Monday, September 26, 2022

Don't harm street vendors

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The writer was captivated by a social media video that went viral recently. It showed Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) authorities confiscating push cart and corncob, the main sources of income for poor street vendors. The authorities follow cyclical patterns for confiscation: first, they tolerate, then they restrict, and finally, they eject the street sellers. They are actually committing a form of theft by confiscating and removing vendors from their established locations of business and taking away their stuff. This time, unprecedented amount of attention was paid to the confiscation episode, prompting questions about what should be done by the public, academics, journalists, and others. The street vendors' livelihoods are not sufficiently supported or safeguarded by the local government.

In different cities, large retailers who worry about competition from unofficial traders advocate for the suppression of street vendors. Street vendors are forced to operate in unfriendly environments without access to even the most basic amenities and are in constant danger of having their items damaged or vandalized. Street vending has been portrayed by KMC as an incursion, an illegal occupation, a threat to planning, public health, and the environment, as well as a blight on the landscape.

Informal work like that of street sellers reflects economic and employment vulnerability that does not only affect workers and their families’ life circumstances but also threatens their futures. I frequently witness this kind of situation firsthand, and I'm constantly asking myself what the long-term solution to this problem would be.

According to my professional experience as a social safeguard and GESI specialist in different project activities, the best course of action is to simply stop the state-sanctioned harassment, eviction, confiscations, and violence against the income of unorganized street vendors. If the KMC authorities can’t stop, then they must follow the safeguard principle, which includes do no harm, avoidance, minimize, mitigate, compensation, and resettlement (relocation). As per my observation, KMC is not following any of these safeguard principles and is forcing the street vendors to evacuate the place without prior notice.

Do no harm is used to indicate that a situation or action will not hurt someone, regardless of whether it will provide any benefit. Avoidance in the context of street vendors or hawkers refers to making decisions to prevent harm or disruption of their usual patterns of earning and livelihood; if it is not avoidable, they must minimize the potential impact on their livelihood and business and apply proper mitigation measures to protect their daily earning and livelihood. Compensation refers to the amount of money or other item used to compensate the vendors for any lingering effects. Relocation is the process of transferring people to another location to sell their wares since they are no longer permitted to remain in the location where they used to do so.

The business of selling goods on the street is fairly common around the world. There the customers can get the items they need right away because there are so many products being sold on the street. In developing countries like Nepal, street vending is a substantial source of income for the urban poor, especially for women. Street vending is easy and transportable. The overhead costs for street vending businesses are likewise relatively minimal. Vendors in this type of business are no longer required to guarantee payment for business rentals, energy, or other financial obligations that apply to other business types.

Why do municipalities oppose street vendors or hawkers? Municipalities think that street vendors or hawkers unfairly compete with off-street businesses because they don't have to pay rent or utilities, and they don't have to pay registration or tax fees. Street vending has also disturbed the footpath walkers and sometimes raises the tension between the individual's right to walk on the street and the right to public space. Therefore, municipalities are defending public space from such encroachments by discouraging street vending.

For a sustainable solution to the street vending problem, KMC must invite the informal vendors to their office to discuss the local vendors’ proposals. It is not only a question of justice but also an opportunity for the KMC and street vendors to find a mutually beneficial solution.

It is also true that street vendors are also disturbing the smooth flow of traffic and causing unnecessary accidents on the road. From the environmental perspective, street vendors are polluting the street by leaving plastic bags and hazardous items on the street after the end of the business day. In regard to street food, foods are also exposed to dust, vehicle smoke, sun, and rain, which could be unhygienic and could damage the immune systems of street food eaters. It is also true that street vendors in Kathmandu are providing affordable food in open-air settings, to food-insecure populations, as well as exhibiting cultural food to foreigners.

Advocates of economic liberty believe that street hawking is unlawful because it violates the principles of equality, fair competition, and individual employment rights, though the freedom of street vendors to exercise their economic rights is expressly acknowledged by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international legal frameworks. Many countries' constitutions grant the freedom to work and the right to own a business, and street vending organizations have successfully argued that governments cannot violate this right by forbidding street vending.

In the midst of the debate, the local government must apply proper safeguard measures and protect the collective rights of the people with regard to street or public place users. For a sustainable solution to the street vending problem, KMC must invite the informal vendors to their office to discuss the local vendors’ proposals. It is not only a question of justice but also an opportunity for the KMC and street vendors to find a mutually beneficial solution.

The local governments must formally establish street vendors by transferring them to areas away from the streets, where they would have to register, pay taxes, and rent or own their place of business as per their choice and affordability. For the long-term solution to the problem, the KMC must have proper urban policies and planning that also respects street vendors’ rights to their occupation and livelihood.

Published on 3 July 2022

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