Street-vending through kiosks (khokhas or dhabas) or mobile vendors (chabri wallahs, truck, bicycles or motor cycles) are all legitimate activities which allow the poor opportunities. All societies through history have had these activities. An unemployed person can with a small amount of money buy some fruit and serve it on a small platform or a cart.
Used to be a time we would see these vendors all over Pakistani cities selling all manner of things. There was guy selling the most awesome wire puzzles that I wish had kept. There used to be the guy on the bicycle who used to be only supplier of used Marvel comics and science fiction books.
As teenagers, we used to walk or bike to local khokhas to learn how to pick up all manner of goods as they were conveniently located and often cheaper than bigger stores. They were also willing to do things like give you one cigarette from a pack or one biscuit from a pack as opposed to buying a whole packet.
Then somewhere in the 80s when we seriously adopted the suburban DHA model, all roads were widened to make way for the cars. Many of my favorite khokhas were taken away. I wondered where the owners had gone till one day I found one of the vendors in dire straits forced to beg.
Later our pristine suburban neighborhoods got very exclusive and the mobile vendor who used to visit us earlier were now diligently stopped by the police as well as private security. Various forms of hawkers (the guy with the churun (a spicy paste or powder), or the vendor carrying the rubbery candy with which he made bicycles or figures, or the kulfi wallah) disappeared. I wonder where they are begging now?
Meanwhile bureaucrats who ran cities became increasingly wedded to the American Suburban model with endless single family homes and broad avenues for cars. Of course, they kept prime areas for their government owned housing and government-subsidized leisure clubs as well as plots for themselves. The poor did not fit into this scheme. The masters of the city with their perks and plots therefore got even more strict with the street vendors. Police were told to vigorously eradicate all forms of poverty—poor housing and street vendors—from the line of sight of speeding cars.
Occasionally a street vendor shows up on a side street but in a matter of hours you will find some policemen throwing him out. YouTube even has videos of policemen in Karachi upsetting carts of street vendors destroying their inventory. DHA the pinnacle of good estate management will not allow any street vendors.
Meanwhile we in policy circles began to measure poverty and continually talk of poverty eradication. Donors forced us to initiate many poverty alleviation projects. We have BISP where we are giving them conditional and unconditional cash transfers. We have skill development agencies in every province and at the federal level and we also have funds to foster skill development. We also have several large microcredit-providing agencies and several banks that these agencies finance.
So, what is it that people do with the few thousand rupees that these programs give them? There are no studies on this question. Mostly people ad lib, “they start their own business.” And most frequently, the business is thought to be a sewing machine. One wonders how many sewing machine businesses can the poor run?
So, the next question is “where can they set up this business?” Here the consultants have no answer. Weakly they say “at home?” But poor homes are so small and their families large. Do they have space to operate? Besides, their clientele would be the neighborhood? Or will the spend time peddling their wares? And how, when no such activity is allowed?
I have personally pushed for the liberalization of street vending business for the last 15 years. I have presented this proposal to prime ministers and the chief ministers. They liked the idea until the bureaucrats shot it down. “Why?” you would ask. I can think of no reason other than power and hubris.
Unlike Pakistan the rest of the world has a huge number of street vendors in their cities. Scanning some recent research on the subject I found these estimates of the number of street vendors in some major cities in the world.
Street vending is a legitimate entrepreneurial activity for the poor. It also adds to city life as many of us have felt when we go to Manhattan, London, Singapore or Bangkok. It adds vitality to and vibrancy to the community promoting mingling opportunities among the most diverse segments of the society. It also extends the range of goods available and promotes price competition which serves the community with both more goods and services and at lower prices. It also promotes street safety as it puts more ‘eyes on the street’.
Many well-known entrepreneurs took their first steps as street vendors to grow large businesses. Vienna Beef is a large company that makes hot dogs, sausages and other food items started out as a street vending company. A heartwarming story from India is making the rounds about a blind man, Bavesh Bhatia who has developed a multi-million dollar business starting off as a street vendor.
Is it not time that we allowed street vendors everywhere in our cities. Every street and street corner should be allowed to have a street vendor. Cars must be made to give space to the poor. And there is no reason to associate street vending with poor sanitation and aesthetics. A careful and good policy can be developed to develop street vending cleanly and aesthetically. We can work out a good policy for street vending.
I find it strange that there are street vendors within a stone’s throw of the White house, the Congress and Washington DC landmarks and none on Constitution Avenue Islamabad. If hawkers hang out near Buckingham Palace and the Parliament, why can’t there be khokhas next to the Governor’s House, Gymkhana, Punjab Club and the Corps Commander house in Lahore.
So, let us not give the poor mere handouts without the space to grow. Street vending is a legitimate right of the poor to claim their share of entrepreneurship. Accept it and allow them to grow.