Street Hawking Promise Jobs in Future

Pundits have been wringing their hands for years about the stagnation of jobs in the organised sector, about the growing casualisation of labour.

I think this is an elitist, ill-informed view of employment. It is based on an obsolete 19th century employment model, in which massive factories employ armies of workers.

But, as I showed in these columns two weeks ago, modern technology has so mechanised production that jobs in manufacturing are shrinking even as production is rising.

Labour costs are under 5 per cent of sales for most manufactures. In 21st century, jobs will come mainly from services, and that too mainly in self-employment.

This will range from running cyber-companies and internet centres to occupations like street hawking and cycle- rickshaws.

Now, hawking and rickshaw operation are not often regarded as jobs proper. City planners view hawkers as a public nuisance, encroaching on public spaces.

Economists with a 19th century mind-set regard these occupations as temporary, as a parking space for people migrating from villages to towns till such time as they get a job with a company.

Many economists call this informal sector, suggesting that it’s somehow not part of regular employment process. This reveals ignorance and deplorable values. It devalues those very jobs for which there is huge consumer demand, and seeks to strip them of dignity.

These deplorable values are held by some hawkers no less than the experts. I remember a survey conducted many years ago by a prominent magazine of the educated unemployed.

It interviewed several graduates selling bananas on the streets of Delhi, who complained that jobs were simply not available. It did not occur to the graduates that selling bananas was a perfectly productive job.

What they regarded as jobs was government employment, in which they would do no productive work at all but have a guaranteed salary and immense scope for taking bribes. The 19th century school celebrates these as formal sector jobs, the sort a country really needs.

But to me, many such jobs do not represent employment at all. Many are little more than licences for harassment and extortion. Labour surveys show that the percentage of jobs in the organised sector is shrinking, and of casual jobs is rising.

But they also show that the wages of casual labour, adjusted for inflation, have risen by over 20 per cent in 1993-99, according to the latest NSS data. If casualisation goes hand in hand with rising income, it is hardly a tragedy. It is in fact part of the solution.

Many casual workers are migrating to towns and cities, taking up jobs that require little specialised skill, like hawking or operating cycle rickshaws. Some readers may think the scope for such jobs is very limited.

Think again. Madhu Kishwar, who has spearheaded the movement for liberating hawkers and cycle rickshaws from the licence-permit raj of municipalities, has shown that such jobs are the very core of an Indian city’s life.

She estimates that Delhi alone has five lakh to six lakh hawkers. It also has six lakh cycle rickshaws, which are serviced by 20,000 mechanics and several thousand producers of components.

Given that each breadwinner typically supports a family of five or six, Madhu Kishwar estimates that cycle rickshaws alone sustain 5 to 6 million people in Delhi.

Street hawking sustains another 2.5 million to 3 million people. In other words, no less than two- thirds of Delhi’s population of 12 million depends on hawking and cycle rickshaws.

Quite possibly, these estimates are exaggerated. But reduce them by 20 per cent, or even 50 per cent, and they still add up to the biggest single chunk of jobs in the capital. Contrary to elite notions, Delhi is not mainly a city of bureaucrats.

It is mainly a city of hawkers and rickshaw operators. So are most other Indian cities. You might think this is something to celebrate. Contrary to the 19th century mindset, the economy is not unable to create jobs with rising incomes.

Indeed, jobs are lying on the streets of every town and city. Yet our laws and rules do not encourage these. Incredible though it may sound, the entire aim of our planners, bureaucrats and police has been to outlaw and criminalise such occupations.

City planners, in their wisdom, have laid down ludicrously low limits for hawkers and cycle rickshaws to be licensed. In Delhi, four-fifths of the cycle rickshaws and hawkers are unlicensed. This makes them easy prey for the police and petty bureaucracy who extort an estimated Rs 480 crore per year from hawkers alone.

Now, the very fact that lakhs of these unfortunates ply their trade despite risks and harassment shows that there is a huge public demand for their services.

Town planners need to be sacked en masse for laying down norms for retail outlets and transport which bear no relation at all to public demand. Citizens are not morons who must be told how many shops or rickshaws they need. On the contrary, their demand as expressed in the marketplace must be met to the maximum extent possible.

Following Madhu Kishwar’s campaign, the Prime Minister’s Office has ordered a major liberalisation of hawking and cycle rickshaws within Delhi. But why Delhi alone? Is not the problem a general one affecting the length and breadth of India?

Does not the licence-permit raj strangle unfortunate millions in every corner of the country who are trying to move out of agriculture into low-skilled operations?

City planners say there is not enough space on roads and pavements to accommodate hawkers and rickshaw operators. Which raises the question, why did the planners provide so little space all these years?

Has not every single regulation in this regard proved inadequate to meet public demand? Granted, there must be some zones free of hawkers. But what sort of city planning criminalises four-fifths of the services for which there is a public demand?

The planners should be in jail, not the hawkers. I, too, am to blame. For decades I have campaigned for a dismantling of the licence-permit raj. But I too have failed to see that by far the largest number of people affected by the licence-permit raj are humble hawkers and rickshaw operators. We must all thank Madhu Kishwar for opening our eyes.

What do you think?