A couple of weeks ago we saw the normally busy and congested Sir Theayagaraya Road in T’Nagar emptying itself. With the expiry of a deadline set by the Courts, the roadside shop owners and hawkers had no choice but to move into a new shopping complex built for them by the Corporation in the vicinity. There has been much euphoria over the uncluttered street and its wide but unkempt footpaths. But the question remains: Will this open space be allowed to remain that way?

The new shopping complex for hawkers at T Nagar. Pic by R Saravanan of Malar Stills
The new shopping complex for hawkers at T Nagar. Pic by R Saravanan of Malar Stills

Past experience shows that this is highly unlikely. Chennai’s so-called pedestrian walkways are meant for everyone else but those on foot. The TANGEDCO (formerly TNEB) finds these a convenient space for erecting transformers and junction boxes. Property owners convert them into vehicle parking lots. Shops extend their showroom space by putting up outdoor displays. And, above all, political parties erect banners, hoardings and cut-outs, blocking access completely. Political will and official discipline are both needed to curb such tendencies.

The solution currently implemented in T’Nagar has, however, shown a greater sensitivity to the requirements of the hawkers. Unlike earlier attempts where eviction and not rehabilitation was the sole aim, leading to the hawkers returning to the same spaces after a brief while, the authorities have recognised that the hawkers are also stakeholders. And as is usual, all this has come to pass thanks to the intervention of the High Court of Madras.

It was in 2006 that Justices A.P. Shah and Prabha Sridevan had, as part of their judgement covering several petitions concerning the hawking problem, formulated a new scheme. This involved the enumeration of hawkers and the issuing of licences to them by the Corporation. These licences were to be renewed each year and could be passed on to those who wished to carry on the business should a licensed hawker retire or pass away. The civic body was then asked to build/identify specific areas to which these hawkers could be moved and from where they could continue plying their trade. To ensure that this was done quickly, a Hawking Committee was ordered to be set up. The scheme was to apply to ten zones identified as having problems of congestion owing to indiscriminate hawking.

Matters moved slowly thereafter and it was only after a Public Interest Litigation was filed a couple of years ago that the issue was once again brought to the notice of the High Court. The Hawking Committee in its report lamented that the lack of speed in implementation was mainly due to official lethargy and apathy. The report also hinted at official connivance in allowing the hawkers to stay where they were despite alternative accommodation being ready. The Chairman of the Committee observed that none of his observations had been taken seriously by the administrative machinery. That was when the Court set a deadline and everyone had to comply.

Which brings us to the original issue. If hawkers and vested interests could continue merrily despite court orders, what price that the now emptied spaces will not be encroached upon again? Will the Courts need to be approached to ensure that what is rightfully ours remains in our possession? If so, will it mean another prolonged legal battle lasting several years? To what purpose then the law enforcement agencies and a civic body?

The T’Nagar scheme needs to be extended to all locations quickly. A single implementation seven years after the judgement is not a track record to be proud of. In 2006, there were an estimated 35,000 hawkers in the city. Today the number is one lakh. The longer we delay, the greater the problem is going to be. And in all such areas, the space retrieved should not be allowed to be encroached upon again.