The Lords of the Footpath

Hawkers in Kolkata
Hawkers in Kolkata

Hawkers in Kolkata - Lord of Footpath

In the mid-nineties, when the Left was in power, they launched Operation Sunshine in which the Kolkata Municipality officers joined forces with CPI (M) cadres and police battalions to demolish the sidewalk stalls of thousands of hawkers. The very purpose of this eviction was to clear the footpaths for the so-called beautification of the city, to project Kolkata as an A1 city and also to increase the convenience of the pedestrians. The opposition leaders mobilized the evicted hawkers in constant rallies and protests. In the face of the protests, the Left Front’s firm conviction to remove hawkers broke down and the administration allowed the hawkers to gradually reoccupy the pavements of the streets from which they had been removed.

The hawker eviction was basically much ado about nothing and proved to be an eyewash on the streets. The cops and hawkers play a game of cat and mouse on the pavements of Kolkata every day. However, the ending is happy for both the parties – for everyone except for the pedestrians. On an average, the 48 police stations of the city register at least 100 complaints of unauthorized occupation of sidewalks. The irony is that, at the end of the day, the hawkers still stay where they are not supposed to be. The police congratulate themselves for well enacting a farce and the government seems to be extremely happy with the revenues pocketed.

Such a sham is necessary because as far as the eviction of the hawkers is concerned, the government is between a rock and a hard place. According to a reliable source, the hawkers earn the “authorities” a revenue of approximately Rs. 72 lakhs each month while at the same time the beautification of the city is also an issue to be kept in mind. The police are merely pawns in this game because the administration prefers it this way.

The administration is not all that ruthless as far as the evicted hawkers are concerned. In fact, crores of rupees had been spent to revamp Gariahat Market on a full scale to provide permanent stalls to the hawkers evicted from the footpaths of Gariahat, although only a lucky few chosen to enjoy the privilege. The rest have gone back to the footpaths to occupy their old allotted spaces on the footpaths, leading a precarious business life.

The entire hawker eviction process is a politically sensitive and highly paradoxical situation. While the Trinamool administration pokes the police to incite hawker eviction, the same party workers protect the hawkers from eviction. The answer to this contradictory behavior of the government maybe an election issue of this government as well as a fat revenue lure. According to sources, the actual number of hawkers in the city is currently well over 3 lakhs whereas the estimate of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation is 1,20,000.

It is evident that the Hawker Raj is here to stay. Evictions, restrictions, and three civic boards spanning over 13 years have undisputedly failed to put an end to this hawker menace. Now, what should be the perspective of the pedestrians who sometimes have less than 2 feet of footpath to barely wriggle through? The current Trinamool administration must arrive at a balanced solution so that the pedestrians have enough space to walk on the pavements, the hawkers continue to exist in a decent way (because they have become a part and parcel of this city) and the planned beautification of Kolkata is also achieved. This way nobody loses at the end of the day.