The COVID-19 pandemic has created distressing uncertainties in India, a developing country with a huge populace and already existing socio-economic conundrums. In March 2020, the Indian Government announced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, which came at the cost of the livelihood of millions of street vendors in the country.
Street vendors are an integral part of the informal sector, which is the backbone of the Indian economy. Their position in society is already miserable with considerably low and stagnant income levels. Due to a lack of awareness, education and required documents, they are trapped in a spiral of debts related to loans with high-interest rates. Moreover, they are victims of intimidation by police personnel and municipalities in the name of public order. Local cops often harass vendors to extort bribes that represent a large chunk of the vendors’ daily income. Organisations like NASVI and SEWA have made significant efforts to improve their position through long legal battles, but despite a current policy in action, the vendors remain a neglected group of the population. The pandemic has only worsened their quo situation.
The government launched a relief package (PM SVANidhi) for street vendors in terms of a microcredit facility to help them revive their business. It aims to provide loans to around 5 million vendors. Under this scheme, a capital loan of up to Rs 10,000 payable in monthly instalments can be taken by vendors to revive the business with the reopening of the markets. However, the implementation of this scheme is a matter of concern for the informal sector. In 2014, the Street Vendors Act was introduced with a view to providing a positive environment for their livelihood protection and a favourable regulatory framework to support the community of street vendors. As per the Act, the State Governments were directed to form Town Vending Committees (“TVCs”) so as to allocate public spaces and social benefits to vendors with proper identification cards. According to reports published by the Centre for Civil Society, out of 7,263 towns from 30 states, only 33% have a TVC notified and only 50% of these notified TVCs have issued ID cards to vendors.
Although the government’s relief package acknowledges the grave impact of lockdown on income, it failed to consider the fact that the majority of vendors does not possess identification cards because of lack of awareness, inappropriate number of TVCs and active bank accounts. With the lockdown lasting for such a long time, there has been significant depletion in savings, as a result of which vendors have lost the confidence to borrow. The credit loans provided by the government do not improve their situation, they rather lead to a new spiral of debt. The scheme can thus not be considered as a relief in its true sense.
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life, of which human dignity is a quintessential aspect. The Supreme Court has reiterated that livelihood refers to means of living, without which the right to life cannot be truly exercised. With the loss of employment and without a choice to work from home, the economic and social security of street vendors has been drastically impaired. Moreover, the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution, under Articles. 38(1), 38(2) and 39(a), put a welfare duty on the state to effectively secure social order, minimise inequalities in income status, and formulate policies that ensure adequate means of livelihood. The effects of the pandemic are bound to be long term in nature, therefore, while granting support for the revival of their businesses, it becomes pertinent for the state to consider the harsh brunt already borne by street vendors.
India is one of the few countries to have a robust legal framework that governs street vendors. Despite all the good efforts undertaken by the Government, the actual benefits of the relief scheme and social security measures given under the Act are not accessible to the majority of informal workers. The unprecedented COVID-19 situation has called for the government to strengthen the implementation of the schemes. More TVCs needs to be formed to take into account unregistered vendors, and the state government should work with TVCs to provide hawking zones and licenses to vendors. Considering the low per capita income of the workers, the government instead of providing credit opportunities ought to grant direct benefits to boost their confidence and foster businesses.
Owing to the fact that the majority of informal workers are illiterate and has not been able to maintain hygiene standards due to scarce resources available to them, the government should also work with vendors’ associations to provide hygienic conditions and to ensure social distancing at the vending sites. The government should maintain a database on the vendors with the help of TVCs and provide direct benefits to the vendors, irrespective of the registration process so that the right of livelihood of the unaccounted vendors can also be protected.
The street vendors provide essential services to the public. Their socio-economic conditions directly affect their personal well-being as well as their position in society. Without effective implementation and percolation of the state policies and schemes, the constitutional promise of social justice and equality remains out of reach.