Hawking in Chennai – A many sided problem


In the middle of June, Chennai Corporation announced that by the end of the month, the hawkers in and around Luz Corner would be made to move to the road next to the MRTS Station. 30th June came and went and the hawkers have continued to remain where they were.  On Wednesday, 23rd July, the Corporation performed what has become a routine exercise- the eviction of makeshift stalls along NSC Bose Road. The place was clear for a couple of days and then the stalls returned and continued with their business. In T Nagar, with the inauguration of the Usman Road flyover scheduled for the 15th of August, the future is uncertain for the 200 or so hawkers who have been selling their wares for many years. The Corporation has been trying to evict them. In what it thought was a brainwave; the Corporation also conceived the idea of trying to relocate the hawkers in the side-streets around Panagal Park. This was strongly opposed by the residents of those streets who, on 25th July, filed a writ plea in the Madras High Court seeking direction to the authorities in removing the encroachments on them. They have represented that the streets were 20ft in width and any attempt to bring in the hawkers would only result in increasing the congestion. The Court has asked the Corporation to file an affidavit on whether the hawkers could be accommodated under the proposed flyover.


All these happenings are symptomatic of the pressure on urban space in Chennai. The sidewalks and road spaces are increasingly rare to find and given the increasing number of vehicles, the Corporation is hard pressed to find alternative solutions to the hawkers issue. The only solution is relocation, but this needs to be done sensitively, allowing for hawkers to remain close to where their markets are. But given that areas such as Luz, T Nagar and NSC Bose Road are some of the most congested spots in the city, finding alternative space for hawkers in these areas is a tall order.


The hawkers issue is not new to the city. Several committees have been appointed to study the problem, time and again on the instructions of the High Court. The Justice Kanagaraj Committee of 2003, had, after a survey of 10 Corporation Zones had given recommendations for 35 streets in all. It had asked for licenses to be issued to hawkers and those without them had to be evicted. It had suggested building of commercial complexes for hawkers and partial settlement of some hawkers on the streets where they were selling earlier. This was a modification of the recommendations of the Hadi Committee of 2001 which had recommended the banning of hawking on 49 roads and the allotting of 20 sq.ft of space to licensed hawkers in roads where hawking can be allowed.


The first suggestion of the Kanagaraj Committee was partially implemented but the Corporation failed to regulate the new hawkers. The second suggestion, of commercial complexes has been a non starter thanks to non-availability of space. The Corporation is now taking the stance that in the absence of a policy on the transfer of development rights (a suggestion in the new Master Plan), it will not be possible to create new spaces for building such complexes within the city. There is some logic in this, for the only eviction and relocation that has been reasonably successful so far has been on Poonamallee High Road near the Central Station. The availability of the Lily Pond Complex helped and many hawkers have shifted there.


In the meantime, hawking being a countrywide problem, the Ministry for Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation had circulated a draft National Policy on Street Vendors. This had recommended the setting up of Town Vending Committees (TVCs) and a survey of hawking zones in every ward of cities by professional institutions. As per the policy, it was to be left to the TVCs to identify hawking zones and to take action against errant hawkers. Chennai is yet to implement any of these.


In many ways, the TVC may be the answer. Problems as faced in T Nagar could have been solved locally had there been participation in a TVC. Residents and hawkers, together with Corporation representatives could have hammered out a solution. In the absence of such public participation, these matters become confrontational and often land up in court.


It is however quite clear that the city does not have a comprehensive solution as yet for the hawkers. It cannot be denied that they perform a vital role in the city’s economy and provide goods at prices that are affordable. A wholesale ban on hawking would only have a detrimental effect on the character of the city and will also affect several families who depend on hawking as a means of livelihood.


What is needed is public participation in working out solutions. These need to be done, street by street, with discussions among all those affected by the issue. High profile eviction drives alone will not solve the problem.