Monday, May 28, 2007

Development, displacement and 'hawkers'

An edited version was published by The Statesman. You can read it here.
It is part of Samantak Das' column Jabberwocky.

Dear friends,

This is an article of mine first published at ( which I am re-posting here at the request of Ushmi. I was initally hesitant about putting it up here as it doesn't relate directly to the land acquisition issue, but the reigning development-displacement paradigm is very evident in this issue as well, as well as the construction of a globalised future excluding various sections of society and the disavowal of their contribution and rights. Would welcome any comments/criticisms,

- Aniruddha Dutta

Space, Sanitization and the Press: The coverage of street vending in Kolkata

One of the most troublesome blotches on the spectre of the global, post-liberalisation metropolis in India is the ‘hawker problem’ – that is, the ‘illegal encroachment’ of hawkers (lower class vendors who informally set out and sell their wares on streets, pavements, rail coaches etc.) into public spaces, apparently causing everything from traffic chaos to tainted brand equity. Especially in my city Kolkata, this is a prominent field of quotidian media coverage where the lines between the citizen and non-citizen, civic order and disorder, and the legitimate and the illegitimate are being continually (re)defined. The local English print media has often targeted hawkers invoking a liberal-democratic discourse of citizenship: the rights of the ‘common man’ or the ‘pedestrian’ to public space, the ‘common man’ being a politically innocent, classless, neutral entity (“civic rights cannot forever remain captive to an illegality that has been allowed to prosper for the convenience of a few”, says an edit in The Telegraph on April 20, 2007). The free-market rhetoric condemning ‘free riding’ on public infrastructure is also used – “a facility created with the help of taxpayer’s money is freely handed over to petty traders even as serious business initiatives are inconvenienced”, argues another Telegraph article on May 15, 2007. The general hypocrisy and convenient elisions of this discourse are easily exposable. For example, such reports rarely target the proliferation of cars, accompanied by vehicular pollution, illegal parking, state support to car owners by building swanky car parks, etc., as indicative of any unfair tilt within public spaces. Nor do they concede how hawkers may be an integral, if problematic, part of the local microeconomics of consumption (in which many middle class readers of the media are also implicated) and larger networks of distribution, for a variety of essential and inessential goods and services.
Interestingly, the sane and rational discourse of civic rights and public space that condemns ‘encroachment’, while challengeable on its own terms, is often accompanied by an affective, even visceral appropriation of urban space, and a passionate re-construction of the ‘city’ in quasi-organic terms. In the two following sections of the article, I link these seemingly contrary aspects of the anti-hawker coverage, and explore how they might show up the pressure of a negative post-colonial image of Kolkata intensified in the aspiration to ‘global’ standards, as well as an urge to consolidate middle class agency and identity vis-à-vis city space. All of which, of course, result in the exclusion of sections such as hawkers both from the debating citizenry and the future cityscape, and throw up questions regarding the nature of liberal discourse in the Indian mainstream media.

Dis-ease and the Organic City

To summarise the issue at hand and provide a brief timeline - the national policy National Policy for Urban Street Vendors was ratified by the Government in 2004 (ref. ) and makes provisions for hawkers on the streets though subject to regulations. However, implementation has been slow, and the Calcutta High Court has come out with several directives and orders (e.g. in May 2006 and April 2007) directed at the municipal body or rail authorities (for rail hawkers). The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has pursued a variable stance on hawkers and has alternately threatened and appeased them, with the Chief Minister putting in his bit from time to time . The period since 2004 has also seen several PILs (public interest litigations), prominently one filed by the environmentalist Subhas Dutta , regarding the inconveniences caused by hawkers on cramped roads, while hawkers’ bodies like the Hawkers Sangram Committee have agitated against any drastic moves, like the mass eviction of 1996 (which was called ‘Operation Sunshine’). The local English-language press has been remarkably united in condemning the politics around the hawkers issue and in demanding civic betterment through regulation or even outright removal of hawkers, often exceeding the injunctions of the national policy. City newspapers that have been opposed on issues like land acquisition at Singur (like The Telegraph and The Statesman) have had very similar takes on hawkers. National newspapers like The Times of India and Hindustan Times have sometimes pursued similar agendas regarding cities like Delhi and Mumbai, but for the moment that shall be outside my purview.
First, let us note the condemnation of ‘vote-bank’ politics regarding hawkers, and how that translates into a condemnation of hawkers themselves. The Statesman, for instance, carries a report on March 14, 2006 titled “Buddha roots for hucksters, city blisters”, which decries a softening of the chief minister’s stance on the issue of hawker eviction, seeing the turnaround as prompted by the coming assembly elections: “Chief minister Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee insisted today at Writers’ Buildings… that hawkers and pedestrians could coexist on city roads. His declaration is particularly distressing for the citizens as it comes a decade after Operation Sunshine - a drive launched in 1996 to rid city pavements of hawkers.” But this political double standard is neatly coupled with the imputed criminality of hawkers (‘hucksters’ is of course evocative of words like fraudster and gangster), and in the rhetoric of the phrase ‘city blisters’ - through the metaphor of a bodily reaction - we see the all-too-smooth construction of a uniform, organic city and the separation of the (criminally endowed) hawkers from it. But who or what, indeed, is this ‘city’? The report tells us, “At a time when Kolkata is competing with other Indian metros to attract investment, the chief minister’s U-turn on the hawker policy have caused dismay among Kolkatans, particularly the business community, who say the city would give away the gains of Operation Sunshine… They urged the government to see to it that vendors didn’t have the run of pavements and street corners and that filth did not pile up on roads… IT industrialists also believe that hawking needs to be professionally handled. ‘As long as it is done that way, the investors won’t be offended,” Mr Kalyan Kar, director, Acclaris Solutions, said.’” This section of businessmen and IT officials, concerned with the city’s brand equity and its aspirational image (so that external investors may not take offence), has of course the least to do with the hawker economy. Their apparently benign demand for “professional handling” is belied by the unqualified support for the mass eviction during the State-backed ‘Operation Sunshine’, before the National Policy had been formulated. Other headlines around the same issue carry out a similar conflation of electoral opportunism with the petty criminality associated with hawkers: witness the verb ‘hawks’ in headlines like “Poll in sight, CM hawks soft line” (The Telegraph, March 13, 2006), or “CM hawks sops for hucksters” (The Statesman, April 24, 2006). Ironically, this sense of a supposed collusion between political corruption and hawkers elides the fact that political support is fickle and hawkers are often subject to State violence, from organised bribery to the arbitrary seizure of goods (something that has been documented, in detail, in the case of Delhi hawkers by the activist Madhu Kishwar) .
While judicial action is usually supported over political action, in doing so, some reports even over-reach the actual scope of the court orders or directives. A series of articles in The Telegraph demonstrates this advocacy of judicial action against hawkers, and again we observe simultaneous tropes by which hawkers are excluded from the debating citizenry and posited as external/hostile to the projected “city” itself. The report “Free roads or court trouble - Hawkers like cancer, says chief justice” (The Telegraph, May 20, 2006) highlights a court directive to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation “to submit reports within a month on what steps they have taken regarding hawker congestion and traffic chaos on city streets”. Though hostile, the court directive thus does not ask outright for eviction (as suggested by the direct threat “free roads or court trouble”) and, in fact, indicates several other factors that also contribute to blocked roads, like the absence of automatic traffic signals and rule-breaking by public buses, which are not emphasized at par in the article. Neither does the article provide any statistics or concrete evidence of the supposed hawker-induced accidents (any cases? which roads? which group of hawkers? etc.). Rather, what we see are organic metaphors of parasitic growth and corruption: “ ‘The hawker menace is growing like cancer. It is impossible for people to walk on the roads, forget about footpaths,’ observed the division bench”. A follow-up article, decrying the slackness of the municipal authorities in submitting the said report, misquotes the directive to transfer the ‘cancer’ metaphor from the “hawker menace” (the multiplying civic problems associated with hawking) to the hawkers themselves: “The court had expressed grave concern over the “cancerous growth” of hawkers on city footpaths” (“Take-it-easy twist to hawker trouble”, The Telegraph, June 16, 2006). Of course, this extreme metaphor draws from and can be seen as a culmination of more common affective clichés in reporting the hawkers’ issue. For example, important thoroughfares are commonly referred to as ‘arteries’: “Neither the city police nor the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) has taken any step to oust several thousand hawkers from eight main arteries of the city”, rues the report “Hawker ouster order gathers dust” (The Telegraph, October 31, 2005). The hawkers, of course, ‘choke’ these roads: “At least 1.5 lakh vendors now choke eight key roads in Calcutta” (“Elections near, so hawkers dear”, The Telegraph, July 27, 2005). This complex of images and metaphors makes considerations of space seem doubly urgent through the biological referent of life itself, and almost with a sleight of hand, locates hawkers as threatening extraneous agents having nothing to do with the micro-economic organisation of urban space. Similarly, the report “Hawking spaces” in Outlook speaks of “the city’s two-lakh-odd hawkers” as a “perennial scourge”, “afflicting” the city’s pavements, who need to be “disciplined” by court and State action: “its pavements will continue to be afflicted by that perennial scourge that forces pedestrians to risk their lives and limbs by traversing on the dangerous roads… Now, on the urging of the Calcutta High Court… the vendors would be disciplined… and pedestrians could then return to the streets” (Outlook, June 16, 2006). Thus, besides the images of disease and bodily overburdening, the group of hawkers is perceived as an indistinct, mob-like entity, shown up in the inconsistency and vagueness about their numbers: they may be “several thousand” or “at least 1.5 lakh” (one hundred and fifty thousand) or “two-lakh-odd” (two hundred thousand or so), and they are, of course, swelling and in need of authoritarian control. Another article in The Telegraph (May 13, 2006) reports a specific alleged incident where a court survey team encounters hostility from a group of hawkers: “a high court-appointed committee, out on the streets again on Tuesday to study traffic management… had to call it a day after they were mobbed by a group of hawkers on Brabourne Road.” The headline of the article, “Hawkers defiant on chaos - Court survey team, three men short, mobbed and sent back” escalates this alleged incident, involving a few hawkers, into a general chaotic state blamed on all hawkers, and it is not surprising that given this larger construction, no other details of the specific mobbing incident are thought to be necessary in the article.
But the media stance against hawking is not prompted purely by considerations of a ‘civic order’, which may be, naively or deviously, seen as in the interest of all ‘citizens’. It is, of course, an image-cleansing exercise toward a globalised metropolitan model. The association of hawkers per se with the chaos, squalor and filth commonly attributed to Kolkata, and the projection of an aspirational image that would exclude these, become clear in another article in Outlook that opposes the proposed reservation of 2% of the land area for hawkers in a developing exurb of Kolkata: a proposal to reign in the hawkers’ economic contributions, and avoid those very civic problems that are often derided in the media. But if such a reservation were to be carried out, the article tells us, “visions of a gleaming, international-class city [sic]… sans the chaos that this city is mired in” would be “dashed by those who feel occupying any available piece of land is their birthright” (“Not Again” in ‘Kolkata Korner’, Outlook, June 23, 2006). The pressure of the historical image of Kolkata (filthy, overpopulated, crowded) lends a certain urgency to shifting its burden, and forces us to reflect critically on the discourse of temporal progress thus constructed. For instance, note the light/darkness binary in the titles of two interconnected reports on the mayor’s shifting stance on hawkers. “So long sunshine, hello hawkers” (The Telegraph, Feb 23, 2006) derides the mayor’s circumstantial support for hawkers with an allusion to the decade-old eviction drive, and its follow-up, “Sunshine – The rising: Buddha frown prompts mayor U-turn on Hawker comeback” (TT, Feb 25) extols the mayor’s turnaround, upon pressure from the chief minister, just as dramatically. A letter to the editor, approving the anti-hawker stance of the first article and decrying the proposed extension of municipal support to hawking, is published on 24th February with the editorially added caption “Road back to hell” (TT, February 24, 2006).
Another related area where considerations of image prompt the exclusion of hawkers is ‘heritage’. Attempts of the State towards the protection and restoration of ‘heritage’ areas in Kolkata, dotted with relics of the British Raj, often includes the removal and ‘relocation’ of hawkers, supported by the media. The approval is evident in reports like “Hawkers shut out of BBD Bag”, (The Statesman, May 31, 2006) and “Heritage look for BBD Bag” (The Statesman, June 19, 2006), where we read that the “State government, in its endeavour to lure foreign and domestic investment, has decided to render the area a heritage look. The main stumbling block for the officials seems to be the relocating of hawkers from this area. A committee comprising police officers and KMC officials have been formed to find out an amicable way of evicting them.” This “amicable way” of eviction finds more sinister expression in the related headline “Heritage axe for hawkers” (TT, May 13, 2006), where the article tells us, “The crux of the matter, as the mayor put it after the meeting: if Dalhousie is to be declared a heritage zone, the hawkers must be displaced.” Mention must be made here of the fact that the Dalousie area is not only a heritage zone that could be decked up for investors, but the main office area of the city with thousands of office-goers and labouring class people who are regularly seen lining up beside hawkers’ stalls for their cheap workaday lunches.

‘Our Space – Their Mess’

The media coverage of street vending demands attention not only due to the constructions of civic space and of a projected cityscape, but also for the constitution of citizenship and class identity vis-a-vis city space. Articles with a pronounced activist edge in the TOI or the HT, as well as the column of letters to the editor in The Telegraph, seem to be part of a process of opinion-creation and action on civic issues. But as I argue, such civic activism, or simulation of public debate on civic problems, often becomes a process in which the ‘public’ itself is constituted. Thereupon, class identity is sometimes asserted through an appropriation of city space.
A Times of India article, for example, lauds citizenship activism and the “healthy one-on-one” between residents and councillors of a particular locality in Mumbai, clubbing hawkers with the “de-silting of nallahs, increasing dog menace and other civic matters” and thus completely externalising them. “Around 150 people gathered to deliberate on issues… and thrashed out problems ranging from proliferation of hawkers, safeguarding the beach, cleaning and de-silting of nallahs, the increasing dog menace and other civic matters. Interestingly, the interactive meet saw a healthy one-on-one between the councillors and the citizens, with cooperation between the two being reiterated at every point” (“A collaboration of competence”, Mumbai Plus, April 23, 2007). Again, a series of articles in the Hindustan Times in May, 2007 urge police action to make a market area safe for citizens, and laud the resultant action: “Hawkers selling coolers in front of the police station in Central Market were ultimately thrown out on Saturday… similarly ram laddoo vendors near the barricades installed for the safety of commuters were also displaced… But, the problem still persists… action has been taken only on those unaouthorised occupiers mentioned in our story” (“Cops act finally”, HT Live Impact, May 10, 2007). Again, the possible contribution of the hawkers to the marketplace, as well as any communication with them regarding the real problems at hand, are ruled out in favour of a benevolent relation between the activist media and the citizen addressee.
On another front, debates on civic issues are sometimes set up and conducted in media spaces. Columns like letters to the editor are edited and provided with a general caption that is supposed to ‘reflect’ the dominant opinion, but when readership is limited by class factors, this can be the deliberate construction of a class-restricted consensus. In this context, a column of letters specifically on the hawker issue, carried weekly by The Telegraph from April 12 to May 10, 2006, lends itself to examination. The column is subtitled ‘We ask, You answer’. In each instalment, this apparent delegation of authority to the ‘public’ is prefaced by the question “Do you support the mayor’s call to bring hawkers back to the pavements?” Instead of framing it as a neutral question (viz. should the mayor’s call be supported? etc.), the question pits the ‘you’ of the ‘public’ against the hawkers. Some of the published responses neatly carry over the ‘you’ to an ‘us’: “The hawkers cheat us in terms of price, quality and weight. They create traffic congestion, forcing people to walk along carriageways” (letter published on April 12), or “we should not forget that the ruling parties had once evicted hawkers… They thrive because of corrupt cops and leaders” (letter published on May 3). However, one notes that many letters are subtler in argument, and may combine opposition with demand for alternate arrangements for hawkers: “footpaths are meant for the safety of pedestrians… the mayor could have constructed markets to house them” (letter published on April 12), or “if the hawkers are allowed to set up businesses elsewhere, then not only will the state coffers be enriched, but the rights of the citizens will not be violated” (letter published on April 12). However, in most instalments, the headline for the column highlights only the general opposition and ignores issues like rehabilitation: “Freedom of movement for sale” (April 12), “Ballot clue to hawker call”, (May 10), “Lip service to poll needs”, (April 19), “Ploy to grab more votes” (April 26).
Thus, the strident anti-hawker stand here requires a homogenisation even within the class context: an editorial management that smoothens out variations in readers’ opinions. There is a parallel between the editorial regulation of internal space in this case with the (verbal/visual) construction of external, city space, where pejorative metaphors and images may be used to suppress any sense of a middle-class/hawker relation: the caption for a photo in The Telegraph neatly expresses the binary as “Our Space, Their Mess” (The Telegraph, April 12, 2006). A careful look at the photograph, however, reveals several middle-class buyers browsing in the background. Thus, a critical examination reveals the mechanisms of construction of both the “our” and the “space”.

Whither conclusion?

The combination of affect and rationalism in the coverage of street vending seems, to me, to reveal the anxious exclusions in the liberal-democratic discourse of civic rights and public space that elides, for example, the often-symbiotic relation between the ‘citizen’ and hawkers and the complex organisation of city spaces that does not permit any simple externalisation of any one section. In my brief and localised study, I have attempted to show how the coverage relates to the construction of middle class agency within a projected globalised city which finds expression in a blanket appropriation of space. From here, the interesting question would be to imagine what form of class agency and public discourse could result from a more wholesome engagement with groups like the hawkers, who seem to pose such an indissoluble problem towards elite conceptions of a uniform and ordered cityscape. However, in the scope of this piece, that has to be left to conjecture and hope.

1 See, for example, “Sunshine – The rising: Buddha frown prompts mayor U-turn on Hawker comeback” (The Telegraph, February 25, 2006) and “Buddha roots for hucksters, city blisters” (The Statesman, March 14, 2006).
2 This PIL was filed in June, 2003 and blamed several other factors besides hawkers for traffic problems, but press reports have in general emphasised the hawker issue when discussing the PIL (e.g. “Glare on hawkers and car chaos”, The Telegraph, March 13, 2007).
3 “Bribes, beating and blackmail”, accessed on May 17, 2007