Print Edition - 2014-05-03 | On Saturday
Taking back the streets
May 2, 2014-
After taking charge of the Home Ministry for the second time, in February, Bam Dev Gautam, yet again, has decided to sweep the vendors out of the streets. And just like the last time, he has tried to remove them without first designating an acceptable alternative site for them to conduct business. The government has not been able to assure them that they will be provided with any other sort of relief either.
The sidewalks of Kathmandu do seem tidier today, but the absence of the once-ubiquitous vendors is also a reminder of the question that will never go away: who has the rights to the streets—the ever-changing government or the members of the public?
While the question lingers, the vendors have done whatever they can to get back to business. They have made a demand that there be suitable zones for selling their wares, and in a move that aims for the gut, they’ve held protests where they have brought along their children out on the streets. Everything they have tried up until now has failed to nudge the government in any way. They have even raised questions in parliament, which were, in turn, taken to senior leaders—but all such efforts have come to nought.
Far from the arenas where the disagreements play out, the vendors have been trying to piece together their lives the best they can. Maya Kumari Magar (name changed upon request) says that this year has been a difficult one. A single mother and the sole breadwinner for her two school-going children, Magar says that she is drowning in debt now. “I have borrowed almost 30,000 rupees from my relatives. We used to live off of my daily wages and saved very little. This month, I had to admit both of my sons in school, at the start of the new academic session,” she says. “I also have rent to pay. The only thing I know how to do is sell clothes on the streets and I cannot do that anymore.”
Magar is but one among an estimated 25,000 vendors within the Valley who used to sell their products by plying its streets. And in a double whammy, the KMC recently declared Khulamanch off limits to them—a space which a few years back had been declared as the only alternative vending venue to the streets. With their vending spaces dwindling at such an alarming rate, Maya Gurung, secretary
of Nepal Street Vendors’ Association, says that they have no option but to push back. “The street is all we know and we will take it back,” she says.
To ease matters some, a few weeks ago, the government had designated 10 vending zones around Kathmandu. But according to the vendors, these spaces—in the northern stretch of Narayanhiti Museum; along the banks of the Bagmati River; the banks of the Dhobi Khola; the Post Office stretch at Sundhara; the pavements between Bir Hospital and Mahabouddha; and the southern part of Exhibition Road (all assigned according to a day-and-time routine)—don’t make for the best business areas because they do not have enough foot traffic.
Gurung says that these areas were assigned merely as an act of formality and the move does not take into account the welfare of the displaced vendors. “You cannot assign a stinking river bank to us for our business. How can you expect costumers to come to these places and shop?” says Gurung. The vendors have expressed their grievances regarding the government’s decision of taking action without first consulting with the affected people. And there are many among them who are also bringing up the fact that turning the Bagmati’s banks into street-vending areas would pollute the river, which the state has been trying so hard to clean. They say that having so many people massing along the banks will inevitably lead to detritus finding its way into the water.
During Gautam’s earlier tenure as Home Minister, in 2008, a high-level committee had been tasked with allocating vending zones. According to the committee’s recommendation, vendors were to be relocated to open and accessible areas, such as Khulamanch, the Tinkune grounds, and spots in Kalanki and Balaju. Plans had been made to assemble all the scattered vendors from various locations and provide them with areas close to their prior vending locations, in order to take into account transportation issues. But the government never implemented the plan; they instead, time and again, urged the vendors to quit doing business altogether.
For their part, the authorities responsible for removing the vendors say that the government is only trying to curb malpractices
among them. They say that the vendors have in the past often misused the facilities provided to them.
“We let them use Khulamanch, but they developed a cartel and started selling spots to others vendors,” says KMC chief Laxman Aryal. “Now we cannot risk giving them space in any of our properties anymore.”
Some vendors—to avoid the hassle of opposing the government’s decision—have reestablished themselves in new areas that they have leased themselves. This move has been deemed positive by the government and the metropolis has given assurances that they will be provided with electricity, water and road-access—so that their stalls will be more accessible to the public.
The vendors have also submitted a memorandum to the Home Ministry through the District Administration Office, pressing their demands for the issuing of permits that will allow them to continue selling their wares after 5 pm; for the formation of a separate policy for vendors; for keeping the records of all their family members who are involved in the business; and for the setting up of a special social-security scheme.
As of today, none of the provisions have been fulfilled and nor have the vendors’ demands been met. In the face of what they say is the indifference shown by the authorities, the vendors have warned that they will up the ante and stage protests in the form of shutdowns, hunger strikes and torch rallies in the coming days.
Published: 03-05-2014 09:06