FLICKERING RIGHT TO LIVELIHOOD OF VENDORS IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19

Ridhima Chadda

INTRODUCTION

The world is suffering from the pandemic and fighting for survival through lockdowns. These lockdowns, which aim to prevent the spread of virus, have caused a huge loss to the economy of many countries. The pandemic has heavily affected trade and employment. Many employers lost their jobs and ran out of resources. In this hard-hit economy, the worst sufferers are the daily wagers and daily earners like the labourers and vendors. Belonging to the lower strata of society, these people are usually ignored and their toils and grievances go unnoticed but they are an important part of the unorganized sector backing the economy of the country.

Hawkers and vendors are street traders who sell their goods on the pavements either by making temporary stalls or by roaming around with their carts. They are considered un-hygienic and low-graded and thus suffer at the hands of others but in reality, they are the self-employed individuals working to live a dignified life.

The first lockdown of 21 days came with multiple challenges to these ‘earn and eat’ people. Subsequent lockdowns have only increased the troubles of these people with loss of livelihood and no sign of relief. All the markets were closed forcing the vendors and hawkers to leave their jobs. Moreover, because of social distancing they had to leave their places and wrap up their material from the front of the shops where they had their temporary stalls. In the latter period when the government gave certain relaxations, some fruit and vegetable vendors were allowed to continue their businesses but it was believed that as they travel from one place to another, they may transmit the virus. Whereas the vendors and hawkers who sold other goods still remain deprived of their livelihood as they were not allowed to work.

RIGHT TO LIVELIHOOD OF VENDORS

Article 21, characterized as procedural Magna Carta protective of life and liberty reads as, “no person shall be deprived of his life and liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” Though negative in connotation, this article is wide enough to envisage every right of an individual. The meaning and interpretation of the term ‘life’ in this Article has changed over the years with the Supreme Court Rulings and hence now, right to shelter, right to liberty, right to livelihood, right to good health and right to privacy, all are included in this article. Article 21 upgrades our mere animal existence to a life with human dignity and guarantees every person residing in India a dignified, healthy and happy living which is ensured by the right to livelihood.

In the case of  Olga Tellis and Ors. v. Bombay Municipal Corporation and Ors. or the Pavement Dwellers Case, the Supreme Court laid down that, the Article 21, which provides Right to life is far-reaching and right to livelihood is a part of it and no one can be deprived of it.

In South Calcutta Hawkers, Association v. Govt. of West Bengal, the Court held that street trading is the fundamental right of the vendors. In the case of Sodan Singh v. New Delhi Municipal Committee, the Supreme Court distinguished between the right to life and liberty under Article 21 and the fundamental right to profession and occupation under Article 19 and said that the right to carry any business or trade is too remote to be included in the right to life and liberty. But when looked from the perspective of a daily earner, right to work is the most precious liberty one can have. Hence Supreme Court again in the case Delhi Transport Corporation v. D.T.C. Mazdoor Congress focused on the right to work and right to livelihood. The bench valued the importance of income as a foundation to fundamental rights and emphasised that when a particular job of an individual is the only exclusive source of his income, his right to work and livelihood becomes much more important. Thus, the right to livelihood supersedes the other liberties ensured by Article 21. Divesting a person arbitrarily of his only job makes his right to life a mockery.

Though the right to livelihood of vendors is fundamental and they cannot be banned from street trading, it comes with some restrictions. Their right under Article 21 must not be an obstruction to the right of movement of commuters. The hawkers and vendors are restricted from selling in narrow roads, for easy movement of traffic as it is an offence under Motor Vehicles Act. Further, they are not allowed to hawk within 100 meters of places of worship, hospitals and schools. But all these are mere restrictions and not complete obstructions to their right. Completely depriving street vendors from working in the lockdown is a clear violation of their right to livelihood as it is their only source of income and their most important liberty.

POLICY RUSH: NEED OF THE HOUR

The constitution guarantees right to livelihood and right to carry out any business [Article 21 and Article 19(1)(g)] which is further complemented by Directive Principles under Article 39 and Article 41 that makes it a state duty to ensure right to work of the people which has been clearly violated and obstructed of the vendors especially during the lockdown. They were not allowed to sell in markets and streets and had to shut of their temporary stalls and carts leaving them with no source of income and livelihood.

The main reason for their suffering is lack of legal status and recognition. There are not many laws to protect the rights of vendors and hawkers but a few which are again flawed. There is no law, that legalizes vending, because of which the vendors are exploited. Due to non-existence of an act to legalize vending, they are vulnerable to harassment and eviction at the hands of powerful shop-owners or watch-men of societies.

Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2014 was passed as a revised policy of Bellagio International Declaration of Street Vendors, 1995 but failed to capture its essence. The declaration recognized vendors as an integral and legitimate part of trade and dealt with importance of hawking zones and rights of vendors. However, the revised policy, instead of protecting their rights, made licensing of vendors compulsory. This licensing is paid and hence usually avoided by the vendors. And now when the government announced a relief package for vendors, it benefitted very few registered vendors as the legally mandated surveys were not performed and the government took no responsibility for the unregistered vendors who were suffering along with their families. Moreover, the act also demarcates the vending zones for the registered vendors limiting their area to sell and hence when they are wrongfully evicted from this area as well their legal and fundamental right to work is violated.

As per  National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, 2009, human rights of vendors including their fundamental rights and social security must be protected but again there are no specific measures which can help these people sustain during such a crisis when their right to livelihood is in danger. Hence, besides granting temporary relief in these hard times and restoring their right to livelihood, the government must take steps and make laws to ensure and protect their rights.

Post COVID-19, these vendors will play an important role in recovering the economy as people will prefer door to door service rather than overcrowded shops. Moreover, they sell local goods instead of imported trade products which will help to promote local Indian goods. But again, their right to livelihood has to be ensured before getting them engaged in work. Their right deserves to be protected equally as of any other resident which has been ignored for long. The government must come up with a law legalizing vending, ensuring their right to livelihood. Proper surveys should be done and small level associations could be made to generalize the condition of vendors in markets and hear their grievances to frame policies for their trade. The cost of licensing must be reduced to ensure that each vendor registers himself. Besides this, steps must be taken to uplift their condition by granting them funds and loans at a low interest rate. Most importantly, it has to be made sure by both government and people that the right to livelihood of these people is not suppressed by the dominant businessmen and shop-owners or other government officials.  

Ridhima Chadda, a second year at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala.

Picture Credits: The Statesman

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