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The Aesthetics of Discrimination: Street Vendors and Public Spaces

The Aesthetics of Discrimination: Street Vendors and Public Spaces

Author: Jessamine Mathew, Intern (2015)

A few weeks ago, a number of street vendors were illegally evicted by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewage Board following a complaint by a local resident (who also happened to be a Member of the Ruling Party). The complaint was based on the notion that street vendors were an unsightly addition to the road on which they were selling their wares. Despite the presence of a full-fledged Act which seeks to protect the rights of street vendors across the country (the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014), this eviction was carried out in a solid display of antipathy towards the vendors and corruption by government officials. However, what stood out most strongly to me was the aversion that people seemed to have towards the street vendors for daring to practise their profession on a public street. This attitude is characterised by referring to them as a “nuisance” or a “menace”, whose means of sustenance is not worth sharing a public space with. Objections regarding the quality of what they sell or that they cause traffic disturbances often come second to this primary concern that street vendors are “dirtying the streets” with their public displays.

While there is a law (albeit poorly implemented) that attempts to protect street vendors from harassment, the idea that specific groups of people are not worthy of appearing or being visible in a public space is not a new one. India has a long and unfortunate history of associating impoverishment with unworthiness. From the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959, which criminalises anyone who is “likely” to be soliciting for alms to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, which penalises sex work in public places, there have been multiple laws and policies which have sought to victimise individuals and groups which are already vulnerable. This brand of legislation has been used by law enforcement to repeatedly harass and humiliate vulnerable groups, worsening their situations.

In the context of street vendors, exclusion and “otherness” is underscored by a misplaced notion of who the owners of a street or a public space are. Does a public road belong to the wealthy, middle-to-upper class elite whose workspaces and residences smack of  “civility” and order or is the street vendor, an individual whose workspace seems to represent disorder and chaos on an “otherwise developed and progressive street” also entitled to exist on it? It is amply clear that the dislike towards street vendors in public spaces stems from a dislike for anything that appears to be antithetical to the idea of a “clean” and “developed” society. The presence of street vendors on public roads is perceived to set India back by a few developmental decades and represent a more chaotic and less ordered version of what citizens and the government would like India to be conceptualised as. The basis for this attitude seems to be firmly rooted in preserving the so-called aesthetics of a public space, which essentially entails a removal of elements which do not conform to the ideal person who, in public opinion, is entitled to use these spaces.

In the current and popular mind set, it is, therefore, simpler to evict street vendors for being impoverished and trying to earn a livelihood, than to adhere to policies which really protect and them. This is evidenced by how local government authorities and bodies choose not to form Town Vending Committees under the Act, which will conduct surveys and allocate vending zones as well as licenses to street vendors. However, at the same time, these bodies are extremely proactive in implementing only those provisions which prohibit street vending in particular areas. These actions not only infringe upon the street vendors’ right to livelihood and to work, protected by constitutional law, but also reveal a sinister hostility towards other humans.

This systemic and structural aversion towards anything that is perceived to be uncivilised, unclean or beneath a developed society is dangerous as it forms the basis for widespread and vigorous oppression, which has already been witnessed. In a country where an overwhelming number of people live in dire impoverishment, caused by circumstance coupled with governmental inefficiencies, there is a specific need to focus on the attitude that social issues are approached with. The passing of a law to protect street vendors does not translate to automatic immunity from harassment unless it is accompanied by a concrete understanding of the fact that street vendors are not irritants by virtue of existing on a street and are equally entitled to it.