The opening up of the economy in the 1990s posed several challenges, including the growing marginalization of urban poor specially the street vendors. Fresh out of the Delhi School of Economics with a master degree in Sociology, ARBIND SINGH decided to take the plunge for the cause of the street vendors. Here in a conversation with CSR TIMES he shares his journey

The economic upheaval of 1990s accompanied with social changes created a situation for those living on the margins where they got pushed further to the periphery. “Thus arose an urgent need to organize and to struggle to retain the space for the poor in the urban Indian society,” says Arbind Singh, the national coordinator of National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI).

On his vision of the fight for poor, Singh says, “One of the important components of the struggle had to be advocacy with governance institutions demanding effective policy, legislations and rights based social protection programs for vulnerable urban groups. With the aim to provide economic, social and legal sustainability to the urban poor, NASVI came into being in 1998. The movement focused on working among the street vendors.”

 

ORGANIZING AND NETWORKING

The initial five years were spent networking to bring together street vendor organizations, community based groups and trade unions across different states. This helped NASVI take a formal shape in 2003 with 400 organisations. Its membership has now risen to more than 1000. Large scale coming together of membership driven organizations of the poor enabled NASVI to trigger the process of organizing and simultaneously raise the pitch of advocacy with urban local bodies, state governments and national government.

 

NATIONAL POLICY FOR STREET VENDORS

“Nationwide mobilization of vendors and aggressive advocacy with the government helped in the evolution of National Policy for Street Vendors. On 20 January,2004, the Government of India formulated the National Policy for Urban Street Vendors. It was revised later in2009. The National Policy gave visibility to vendors’ issues and vendor organizations started mounting pressure on municipal bodies to implement policy in letter and spirit,” recalls Singh.

The next five years was spent in getting the municipal bodies across the country to implement the policy. “Given the federal and three tier structure of the country, it was not always easy to get the state governments and municipal bodies as well as to get the bureaucracy and the political leadership on board. While there were

some, who were very receptive to the idea, the others just believed in maintaining status-quo vis-à-vis a regime of exemplary loot and fleece of the poor. The results of our efforts was a mixed-bag, with NASVI embracing success at some places and our efforts getting stone walled at other,” says Singh.

 

STRUGGLE FOR POLICY IMPLEMENTATION AND CENTRAL LAW

“An evaluation of our efforts in getting the municipal bodies to implement the National Policy and the results of our efforts convinced us about the need to get the policy protection through a parliamentary act. NASVI in 2009 decided to fight for both policy implementation as well as enactment of central law to protect livelyhood and ensure social security of street vendors,” says Singh and adds, “Having got a favourable order from the Supreme Court, NASVI began the next phase of struggle for central law albeit through aggressive advocacy. A suitable well-documented petition was prepared for submission to the government. After having formally submitted the petition, we realized that to keep pressure on the government we would have to continue with the process of communication creating awareness among our stakeholders and getting them committed to the cause in increasing numbers.”

The struggle paid off as government kept its word and the process of drafting law got started in due course. While the Draft Bill was prepared in utmost secrecy for reasons best known to the bureaucracy, NASVI used all possible channels including the NAC to keep providing vital inputs to make it effective in protecting the rights of the vendors.

“In due course, the Ministry of Law cleared the draft Street Vendors’ Bill. On 17 August, 2012, in its first meeting after the 65th Independence Day Celebrations, the Union Cabinet approved the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill. The next day there was a nationwide celebration hailing the government decision. Little did we realize then that the struggle was not yet over,” says Singh.

 

STRUGGLE INSIDE & OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT

After the passage by the Union Cabinet, the government promised to introduce the Bill in Parliament at the earliest opportunity. On

6 September, 2012, the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha. “The draft Bill, which was introduced in Parliament, had many key provisions enabling vendors to get access to rights and entitlements but it also suffered from several serious shortcomings, the most important being the recent trend in law making to leave the important provisions of making schemes at a later date. Given our experience of implementation of the Street Vendor Policy 2004,we knew that at the time of framing schemes by state govts and municipal bodies, such provisions will be laid which will defeat the very purpose of the Act,” says Singh narrating the sequence of events.

The street vendors protested and demanded suitable amendments to the Bill. Acceding to the demand, the government agreed to send the Bill to the Standing Committee of the Parliament. Through the months of November and December, 2012, NASVI presented its concerns and points of amendments to the Bill before the Standing Committee. The Committee was chaired by veteran parliamentarian Sharad  Yadav, who took keen interest in the matter. He was ably assisted by Kailash Joshi, another political veteran and former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

“Meanwhile, Ajay Maken took charge as Cabinet Minister in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. Having cut his teeth in politics working with labour groups, Maken adopted a very positive attitude towards the Bill. On 13 March, 2013, a huge Street Vendors Parliament took place in Delhi. On the same day, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development tabled its report on the floor of the houses. On 1 May, 2013, NASVI organized ‘Dialogue of Street Representatives to Convert Street Vendors’ Bill into Act’ in New Delhi. The Union Cabinet was scheduled to meet in the evening the same day. On behalf of Government, Maken aggressively advocated for the approval of the revamped Street Vendors Bill and had his way,” says Singh.

The Bill was now back in Parliament. “Having learnt our lessons, we knew we cannot rest on our past laurels till the Bill was passed. In August 2013, the street vendors from across the states again sent postcards, and this time to the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi urging her to ensure the passage of the Bill. She was reminded that the NAC under her chairpersonship had approved of the Bill,” says Singh.

The postcard campaign had salutary effect as on 6 September, 2013 the Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha. “The struggle had now entered the next phase. In next six months momentum of struggle had to be sustained and the campaign was given a vigorous form. Though assurances came in plenty the leadership across the political spectrum lacked in urgency on the issue. As final resort on 16 February, 2014 NASVI called for indefinite hunger strike at Jantar Mantar demanding passage of the Bill. The vendors could not let their struggle peter out at the last block and 33 vendor leaders from across the cities started their fast which continued for four days. Thousands of street vendors reached the venue of the fast in support of the fasting street vendor leaders. The parliament was stirred by the struggle and Rajya  Sabha on 19 February, 2014 amidst raging protests, campaigns and mounting pressure on the political parties, gave its approval to the Bill. The street vendors stood empowered with their profession now included in the definition of Fundamental Right for Livelihood,” recalls Singh.

“But the struggle continues in making the states and the municipal bodies implement the act. The implementation is moving at snail’s pace but we shall continue with our struggle,” adds Singh with a flourish.