Kathmandu’s street vendors continue to fight for a dignified livelihood

Kathmandu's street vendors continue to fight for a dignified livelihood

In this 2 February 2024 photo, a member of the Nepal Street Vendors Trade Union (NEST) sits in his shoe stall at the Sano Bazar in Kathmandu, Nepal.

(StreetNet International)

“They came armed with batons and sticks with the intention of driving out the street vendors,” says Maya Gurung, a street vendor from Kathmandu, who serves as the president of the Nepal Street Vendors Trade Union (NEST). She is referring to a February 2024 incident in the crowded Sundhara area of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, when metropolitan police attacked street vendors with the objective of clearing them from the area. In the fracas that ensued, six people were injured, including a female street vendor Nanimaya Basnet, who was the most severely injured.

This incident follows the hardline stance taken by the Kathmandu city authorities in January 2023, banning vendors and hawkers from operating on the city’s streets. No alternatives were offered to the street vendors. “They don’t want to remove poverty, they want to remove the poor,” says Gurung.

Since the ban came into effect, vendors have been taking huge personal risks to circumvent it by selling at times when there is limited or no police presence.

Unlike its neighbour India – which has a national act for the protection of street vendors and their rights – Nepal does not have a central law for street vendors. This leaves them with no legal standing and at the mercy of town and city authorities. As in the case of Kathmandu, sometimes, the authorities show no inclination to support street vendors or improve their working conditions.

“We provide a service to the community,” says Gurung. “We take vegetables, fruits, and flowers to people’s houses. We stand on the road and sell water. Everyone knows that we provide a service and that there’s a need for street vendors. But no one wants to accept us,” she says.

A majority of Nepal’s street vendors are internal migrants who moved from the rural parts of the country to the nation’s capital in search of a livelihood. Many were fleeing the violent civil war that took place between 1996 to 2006, following which Nepal’s monarchy was overthrown and the kingdom became a people’s republic. Others came to the city to eke out a living following natural disasters like floods or earthquakes, which has forced those who once survived on agriculture to seek alternative livelihoods in the city.

Gurung estimates that nearly 55-60 per cent of Kathmandu’s street vendors are women, who sell a variety of goods – from clothes and shoes, to fruit, vegetables, and flowers – to supplement their family’s income. Some vendors are mobile, using a bicycle or a pushcart to sell fresh produce, while others have a more fixed location, selling from makeshift stalls or a low, open, wooden platform.

“Fifty percent of street vendors have a roof over their heads because of this income,” says Sita Rijjal, who has been a street vendor for nearly three decades and now serves as the secretary of NEST.

Rijjal’s adult daughter, Anju Gautam, who is with her mother as she speaks to Equal Times, envisions a bleak future if the street vending ban continues. “How will people live?” asks Gautam, who works at Kathmandu University in an administrative role. “They will be forced to take up prostitution or crime.”

The struggles of the past few years

With no central legislation to protect the rights of Nepal’s street vendors, their fate has largely depended on whichever mayor is at the helm of a particular town or city. And while the situation in Kathmandu is not necessarily representative of the conditions faced by street vendors in other cities, as the capital and largest city in the country (approximate population of 1.4 million people), most rural migrants flock to Kathmandu. As a result, what happens there affects a large number of people.

Bidya Sunder Shakya was Kathmandu’s mayor from 2017 to 2022. During his term, it was decided that goods seized from street vendors would be auctioned off. This meant that the responsibility of protecting their wares fell on the shoulders of street vendors, who were helpless in the face of police aggression. According to Gurung, having their goods seized and not returned, left vendors with huge financial losses. Older vendors became increasingly desperate and went back to their home towns. Younger ones went overseas as migrant workers.

This policy of seizing and auctioning vendor goods continues to date. “Over the past seven to eight years, the value of seized goods is in crores,” says Gurung, emphasising the word ‘crores’. One crore is 10 million Nepali rupees, the equivalent of nearly €70,000 at present exchange rates. “Oftentimes, the goods disappear en route to the storeroom,” she alleges.

Shakya’s successor, Balendra Shah, a rapper turned politician, initially appeared to be a progressive voice. In the run-up to mayoral elections, Shah’s savvy online campaign included songs that he sang about social issues and getting out of poverty. Kathmandu’s residents, fed-up with the years of mismanagement, hoped that Shah would help improve social conditions and voted him to power. But not long after he assumed office in May 2022, and contrary to the expectations of Kathmandu’s poor, Shah enforced a complete ban on street vending. At the time of filing this article, an email to the mayor’s office asking for the reasons behind the ban had received no reply.

“Many street vendors didn’t recover from the strict lockdown rules of the pandemic,” says Nash Tysmans, the Asia organiser for StreetNet International, a global alliance of street vendor organisations. “Then to have this mayor come in just when they are trying to recover economically, has been such a disaster for them.”

There have been continued protests by the street vendors against the ban. In August last year, NEST led a protest of hundreds of people outside the Kathmandu Metropolitan City office. Three days prior to the protest, NEST had requested an audience with the mayor to discuss their demands.

As a first step, NEST would like the city authorities to gather accurate data about the street vendors operating in the 32 wards of Kathmandu, register them and provide them with identification cards. One of their demands is for a secured space where street vendors can operate with dignity. “Until such a time that a long-term location is not found, we should be given a time in the morning and evening during which we can work at our existing places,” says Gurung.

The protest outside the municipal building lasted for nearly two hours. But the mayor left without meeting the street vendors. “He doesn’t want to listen to us or negotiate with us,” Gurung says.

At a press conference held in September 2023, Sunita Dangol, the deputy mayor of Kathmandu, deflected the responsibility of managing the city’s street vendors to the national government.

“There is reluctance from the [city] authorities to deal with the street vendors issue,” says Sudhir Shrestha, a researcher with the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication network.

Despite the stonewalling by city authorities, the street vendors have received support from social activists, civil society organisations and the mainstream media. In September 2023, activist Ishan Adhikari and others, staged a stand-in outside the Kathmandu municipal office to demand the proper management of street vendors in the city. Their demands included that Kathmandu authorities agree to return the goods confiscated from street vendors and that they also commit to identify alternative places for vendors to operate.

The stand-in, which lasted for 199 hours (over eight days), led to an agreement with the city authorities and the establishment of a nine-member, multi-stakeholder committee that included a representative of the street vendors. According to Gurung, despite several meetings, no decisions have been taken so far, nor have any actions been initiated.

Contrary to receiving any support from the city authorities, the February 2024 incident in the Sundhara area of Kathmandu, left street vendors in shock. NEST bore the medical expenses of those injured in the incident. There has been no sign of compensation from the authorities nor has there been any communication from the mayor.

Alternate models and latest developments

In the nearby city of Gokarneshwor (population approximately 150,000), authorities have built a new market for street vendors called Sano Bazar. The market, consisting of nearly 160 same-sized, neatly arranged stalls, is equipped with wi-fi, turbo fans to beat the heat, male and female toilets, security guards and a protective roof covering to shield it from rain, among other amenities. “The authorities provided everything except for our stall decorations and our goods,” says Rijjal, who sells clothes out of Sano Bazar. Each vendor is responsible for disposing off their own waste and keeping the area around their stall clean.

“At Sano Bazar, there is very good coordination between the vendors and the authorities,” says Gurung. NEST uses Sano Bazar as an example to show the Kathmandu city authorities that an alternative is possible. “We have requested them to get started and tell us what they need from us,” Gurung says. “But they don’t want to listen.”

For the sake of the nearly 6,500 paid members, who look to NEST for hope and support, the organisation has found an interim solution. In three different areas of the city, NEST has led the formation of a large group of vendors, who collectively lease land. They build bamboo stalls for the sale of clothes, shoes, bags, bed linen and other household items, and share the monthly rent. In the Koteshwar ward, located near the international airport, the group consists of nearly 100 vendors. It was the first such market and has been in operation for the past 1.5 years.

While this is quick fix to ensure livelihoods for these street vendors, having to shoulder the operational costs of this market means that it is an expensive affair for them, and not ideal in the long-run.

In response to a lawsuit filed by civil society organisations and social activists, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered Kathmandu city authorities on 7 May 2023, to formulate an alternate livelihood plan for street vendors. However, in the year that followed, no such plan was presented to the apex court.

In view of the non-fulfilment of its order, on 17 May 2024, the Supreme Court gave the Kathmandu city authorities a timeframe of 15 days to submit the plan, with penalties for not meeting the deadline. At time of writing, the 15-day deadline had lapsed and no plan had been submitted.

What happens next remains to be seen. Shrestha, of the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication, would like to see a strong national law in place to protect street vendor rights across the country. “Like India, there should be a federal law that is binding on local administrations and that can guide local unions,” he says.