues during the first one and half decades of its three-decade plus rule.

37However, declining opportunities for employment generation in the rural areas forced the Left Front government to change track and focus back on the urban and industrial areas from the mid-1990s. (Raychaudhuri & Basu 2007). The efforts had led to emergence of new economic opportunities in Kolkata in areas, such as software development, health care and other knowledge intensive services – which mainly created jobs for the educated middleclass youth - but not the masses. Despite persistent efforts, the state government failed to bring back any ‘resurgence’ in the organized sector industrial manufacturing. Efforts towards this received a big jolt, when agitations by farmers (and strongly backed by the state’s the then main opposition party Trinamool Congress) against acquisition of agricultural land forced a major automobile manufacturing unit to relocate to another state(Nielsen 2010).

38Reducing opportunities in agriculture and organized sector industrial employment has pushed large percentage of people in West Bengal to informal economy and the state now ranks second in India, in terms of number unorganized sector employment as well as enterprises. Unorganized sector now accounts for15.13 million out of 16.78 million or 90.25 percent of the non-farm sector employment in West Bengalis (Planning Commission of India 2010). It is estimated that about 1.6 million people in West Bengal work as street vendors, while in Kolkata their numbers could be estimated between 270,000 to 300,000, excluding mobile vendors in local trains and buses or those who move about push-carts (Roy, S 2014).As their job requires hard physical labour, an overwhelming 97 percent of Kolkata’s hawkers are male and near about 80 percent of them are in the 25-45 age bracket (Roy, S 2014) . A survey carried out in 2001 noted that about 50 percent of the street vendors in Kolkata were earlier employed in the organized sector (Bhowmik, S. K. 2001).

Street vendors and political mobilization

39Socio-political upheavals, refugee influx, and particularly youth angst due to inadequate economic opportunities had contributed to a confrontational and agitational political landscape in Kolkata, characterised by rural-urban dichotomy, class divide and sharp polarization along party lines. There are two major political formations in Kolkata (and Bengal). CPI-M is the fulcrum of the Left Front coalition of parliamentary socialist and communist parties, which as noted previously, was at the helm of Bengal uninterruptedly from 1977 to 2011, by winning seven consecutive elections. The Trinamool Congress party, which came to power in 2011, and retained the same with increased mandate in 2016, is a personality centric outfit – that revolves around its founder Ms. Mamata Banerjee. It has now appropriated the urban (and rural) poor constituency of the old left through populist rhetoric and redistributive welfare measures.

40Over the years, a left oriented political culture had evolved in Bengal. From the 1940s until the end of the millennium, communist (and allied socialist) parties were at its vanguard. As Basu and Majumder (2013) put it, the parliamentary left was able to frame a social imaginaire and the idiom of social citizenship. Initially, this was possible through their active participation in various movements involving the refugees, land-less peasants, industrial labour and educated un-employed urban youth; later through hegemonic state action became the preferred route to push forward agrarian land reforms and other pro-poor agenda. But from the mid-1990s, as the parliamentary Left increasingly began to be identified with the establishment and neoliberal developmentalism, Trinamool Congress, under its charismatic leader Mamata Banerjee had started appropriating its core constituency of urban and rural poor (Basu & Majumder 2013).

41Another characteristic feature of Bengal politics is the domination of the political space at the apex, by the educated Bhadralok communities, despite sharp partisan polarization (Sinha 2005). The upper-castes, who are about 10 percent of the population have consistently accounted for 40 to 50 percent of the seats in the state assemblies (Lama-Rewal, Stephene Tawa 2009). This upper-caste domination in an electoral democracy has been made possible due its accommodation of the subaltern interests within the framework of the organized political parties over several decades and on the whole Bengal has a anti-capitalist political culture - as from the early twentieth century the ideational discourse of the Bhadralok started taking a radical turn towards leftist politics (Chatterjee 1990; Sinha 2005).

42The political elites had by and large tended to equate street hawkers and other informal economy actors as survival strategies of the poor, rather than bottom-up entrepreneurship. Yet despite this sympathetic conceptualization, everyday matters pertaining to claims over Kolkata’s urban space, the relationship between the Bhadralok dominated political and administrative institutions and the informal economy actors had not been smooth.

43Hawkers emerged in a big way on the streets of Kolkata following the partition and the socio-economic upheavals of the 1940s. The population of Kolkata jumped from 1.22 million to 2.70 million as refugees poured in to the city from Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) between 1931 and 1951(Census 2011). The then Congress government under Chief Minister Dr.B.C. Roy attempted to resettle the partition refugees by constructing ‘Hawkers Corners’ – markets with makeshift tin-shed stalls, by utilizing disused horse stables or other open spaces near existing commercial areas. Kalighat Refugee Hawkers Corner in South Kolkata and Bidhan Market in Central Kolkata came up this way (Bandopadhaya 2009,). Figure -2 shows the main hawker dominated areas of the city.

Figure 2 - Hawker dominated areas within KMC area

Figure 2 - Hawker dominated areas within KMC area

Source - authors

44However, during the 1960s, as supply of empty land parcels in commercial areas dried up and fresh waves of East Pakistan refugees started arriving, eviction became the de-facto norm for the authorities. For example, CPI-M leader and Deputy Chief Minister of the short-lived United Front government ordered eviction of hawkers from Gariahat area – the commercial heart of South Kolkata (Bandopadhaya 2009,). Strong resistance the by Ballygunge Hawkers Union affiliated to the Workers Party, stalled the move. Another concerted effort was made between 1972-75 by three civic agencies KMC, KMDA and PWD (Public Works Department), to evict the hawkers from central part of the city – as price undercutting by the hawkers were impacting the sales margins of the shops in the organized markets run by the KMC.

45Code named as Operation Hawker, the first stage of the move targeted South and North Kolkata, where the hawkers predominantly belonged from Bengali Hindu community. The second stage focused on Central Kolkata areas dominated by non-Bengali Muslim hawkers (Bandopadhaya 2009,). The authorities proposed to organize Mina Bazaars or makeshift markets by blocking the traffic carriageway for a few hours. However, this move failed to take-off as it was strongly opposed by the existing organized sector retail and commercial establishments, fearing that traffic blockade will impact their sales. Eventually, the judiciary intervened, and the proposal was shelved.

46During the 1980s, no major attempts were made to change the status-quo about the occupation of the road space – as the Left Front government after assuming office in 1977, began to consolidate its support base and did not want further radicalization of Kolkata’s urban proletariat (Bandopadhaya 2009,) . However, the government announced 1977 as the cut-off year for distribution of vending licenses. Consequently, CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) – the trade union wing of CPI-M stopped enrolling newer hawkers as members.

47In 1989, Kolkata Municipal Corporation attempted to take a practical and realistic solution to the inter-related twin issues – decongest the roads of the city from traffic snarls without hurting the livelihood of the hawkers (Bandopadhaya 2009,). It came up with a two-pronged strategy. As a short term measure, it proposed to create hawking and no-hawking zones. As long-term solution, it planned to redevelop the municipal markets in the city – mostly single storied bazaars (such as Gariahat Market, Lake Market, College Street Market, Lansdowne Market etc.) - into multistoried market complexes – which could rehabilitate the hawkers (See Figure-2).

48However, the implementation of the plans proved difficult. Construction of the multistoried blocks in extremely congested sites of the municipal markets took far longer time than originally scheduled. And even then, many hawkers refused to move into multistoried structures. They were not only concerned about higher rental demands in future by the authorities, but were apprehensive about losing customers by abandoning their vantage positions along the sidewalks of the busy streets. The civic authorities did not display adequate political wills to change situation and the status quo continued.

49The political scenario changed in big-way in the 1990s as the Left Front government, began to liberalise its economic policies and started courting private capital. It became necessary to spruce-up the streetscape of Kolkata and ‘improve’ the image of the city. In 1996, the municipal authorities in association with the police launched ‘Operation Sunshine’ which brutally razed all road side hawker stalls within two weeks. The move was fully backed by the state government politically and the state assembly amended the Kolkata Municipal Act to make occupation of streets and sidewalks by the hawkers a cognisable and non-bailable offence (Bandopadhaya 2009,). The tough stance of the government was initially hailed by the English as well as Bengali press as long-overdue act o finally reclaim the side-walks back for the pedestrians and have a cleaner, greener, city.

50But yet again, the government’s resolve proved short lived against the resistance put up by the hawkers. The hawker’s movement was spearheaded under the banner of Hawker Sangram (Struggle / Movement) Committee (HSC) – an umbrella organization of 32 trade unions owing allegiance to various political parties. Effectively led by Mr. Shaktiman Ghosh of Kolkata Hawker Men’s Union, HSC deployed multi-pronged strategy, which simultaneously involved: campaigns to win back public sympathy; back channel negotiations with political intermediaries; and civil disobedience movements.

51HSC lodged court cases against the civic authorities alleging police brutality, and argued that forcible evictions had violated the rights of the people to earn livelihood. They organized seminars by inviting academics and journalists to discuss the issues of unemployment and economic vulnerabilities. Simultaneously the unions also negotiated bribe deals with neighbourhood level political functionaries and civic officials, which allowed hawkers to return back in less conspicuous locations in a creeping manner. Food hawkers launched signature campaigns amongst the office goers in the CBD areas and started selling meals at one-fifth of the price of the restaurants. When interviewed, a top leader of the HSC mentioned,

“We realised that it is crucial for us to win sympathy of all sections of the society. Without that our battle would not be successful in the long run. They are our customers. Political leaders may come and go. But our people have to earn their living on a daily basis. That is not possible unless we win support from the society as a whole. And we were convinced that people will support us. After all, we also belong to the same Bengali society. Our intellectuals had supported struggling masses of Vietnam and Bangladesh. Won’t they support us?” (Interview: 27 May 2015)

52Along with these soft strategies, HSC also resorted to massive protest rallies across the city; and blockading of key road junctions through sit-in demonstrations. Failure of the Operation Sunshine, foreclosed forcible eviction of hawkers (followed by rehabilitation through relocation) unviable in Kolkata’s competitive political context.

53The Left Front lost the Kolkata’s municipal polls held in 2000 to the newly formed Trinamool Congress party, which broke away from the centrist Congress party in 1998. Losing Kolkata in 2000 was Left Front’s first crucial electoral reversal after coming to power in West Bengal in 1977. To a considerable extent, this defeat could be attributed to the disenchantment of the subaltern population with Left Front’s right ward turn. As a former trade union leader belonging to CITU put it,

“Operation Sunshine hit us badly. Hawkers started feeling betrayed and looking upon us with suspicion. No doubt, we began to win plaudits from the bourgeoisie press and our leaders got carried away. Mamata Banerjee correctly gauged the electoral arithmetic. She jumped into the issue, supporting hawkers, even at the cost of antagonizing her Bhadralok supporters. But at the end, reaped the dividend” (Interview 11 June 2015)

54Ms. Mamata Banerjee, the founder of the Trinamool Congress, emerged as the new messiah of Kolkata’s urban poor. The hawkers fully reclaimed their old positions between 2000-05, as the Trinamool Congress run Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) looked the other way (The Telegraph 2006). However, beyond the ‘policy of benign neglect’ Trinamool Congress did not take any concrete measures to address the issues pertaining to road space utilization.

55The Left Front won back Kolkata’s municipal government in 2005 election and attempted to resolve conflicts over road space through negotiation with HSC and other trade unions. Accordingly, the KMC came – up with a new proposal which strike a balance between the needs of the pedestrians and the street vendors. But, the negotiations broke down over implementation details.

56The Left Front suffered major reverses in rural council elections all over West Bengal in 2008 due to discontents in the rural areas against acquisition of agricultural land for industrialization (Nielsen 2010). This electoral reverse would mark the beginning of end for Left Front’s rule in Bengal, from which it is yet to recover. Desperate to retain control over Kolkata, the Left Front led civic authorities further climbed down and offered to issue licenses to the street vendors before the 2010 municipal polls. But even then, it lost to Trinamool Congress in a series of elections including the recently concluded West Bengal state assembly election in May 2016.

57Under Trinamool Congress rule, the hawkers of Kolkata have been witnessing sharp escalation in their numbers. In 1996 during the Operation Sunshine, there were about 150,000 hawkers in Kolkata, while now it has crossed 325,000 street hawkers (unofficial estimates put the figure at 500,000) in Kolkata and 1.6 million in West Bengal as a whole (The Telegraph 2015a). This phenomenon could be attributed to further shrinkage in industrial growth rate in West Bengal after the change in government in 2011 (Business Standard 2013).

58Conscious about its dependence on the urban poor in general and the street hawkers in particular in electoral terms, Trinamool Congress came out with a new proposal before the Kolkata municipal elections of April 2015. The new scheme, not only promises free issue of trade licenses but also 50 percent state funding for construction of the stalls. Addressing a gathering of the street hawkers before the poll, the Chief Minister of West Bengal announced,

"Poila Baisakh (Bengali New Year Day), I will hand over recognition certificates for the hawkers … We will help you set up sheds in a 50:50 joint venture between government and individual set up. You can submit your desired designs to Kolkata Municipal Corporation” (The Telegraph 2015b)

59However the move to legalise the hawkers had caused concerns amongst Kolkata’s organized retail community. Since the street vendors typically do not pay any taxes, legalising them would perpetuate a regime of ‘black money’ transactions, which could eventually impact the economic future of the regular tax-paying shops. The chairman of the Federation of the West Bengal Trade Associations (FWBTA) alleged ‘political aspirations’ behind the regularisation proposal and observed:

"Organized traders are the biggest sufferers of hawkers. Trading is already suffering because of lack of industrialization and allied issues of laggard employment generation and sluggish growth in income. Now, if hawkers are given a free run, the future of trading is doomed…"Either give us the benefits or allow us to conduct business without taxes. In fact, you should be making the hawkers pay all taxes, once their existence is legally recognised by a trade licence"(The Telegraph 2015a)

60It is yet to be seen, how the new legislation to regularise street vending activities in Kolkata will shape-up. HSC had opposed the move of the TMC government to regularise the street vendor without constituting the Town Vending Committee as required under the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 and had filled a writ petition in the High Court.

61However, there are two take-away points here. One, support base amongst by the hawkers have helped Trinamool Congress electorally, and helped it to offset gradual decline of support amongst the salaried middle class. Two, through political consolidation, the hawkers themselves have not only resisted successive eviction drives, but have now become a formidable political force in Kolkata. A prominent Trinamool Congress activist and secretary of neighbourhood socio-cultural club in Ballygunge area explained the equation.

“Hawkers are vital for us. Do you think we could have won 2015 Corporation election by depending upon Bhadralok voters in Ballygunge or Bhawanipur? No way. Hawkers do not get swayed by TV shows and newspaper reports. Moreover, many affluent people do not come out to vote. They don’t want to stand in queue. But hawkers do, and they do it en-masse. They know which side of the bread is buttered.” (Interview 11 June 2015)

62HSC – the collective voice of Kolkata’s strong hawker community has become an inseparable component of Kolkata’s institutional governance framework. As an intermediary agency between the state and the community, HSC’s success mantra could be attributed to the fact, that on the one hand it has considerable leverage with the ruling elites and the civic bureaucracy; on the other hand it also enjoys great moral authority over the street vendor community (Bandopadhaya 2009,). The hawkers see HSC as their protector, while the state authorities see HSC as the agency through which discipline could be imposed over the informal sector economic activities. The works of HSC today covers an wide array of functions, such as (Civil Society Online 2013):

  • Socio-economic survey –The National Policy of Street Vendors, framed by the federal government suggested that all urban local government to carry out a baseline survey of the socio-economic profile of the street vendors in their locality. In line with this suggestion Kolkata Municipal Corporation initiated a survey of street vendors in Gariahat – Rash Behari Avenue stretch in South Kolkata and entrusted HSC with the task. By getting involved with this enumeration exercise HSC made its presence felt in the governance space.

  • Regulation of street discipline - HSC has emerged as the arbitrator of territorial dispute amongst various hawker unions. It also regulates the numbers of hawkers in a particular road stretch. While this ensures profitability of the existing vendors, it acts as deterrence against newer entrants.

  • Provision of credit – Corporate and public sector banks neither provide loans nor extend credit facilities to street vendors. To overcome the problem, HSC has started to a process to make micro-credits available to the hawkers through informal sector financial institutions. It itself acts as the guarantor.

  • Provision of training facilities – There are about 143,000 food vendors in Kolkata who provide a large variety of cooked food at a price far lower than the regular restaurants. However, in recent years they came under increasing criticism on health and hygiene issues. While the government backtracked from extending training facilities to informal sector street vendors, HSC stepped in and organized training facilities for about 3000 hawkers at the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health on basic hygiene and sanitary issues, including proper cleaning of utensils, storage of perishable products and disposal of garbage.

  • Policy advocacy –From being the protector of the street vendors of Kolkata, HSC has expanded the scale and ambit of its operation and has become the main fulcrum of National Hawker Federation. In the policy arena it has followed the orthodox leftist line that entry of big corporate brands and chain stores are detrimental to the livelihood of small and micro scale retail enterprises. Thus it has stridently opposed the policy of allowing foreign investments into the multi-brand retail segment.

63Over the years, as the numbers of hawkers has increased on the streets of Kolkata, their political clout has also increased. Mobilization of the hawkers into a formidable political interest group has come about due to effective leadership and broad unity amongst the trade unions. As one HSC leader explained, “It is simple electoral arithmetic. No political leader in Kolkata can trample us and hope to get reelected -as long as we are united. Unity is our strength” (Interview: 7 June 2015). While being aware of its political strength, HSC leadership is also keen to project a responsible face. They oppose squatting over carriageways and acknowledge the need to regulate hawkers to free-up part of the sidewalk for pedestrians. As HSC president Shaktiman Ghosh, HSC president observed,

"Hawkers should occupy a third of the pavement's width, leaving the rest for pedestrians. But this cannot be enforced till a vending committee is formed and submits recommendations on hawking, no-hawking and regulated zone." (Interview: 28 June 2016)

64Effective leadership, broad unity amongst the trade unions and an embedded leftist political culture has allowed the street hawkers to become a strong political constituency in Kolkata. Earlier collective strength of the hawker had forced the civic authorities to back-track time and again and protected the hawkers from forced evictions/ relocations. Now the street vendors have become a formidable force in the city’s political landscape. It is a vote bank that no political party can ignore in a democratic set-up. However, it would not be proper to associate the collective politics of the hawkers to their ideological orientation. It is the ‘survival politics of the poor’ that has started to mature to the next stage and become power players themselves. Kolkata’s hawker community is no longer fighting a hegemonic state against forced evictions, but rather, through their umbrella organisation, has become an integral part of the planning and governance framework of the municipal state.


65This paper discussed how strong political Mobilization has allowed the hawkers of Kolkata to protect their livelihood and then further scale-up their operations to become a partner of the municipal state. This however raises certain fundamental questions about the city’s future socio-economic sustainability and quality of life.

66Indian cities typically depict a symbiotic relationship between formal and informal economies – a phenomenon most clearly manifested at a neighbourhood scale. Street vending operations in Kolkata had also typically depicted such characteristics. Pavement hawkers often act as commission agents on behalf of the organized sector retailers to sale cheaper goods. Many hawkers, at the end of the business day store their surplus stocks at the in the regular retail shops for the night – for safe keeping. But such everyday transactions have increasingly started to come under strain. Emboldened by their growing political clout, street vendors have stated to under-cut the profit margins of the regular retailers, while explosive growth in hawker numbers has started to physically block access to the shops. Incidences of harassment of the pedestrians by the hawkers are also on the rise. It is to be remembered here that growth in street vending activities in Kolkata are directly related to contraction in manufacturing and other formal sector economic opportunities. If hawker indiscipline contributes to decline of organized retail, then it can further perpetuate the economic woes of the city (Business Standard 2015).

67It cannot also be overlooked that by chocking pavements and carriageways, hawkers contribute towards declining quality of life – at least from the urban middleclass perspective. Over the past two decades Kolkata has clearly seen a discernible trend of the urban middleclass moving away from the congested core city to the greenfield gated suburban townships (Chatterji 2014; Chen, Wang & Kundu 2009). The suburban townships, developed in a planned way to meet the lifestyle requirements of the aspirational middleclass, offer high quality apartments, state of the art IT-business parks, and air-conditioned shopping malls, which assiduously keep the hawkers and others associated with the informal economy.

68With this, fundamental character of Kolkata has started to undergo change. The city that was earlier well known for harmonious coexistence of people belonging to different socio-economic strata in the same neighbourhood in a symbiotic relationship, is now becoming increasingly segregated (Chatterjee 2004). A new urban pattern is emerging, with the globalised and the organized economy moving towards the periphery, while the core city is increasingly being tied to the local and informal bazaar economy. The moot question remains – to what extent a city can absorb the informal sector street vendors, without jeopardising overall urban sustainability.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 – Map showing KMDA area and KMC area within it
Crédits Source Modified by authors based on map sourced from KMDA
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Titre Figure 2 - Hawker dominated areas within KMC area
Crédits Source - authors
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Tathagata Chatterji et Souvanic Roy, « From Margin to Mainstream: Informal Street Vendors and Local Politics in Kolkata, India »L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 29 | 2016-2, mis en ligne le 02 septembre 2016, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Tathagata Chatterji

Xavier University Bubaneswar, Bhubaneswar, INDIA

Souvanic Roy

Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, INDIA

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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