Migration Narratives: The SHRAM Blog

Women at Work: An insight into the workspace of a ‘gajra’ vendor in Mumbai

This piece draws from informal interviews with a ‘gajra’ vendor in a residential colony in Mumbai. Jharna* is 46 years old, and has been vending flowers in the same spot since the year 2000.

jasmine flowers

The street as workspace

By virtue of not being within the enclosed ‘public’ space of a shop, but selling wares directly on the street, street vendors’ workspaces becomes affected by any presences and occurrences on the street- from riots, policemen, the risk of being hit by vehicles, weather and sanitary conditions, to stray dogs and animals. The street as workspace is doubly insecure for women workers, as they also face threats of sexual harassment. Jharna insisted that she had never been harassed in any way, yet many street vendor women face sexual harassment, coupled with the stigma of sitting on the street and peddling wares, and how this contributes to the vulnerability of their situation. Women vendors also do not have access to toilets, and this affects their health significantly (Anjaria).

Street vendors are seen as outsiders or interlopers in public spaces by the elite. There is thus a classed and gendered battle for street and city space constantly played out as a part of these vendors’ everyday experience of their workspace. The street is not recognized as a

the politics of public space reflect dominant power hierarchies.

workspace that vendors have a claim to, but is seen as a neutral public space: whereas in reality, the politics of public space reflect dominant power hierarchies.


Different Streets

It is interesting to take into account is the different kinds of streets in question, and the choice of locality for vendors. Jharna sets up shop not on a major road, but a street within a predominantly residential area. The area has several apartment complexes, a church, a school, two temples, as well as three market spaces. Thus the street within this colony is a different type of public space in a different manner: with claims of various social actors on the street, but limited by the space being essentially a residential area.

the street vendors are catering specifically to the clientele of the residential area itself, and must in order to conduct business, be selling something that is useful for the residents in order for their presence to be accepted

Here the dynamics of claim to space become different, in that the street vendors are catering specifically to the clientele of the residential area itself, and must in order to conduct business, be selling something that is useful for the residents in order for their presence to be accepted. As a vending space it is more secure than the main road, but this also limits the scale of her vending and the possibilities for making a profit.

Jharna shared that the only harassment she had received was when she first began selling in this space. The nearby temple authorities had insisted that she move further away from the temple as she was littering leftover bits of flowers on the street where she sat. However, she had argued that her stall was not set up directly in front of the temple but at the corner of the lane where the temple is located and thus they had not cause to bother her, and continued setting up stall in the same space. After a while they had let her be. Jharna was also contributing directly to the clientele of the temple; and thus the temple authorities in fact had no desire to oust her completely.

This long-term adherence to a single space can be linked to what Bayat identifies as ‘quiet encroachment’ (qtd. in Anjaria), which entails a vendor selecting and remaining in a specific spot and integrating themselves into the life of the area. Jharna shared that she had been setting up her stall in the same spot for the last fourteen years, and consequently knew the locality well. She recognized the residents in the area, as well as other shopkeepers, and security guards, but when asked if she was on good terms with them, she said that she did not speak too much to people, and kept to herself and her business.

Because of the nature of the commodity being sold, the setting up of vending space is often less elaborate than that of selling more cumbersome commodities. Many gajra sellers are more mobile, and travel simply with a basket of their flowers, which will help them shift from place to place more easily. This gajra seller’s space, because of her staying in the same space over a long period of time, has acquired a greater degree of permanence, and her space consists of a wooden table, a wooden chair with arms and a back, and her day’s worth of flowers from the mandi. She said that she had always sat with a table and chair, but that many other vendors move around, and she has an arrangement whereby she stores her table and chair in the locality each day, near a small market.

Another interesting aspect of the choice of space was that it is at a corner of a street, not directly adjacent to any particular apartment complex, close to but not attached to the temple, not a part of the market—but strategically located at a corner at which all of these different spaces converge.

The gajra as a commodity

The gajra is a string of flowers that serves as a decorative hair ornament for women, and its aesthetic and religious connotations, entails a kind of fluidity of the string of flowers: it can be used as a hair ornament or as a garland, to be offered at temples, or used in ritual functions within the home. Jharna strings flowers according to specifications for customers using the flowers for ritual purposes, as well as having three or four standard varieties of gajras, varying from day to day depending on the availability of flowers in the wholesale market that day. 

Because flowers are not the same kind of commodity as vegetables or daily need items, her work is not valued in the same terms as essential commodities.

The sale of gajras is also an occupation that would not have been affected by globalization and market shifts in the same way that the selling of vegetables, and other essential daily commodities would have been, and the entry of MNCs and retail chains has not threatened the livelihoods of the gajra vendors in the same way as the vegetable and clothes sellers, for example, as gajras are sold predominantly by street vendors alone, and it is not available in shops or formal markets. The way in which it is affected by globalization and inflationary pressures thus would be in terms of the rising price of flowers—making the gajra less affordable for poorer women.

Because flowers are not the same kind of commodity as vegetables or daily need items, her work is not valued in the same terms as essential commodities. The flip side to her vending not being seen as a threat or obstruction by civic authorities, is that it is also not considered work or labour in the same way or scale as many other vendors, and is seen as a supplementary occupation.

The State and the street

The State’s relationship to street vendors is a complex one. The state has only recently taken cognizance of the fact that the vendors’ work plays a vital role in the economy, and in general has maintained a policy of conciliation coupled with threat and extortion. What plays out in practice is that the state while assuring residents of localities that the ‘menace’ of hawkers will be dealt with, at the same time assures the street vendors a right to trade: while on the side accepting bribes and compensation for this. The new Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act brings into being town level vending committees that will regulate applications for vending licenses, assign locations, and regulate the density of vendors in areas. The law stresses the need to bring the voices of street vendors into the mainstream discourse on urban planning. The significance of the bill lies in its recognition of the services provided by street vendors; and in locating street vending not as a question of town planning, but one of livelihoods.

Jharna however, had no knowledge of the bill or legal provisions, and only knew that she had no license but no one had ever bothered her for one, and she did not feel the need to engage with the State in any manner related to her work.

having a license is the only means by which the State takes cognizance of their work, and without which they can become victims to the State, instead of being protected by the legislation designed for them

In many instances such as this one, licenses create additional pressure and expense for the vendors without offering them tangible benefits as they are not a part of the competition for space and do not wish for their locations to be fixed and formalized—yet having a license is the only means by which the State takes cognizance of their work, and without which they can become victims to the State, instead of being protected by this legislation designed for them. The question of licenses is deeply tied to the exploitation of vendors by state officials and the extracting of rents or bribes, and the Act does not fully address this problem. The sheer heterogeneity of vending practices and occupations entails that the voices heard will also exclude vast segments of vendors who have not been able to organize and create associations.

Working women

Jharna is responsible for bringing in the only regular wage of her family. Her two sons who work in the export business, do not bring in regular wages but sporadic ones. It is interesting that despite the apparent insecurity of her working conditions, her job was the most secure, and this security of job seemed to form a part of her position as the head of the family. Jharna makes all economic decisions. Her husband, now deceased, was a carpenter and was also often out of work. She shared that it was her husband who taught her how to make garlands, and accompanied her to sell them whenever he was out of work. Her husband’s family’s caste-based occupation was carpentry, and she was unsure of how he learnt to make gajras and assumed that his mother or the women of his family had taught him. Thus we see that a major motivation for her to work was to make ends meet, as her husband’s income was not secure.

The family space becomes a site of work for women as well, in that Jharna shared that the financial decisions of the household were taken by her—she paid the monthly rent (amounting to approximately Rs. 5000 per month), arranged for the rations, and did all the housework. She said that her sons did not contribute at all to the housework, and seemed to have no plans of getting married. Her work at home and work on the street are prioritized differently, and a large part of her day also goes into the running of the household. Women vendors usually earn less than male vendors as they are faced with the dual responsibility of working at the home as well, and thus often have to compromise on the number of hours they can spend at the workplace. They also have less capital to invest, and their returns are often smaller (Bhowmik 2005, 7). Because domestic labour does not fall into the mechanisms of economic exchange, its role as labour, and in social reproduction, becomes obscured in dominant discourse.


There is visible as pointed out by Sood (2011) a “schism” in the construction of street vendors as workers: while they view themselves as small businesspeople, there is the state and upper-class society view them as ‘nuisances’ (1). Anjaria complicates this further by contrasting the image of the radical and subversive subaltern that the street vendor could be envisioned as, with the fact that they do not usually seek to subvert or overturn the dominant discourse of urban planning, but instead wish to be seen as a legitimate part of the urban space, and insist that they “are businessmen too” (Anjaria).

Gajra vendors are a practically invisible population, and due to the heterogeneity of the vendors’ backgrounds, the isolated and mobile nature of their work, and the lack of mobilization, a clear picture of the working conditions of the community as such does not emerge easily. Yet it is precisely these fragmented groups that are most vulnerable, and are left out of the mainstream conversation on informal labour.



*Name changed



‘A Law for Street Vendors- Editorial’. EPW, Vol XLIX no 10. March 8, 2014. Web, EPW.

Anjaria, Johnathan Shapiro. ‘The Politics of Illegality: Mumbai Hawkers, Public        Space and the Everyday Life of the Law’ Street Vendors and the Global          Urban Economy ed. Sharit Bhowmik. New Delhi: Routledge 2010. Web, Google Books.

Basu, Ranjeeta and Marie D Thomas. ‘Exploring Women’s Daily Lives and Participation in the Informal Labour Market in Mumbai, India’. Gender and            Development, Vol. 17, No. 2. July 2009. Web, JSTOR.

Bhatt, Ela R. We are Poor But So Many: The Story of Self-Employed Women in India. New York: OUP 2006. Web, Google Books.

Bhowmik, Sharit. ‘National Policy for Street Vendors’. EPW Vol 38, no. 6 April 19-25 2003. Web, EPW.

— ‘Street Vendors in Asia: A Review’. EWP Vol XL No. 22-23. May 28, 2005. Web, EPW.

Gopal, Meena. ‘Ruptures and Reproduction in Caste/Gender/Labour’. EPW, Vol. XLVIII No, 18. May 4, 2013. Web, EPW.

Mathur, Nita. ‘The Street Vendors Bill: Opportunities and Challenges’. EPW  Vol. XLIX no. 10. March 8, 2014. Web: EPW.

Mohapatra, Kamala Kanta. ‘Women Workers in Informal Sector in India: Understanding the Occupational Vulnerability’. International Journal of           Humanities and Social Science Vol. 2 No. 21, November 2012. Web, IIJSSH.

Press Information Bureau, Government of India. ‘Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2014 Passed by Rajya Sabha’. Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. 19 February 2014.

Prosperi, Valentia and Barbara Harris-White. ‘The Micro Political Economy of Gains by Unorganised Workers in India’ EPW. Vol XlIX no 9. March 1, 2014. Web, EPW.

Sood, Ashima. ‘Vendor Street’. EPW. Vol. XLVI No. 29 July 16, 2011. Web, EPW.

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill  2012.

Unni, Jeemol. ‘Gender and Informality in Labour Market in South Asia’. EPW Vol. XXXVI No. 26 June 30, 2001. Web, EPW.


Radhika M. Chakraborty

Radhika M. Chakraborty

Radhika M Chakraborty has completed a degree in English Literature from Delhi University and a Master's degree in Women's Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research interests include gender and migration, diasporas, Partition, internal displacement and Sindhi culture.
Radhika M. Chakraborty

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One Response to “Women at Work: An insight into the workspace of a ‘gajra’ vendor in Mumbai”

  1. Hey very interesting blog!

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