Following a six-year battle, street vendors in the Indian state of Meghalaya have secured new legal rights

Following a six-year battle, street vendors in the Indian state of Meghalaya have secured new legal rights

An emergency general body meeting of the Hawkers Association (MGSPHSVA) was held in Shillong, the capital city of the Indian state of Meghalaya, in December 2018, to discuss the arrangement of stalls to decongest markets. The Association, which was formed in June 2016 to campaign for the rights and welfare of the state’s street vendors, holds general body meetings at least twice a year.

(Tarun Bhartiya)

For decades, the street vendors of Shillong, the capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya, have worked on the busy stretch from Police Bazar to Bara Bazar, selling a wide range of essentials to the city’s middle-class and lower-income residents.

It is not easy work for the women who make up the majority of hawkers. Along with the struggle to make enough money, the vendors have to deal with poor working conditions, as well as an unfavourable public image. “We did not have any rights,” says Imina Kharmuti, a 50-year-old street vendor selling clothes in the main market of Shillong.

A national law – The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act – which came into force in May 2014 was meant to protect the rights of India’s nearly five million street vendors. But in Meghalaya, state officials diluted these protections when they introduced a state-specific act later in the same year. Meghalaya was the only state in the country to have a separate state act for street vendors as a way of controlling this group of workers.

However, after a six-year fight spearheaded by hawkers, activists and lawyers, in August 2022, the Meghalaya government decided to repeal the unfavourable 2014 state act, and instead adopt the progressive central (national) act. “It was such a huge relief,” says Kharmuti, a single mother of five.

Kharmuti is also an executive committee member of the Meghalaya & Greater Shillong Progressive Hawkers and Street Vendors Association (MGSPHSVA), created in June 2016 to campaign for the rights and welfare of the state’s street vendors. “We can now hope for proper IDs, a designated vending zone, toilets, drinking water facilities, godowns [warehouses], and so much more,” says Kharmuti. However, her hope is dampened by the fact that more than six months after the adoption of the central act, discussions between the authorities and the vendors’ association on the implementation of the national rules and regulations have made very little progress.

Who are Meghalaya’s street vendors?

As per a 2021 report by the Indian government, Meghalaya is tied with Assam as the fifth poorest state in the country as well as the poorest state in north-east India. In this scenario, many people, especially women, work as street vendors to support themselves and their children. At present, the MGSPHSVA consists of about 1,500 hawkers, of which more than 80 per cent are women from local Indigenous communities – the Khasis, the Jaintias, and the Garos.

Most of these women have received little or no education and many are single parents. They sell products ranging from freshly prepared food items, to fruits and vegetables, as well as clothes, shoes, utensils and other household items, with daily earnings ranging from 300 to 500 rupees (€3-€5) after paying their suppliers.

“These are women who are really struggling to put food on the table and give their children an education,” says Angela Rangad, a local citizens’ rights activist, who has been actively involved with the street vendors’ struggle. “Hawking gives them the space to raise a family and have a sense of dignity and self,” she adds.

Highlighting the crucial role played by the hawkers in supporting the local community, Shane Tabah, the MGSPHSVA secretary says: “The middle class buy everything from us – from vegetables to clothes.” Tabah, who is in his early thirties and has been selling clothes on the street for the past decade, began working as a tea stall waiter at the age of eight after his father walked out on the family.

The vendors are in the market every day from Monday to Saturday, sometimes working for 12 hours non-stop, yet lack the most basic of facilities like a public drinking water source, toilets or creches. “There are some well thought-out schemes in the central act but none of that has happened [yet] for Meghalaya’s vendors,” says Rangad.

A six-year struggle

The situation for Meghalaya’s street vendors was far worse prior to the creation of the MGSPHSVA in 2016. They faced brutal evictions regularly. “Municipal workers would come two-to-three times a day and take away our stuff,” says Kharmuti. “They wouldn’t even return it. They would harass us a lot.”

The financial loss wasn’t even the worst part for the vendors. “Some of them would even beat us,” Kharmuti says.

Spurred into action by the plight of the street vendors, Rangad and fellow activists placed an advert in a local newspaper in early 2016, inviting hawkers for a meeting to discuss their problems. This meeting eventually led to the creation of the MGSPHSVA.

“Women are typically more difficult to organise than men. They have a lot of care responsibilities,” says Shalini Sinha, the India country representative for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a global network focused on improving the working conditions of women in the informal economy.

“It’s a big achievement for Meghalaya’s women street vendors to come together and form this association. Very few mixed-gender, street vendor organisations have been able to give space and leadership roles to women,” Sinha adds.

Following legal appeals made by the Association, a court order issued in November 2016 ensured that the street vendors could no longer be evicted. This was the MGSPHSVA’s first victory.

Since 2017, there have been no evictions but harassment has continued in other forms. A long battle lay ahead for the Association in its fight to repeal the Meghalaya Street Vendors Act of 2014.

Rangad elaborates on the social sentiment that was prevalent in 2016, and which to a large extent continues even today. “There’s a section of society that aspires to malls, widened roads, and clear walkways. They see hawkers as an impediment to those dreams,” she says. “It was also a public perception battle. There were editorials in newspapers calling hawking ‘a menace.’”

Years of protests – online and in-person – as well as legal pressure by the vendors’ association followed. The hawkers were supported by a determined group of lawyers and social activists. But attending court hearings on a regular basis and spending hours in meetings with officials, meant a substantial loss of income for the vendors.

“It was so overwhelming for us in court, with all proceedings conducted in English,” says Theresia Kharsyntiew, vice-president of the MGSPHSVA, who sells utensils for 12 hours a day, six days a week. The mother of two speaks mainly Khasi (the local language) and a tiny bit of Hindi.

After victory, the long road to implementation

After six long years of sustained protests and legal battles by the MGSPHSVA, in August 2022, the state government repealed the Meghalaya Street Vendors Act of 2014 and subsequently adopted the national act.

“The association’s success is a very big step forward in terms of visibility and voice for the street vendors,” says Sinha. “In very few places, will you see this happening. It’s a great achievement but there’s a long road ahead in ensuring the effective implementation of the central act.”

Amongst other measures, the national act stipulates the creation of a Town Vending Committee (TVC) in which a minimum of 40 per cent of the members are the street vendors themselves, thus ensuring that the vendors’ voices are heard in all matters. To prevent congestion and overcrowding, the central act also defines the vendor holding capacity of a city as 2.5 per cent of the city’s population, enabling a maximum number of vendors to be calculated. It also elaborates on administrative matters, like the issuance of vending licenses and a lot more.

The MGSPHSVA has already submitted to the state government, draft rules and schemes pertaining to the implementation of the central act, including the calculation of (street vendor) holding capacity for towns and the identification of vending zones in these towns.

Rangad, who has had close interactions with the vendors for several years now, is in awe of their strength and resilience. “Their lives are filled with struggle, yet their spirit is not bashed-up,” she says. “During the legal process, there would be fear amongst them, but never a sense of defeat.”

The six-year struggle has offered the vendors many new experiences and life lessons. “Prior to 2016, no one would acknowledge us. We would have to wait for hours in government offices just to submit our requests,” says the feisty Kharmuti. “Now that we are part of the Association and know the law, we get recognised immediately. We get welcomed in the same offices and get offered a chair.”

Commenting on the relevance of the developments in Meghalaya, Nash Tysmans, the Asia Organiser for StreetNet International (a global alliance of street vendor organisations) says, “The Meghalaya case is an important demonstration of street vendors organizing and mobilizing for their rights as workers. If they can do it, others can too. It’s important that we share more of these stories and learn from each other’s experiences to combat the stigma against and harassment of street vendors.”

The journey ahead

Despite the adoption of the national act over six months ago, talks between the authorities and the MGSPHSVA on its implementation, have made limited progress. The Shillong municipal authorities has asked the MGSPHSVA for the names of four vendors, to be part of a temporary TVC committee. According to Tabah, there have been no developments so far on the vendor survey and discussions on new regulations had halted due to state elections which were held on 27 February 2023.

Kharmuti hopes that the authorities will conduct the survey stipulated in the central act at the earliest possible moment, so that vendors are correctly identified before vending licenses are issued.

“Any new measures – from the timely clearance of garbage by the city authorities, to the creation of creches – holds so much importance for us,” says Kharsyntiew. At the moment, street vendors contribute cash from their own pocket to have rubbish removed from their areas of operation.

Tabah hopes that the state government will provide land from their vast holdings so that a vending zone can be created and the hawkers can no longer be blamed for blocking footpaths and streets. “We will continue to remind the new state government about the rules of the central act,” he says. “We will continue to fight for the rights of street vendors and women. We too have the right to earn and eat, like everybody else.”