As I drove in my proverbial three wheeler to the market next door yesterday morning, I knew something was wrong though at first I did not quite know what. It took me a few seconds to realise that the streets were strangely empty.. something was missing. Then it struck me: all the small business persons were missing. Let me explain. On the short less than 500 meters run to my local market we pass by a street cobbler, a street tailor, a street barber, a street tea stall, a vegetable and fruit vendor. Yesterday they were all gone! As we reached the market I saw a posse of people, some cops and a truck where stuff was being loaded. What hit was the eerie silence that greeted me, as if the sound track of a film had been cut off. As I alighted from the scooter and started to walk towards the market I heard someone say in a whisper: komittee aaiye hai! The committee has come. In a flash I understood the script. This was a descent by the municipal authorities aimed at ridding our city of illegal businesses! I looked again and realised that what was being loaded on the menacing truck was the entire belongings of the little tea-cum-lunch stall that had thrived under a banyan tree for as long as I can remember.
This stall catered to all the workers and passers by in search of a cup of tea or a warm meal at a reasonable price. It had always been a comforting sight with its smiling owner doling out platefuls to waiting customers. The food was fresh, the place clean. No one seemed to mind its existence. But someone did: the local authorities and their illogical sanitising drives. I thought the Commonwealth games were over and life back to its old ways. But that was not so. The predators were back with a vengeance! I had forgotten our city's preferred mission: get rid of the poor. Thank God someone had warned some of these people, that explained why barber, cobbler and vegetable vendor had gone AWOL.
I would like to ask the powers that be a simple question: how do they expect over half the population to live if they deny them their right to be small entrepreneurs particularly as now you have to earn less than 20Rs a day to be considered poor and have access to social welfare. Do read this article that gives the new Indian Fortune List @< 20 rs a day. It is an eye opener.
But let us get back to our small entrepreneurs who courtesy the authorities lost a day or more of earnings. The city is replete with such people. They assess the need of the hour and provide the service with efficiency. They cater to one and all and are not the prerogative of the poor. They are your water vendors, juice sellers, vegetable sellers, cobblers, tailors etc. They provide a meal to those who serve you and believe you me they are mean business minds as they gage the need of the hour with clock work precision. In winter they sell you peanuts, in summer cooling drinks, during festivals they bring you exactly what you need. Others cater to your small daily requirements: a broken shoe or a garment that needs to be altered. Wonder where one would go with a broken heel if the road side cobbler was not on call?
Now let us look at the other side of the story. The people we are talking about and who seem to disturb the powers that be are human beings tryings to find a way to survive. They have families who depend on them. They have dreams for their loved ones: education for their children, medicines for their elders and so on and though the Planning Commission thinks that you can live on 2o Rs a day, the reality is quite different. Most of the street vendors leave their homes and come to cities to look for a better life. They soon realise that they will not find jobs and have to create their own. Their common sense guides them and they identify possible avenues. Why not make samosas and sell them at the street corner, or walk the lanes peddling what a household would need. Come to gali no 3 where our centre is located at any time of the day and you will see a host of street peddlers selling an amazing array of things: brooms, plastic ware, clothes, bangles, pickles and more. The task is not easy but it keeps the pot boiling. At the top of the street stands a cluster of food vendors doling out hot meals or cups of tea or the famous bread/omelet and at any time of the day they have clients. They are there in the scorching heat, the freezing cold or the pouring rain. They never miss a day. I too have often stopped for a cup of tea or a plate of hot snacks and never regretted it. There is a also a very old fruit vendor who hobbles on his bandaged feet and sets up his cart every morning. Maybe this small endeavour restores his dignity in his son's home. I often buy fruit from him.
If the powers that be have their way then I wonder where people will go for that reinvigorating break. Experience tells us that they will all be back. Some money will exchange pockets. One must not forget that each of these vendors pays a monthly tithe to local officials: the cops, the municipal agent and so on and no one is quite ready to lose their bounty. Corruption rules. And everyone knows that these small entrepreneurs are the lifeline of the city. I wish ways were found to give these unique small entrepreneurs their rightful place and accept them as a legitimate members of society.