Migration Narratives: The SHRAM Blog

The Art of Being Indispensable

Being indispensable for somebody is a commendable achievement-to be absolutely necessary implies great potential as a resource and being able to provide some service, without which, you cannot sustain. When the idea of ‘being indispensable’ is placed in larger context of society and its structure, whoever or whatever assumes that role is of intense importance to that societal unit, that cityscape.

For an urban landscape of Mumbai, which is a megacity, accommodating 12.4 million people including Mumbai suburban region (Census, 2011) in an area of over 4793 sq.km (MMRDA, 2013), the possibility of any resource being indispensable is the nearest you’ll get to truth. With an urbanization structure that is top-down in character and thriving on dualism, the city still mesmerizes folks to the extent of making them live on the streets to have a glimpse of the skyscrapers. This divergence in ‘view from the top’ and ‘sight from the bottom’ has made the city a microcosm of formal-informal economy. In such a complex milieu, being indispensable implies providing an essential value service to the city without which citizens would have it difficult to churn their mundane life. Such support mechanism is provided by the vast presence of informal sector in the city which has created an alternative economy upon which the organized metabolism of the city depends.

One of those urban informal units is the ‘perennial’ eye-sore-street vendor or hawker. It is estimated that the total number of street vendors in the country is around 10 million (GoI, National Policy for Urban Street Vendors/Hawkers, 2004). They comprise around 2% of the total population in the metropolitan cities. For the urban poor, street vending is one way of earning a livelihood, as it requires minor financial input and minimal skills. A large section of street vendors in urban areas are those with low skills and who have migrated to the larger cities from rural areas or small towns in search of employment. Another section of the vendors are those who have been expelled from the formal setup. They were mill and factory workers, who were left with no alternative once the fire in furnace burned out. However, this time, lets not talk about why and how they are where they are now. Enough batter has been made of poverty and unemployment which can be used for future debates. Its time to prove that the accusations levied against these vendors and hawkers stand to fail when put to comparison with the truth-these nuisance are indispensable for the city. A truth which we like to chide and deny acceptance.

A study conducted in 2000 put their numbers at 250,000 in Mumbai which has swelled beyond 300,000 (Sharit K. Bhowmick. Hawkers in the Urban Informal Sector: A Study of Street Vendors in Six Cities, National Alliance of Street Vendors in India). The city, its people has its differences but as consumers they have the same street vendor to look forward to. Street vendors do not fall under any specific category of supply-end chains. They are heterogeneous in character and can cater to all demands. As the needs have grown of the city, the vendors have mushroomed all over the places, spread across the footpaths’ of this city’s life. Step out of the station and you don’t have to worry about the missed breakfast in the morning, going a few steps ahead, you can pause to gulp down a juice. Till the time you’ve reached office, you’ve had enough to get you through a late lunch. There are other stalls also-clothes and leather products, plastic goods, hosiery and household goods and books. By the time you are done dealing with the day and back home, you’ve ‘consumed’ a number of good from these street vendors (with a certain amount of bargain!). Interesting to note is that, these vendors cater to demands of both the ends of inequality.

Vending as a phenomena exists innocuously in every city, between glass facades, beside the Broadway. They serve a very essential purpose of the keeping the city alive and running through their presence in uncharted spaces of the city. Serving as small businesses, they form linkages with various supply chains, providing employment and income for laborers in the informal sector units. Many small manufacturing units, based out of homes, find their market through these street vendors. Food carts, especially, generates income for micro and small agro-based industrial units. For a city with humongous population as of Mumbai, where every hour of the day someone is making ends meet, these vendors are there, just round the bend, for you, for me.

That is called being indispensable-not to a single individual but to an entire city. Its a commendable feat in itself, worthy of being taught in management courses as case study and being conferred with six sigma certification. But that’s not going to happen, rather, the civic authority along with officers of law will demolish these illegal structures, raid their goods and products which can later be collected from the police station on payment of a hefty fine (generally three times the value) and jeopardize their livelihood mechanism. Citizen groups want the city to be clean and spacious which the street vendors, while they exist, cannot make it happen. They occupy public spaces, are source of garbage, hazard to pedestrians and deface the city landscape. Very true indeed-they ought to be evicted for the “eyesore” they are. We could do without them as the service providers. In fact, the entire informal sector should be devolved and let the urban formal economy reign supreme. Because an individual cannot replace what is indispensable to him/her. That’s essential and necessary for existence. If the hawkers are essential to the city, then the idea of eviction could not have crossed our minds. Or is it to be understood that we’re oblivious to their importance, like many other things. The stalls and carts can be demolished, but the hawker will keep coming back, in different form, at different location. As long the city breathes, their will be influx of people, lured by the aroma of city-life who end up sustaining the city, holding its image as maxim city. That’s called being indispensable.

Aritra Chakrabarty

Aritra Chakrabarty

Anchor, SHRAM (Till Dec 31st, 2014)

As a social researcher, I believe in knowledge-based policy action. With a postgraduate degree in Development Studies, I've been associated with social issues in my professional space. As a part of SHRAMIC initiative, was involved with data creation, sourcing of resources that will become the knowledge bank of this project.
Aritra Chakrabarty

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