India’s festive season is approaching once again, providing an opportunity to aspire for economic recovery. With the COVID-19 caseload in states and regions on the decline and record vaccination numbers reinforcing faith in state ability, markets are likely to flourish once more, bringing new promise for economic glory. Then we must focus our attention on India’s informal workers, who number over 40 million and are enduring financial hardship due to the pandemic.
Around 1.5 crores are unprotected street hawkers, merchants, and servicemen, including a significant number of women and children who have been harmed by pandemic-induced restrictions on their lives and livelihoods. We must consider if answers for their reintegration in India’s fast-paced urbanisation will come from the state’s mercy or innovation and adaptation, formalising the industry from within.
The predicament of street sellers in the aftermath of the pandemic has prompted state governments to create stimulus packages, often in credit loans. However, direct transfer systems must be incorporated to ensure that the seller is provided with an incentive to return to the urban economy, resuming and rebuilding from the ground up.
The Supreme Court of India recognised street hawking as a Fundamental Right in 2010, marking a watershed moment for state-led recognition of their challenges. However, there is still a critical lack of explicit and practical laws supporting decent working conditions. After the passage of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, the Government of India gave the street economy its first legal recognition. This act promised street vendors their own Town Vending Committees (TVCs), designated accommodations, and vending certificates, securing their economic rights. However, definitional difficulties in the act and a lack of adequate representation for street sellers on the Committee have made it impossible to administer the policy thoroughly.
The Centre’s institutionalised support through the PM SVANidhi Scheme, which guarantees low-interest collateral-free loans for a year starting in June 2020 for all eligible registered street vendors, is a step forward. Given the pandemic’s devastation, the objective is to formalise the industry while also providing explicit safety nets. Although over 45 lakh applications were submitted in 15 months by August 2021, just around 11% of all vulnerable street sellers from Category C and D have received the appropriate loan amounts. Having said that, while the Scheme’s actual execution is fraught with administrative difficulties, there is no doubt that it can set the basis for the most inclusive elevation of the street economy.
Furthermore, proper implementation of these legislative instruments requires a bottom-up approach, with the state supporting efforts by civil society organisations and local NGOs on the ground to bring the street-economy agenda to the fore, as they frequently attempt to raise genuine issues of concern. Street surveys can also encompass as many beneficiaries and crucial information as possible to ensure state-sponsored initiatives tackle the vendors on the very last mile of the realm.
To adapt to changing circumstances, the street economy must be modified from within. First, states and, as a result, TVCs can try to restrict distinct vending zones throughout the city that conform to sanitary practices and social distance, encouraging pandemic-appropriate behaviour. This will assist in dividing the burden of duty among vendors, consumers, and the government and reduce the local stigma associated with street sellers, allowing for greater public trust in their cause.
Often, the most nuanced answers arise from their own experience, despite the current lack of information about the complex difficulties that these marginalised employees face. Exposure to e-commerce, technical know-how, and funding will aid in leveraging the commercial as well as traditional essence of street vending methods, empowering the mobile hawker to tackle challenges that they are most familiar with.
The street hawker must be seen and handled as a budding entrepreneur, providing potential for creativity, reinvention, and transformation. Support should primarily aim to push these entrepreneurs in the right direction, encouraging them to interact and form strategic collaborations that can take advantage of the current situation and calibrating these disparate modes of living into a full-fledged specialised industry that operates entirely from the street.
The topic of the pandemic’s repercussions for lower-middle-income people remains unanswered as experts anticipate the pandemic’s third wave without knowing when it will arrive. While the current epidemic relief will provide some economic security, the street economy must be exploited to properly contribute to national economic prosperity. More significantly, these newfound riches must affect the lives of all local stakeholders, including rickshaw drivers, potters, and street food vendors. Citizens must step forward at this point.
Even in these difficult times, buying locally will aid India’s quest for self-sufficiency and build local supply networks, allowing it to innovate and capitalize. In the end, the empowerment of our street entrepreneurs suffering in the final mile will lead to inclusive, market-led sustainable growth. Genuine self-reliance will occur once we lift these local economic carriers, once we stop taking the epidemic that has plagued our immediate periphery for untold years for granted.