It was a sudden whim of the Rajkot Mayor Pradip Dav on November 9 last year that spurred a drive to uproot all roadside stalls selling eggs and non-veg food. At first it appeared to be one mayor’s idea but within 48 hours, four other municipal corporations—Vadodara, Bhavnagar, Junagadh and Ahmedabad—too launched a similar drive. And since not a single directive was on paper—all passed verbally—the municipal commissioners simply feigned ignorance.
The original reason was that the sight of non-veg food displayed at the stalls hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. The same about eggs at the stalls. It is well known in Gujarat that most omelette stalls, which sell the unique dish called “Ghotalo” (confused mix), are mostly located in Hindu areas since most of Ahmedabad is ghettoised. “Ghotalo” is an out-of-the-world mix of scrambled eggs, egg keema and a peppering of half-fry egg. This, among several weird combinations like egg dosa, are a favourite among vegetarian Gujaratis. Many don’t cook eggs at home but savour them on the streets. You may even get Jain omelette and Jain pav bhaji which doesn’t contain onion, garlic and potatoes.
As the controversy refused to fade out, two more reasons were added: That the smoke and smell emanating from these non-veg food kiosks were a health hazard and that they create traffic snarls by encroaching on the roads. So, for the sake of creating a semblance of balance, the mayors and Gujarat’s law minister and former speaker Rajendra Trivedi, also a prominent lawyer of Vadodara who had supported the move, stated in unison that the decision was applicable for all roadside vendors who are encroachers.
Finally, the state government—which had remained completely silent all through the controversy—spoke. The first reaction came from Gujarat BJP president C.R. Patil, “We are not targeting anybody for selling eggs or non-veg food. It is the people’s choice. The municipal corporations have been told this. They may have removed some street vendors’ stalls for encroachment, but not for what they sell.” And then came chief minister’s Bhupendra Patel’s delayed response when he said at a public function in Anand that, “The government could not have any objections to people’s food choices and people should ensure that they ate hygienic food, veg or non-veg can’t be an issue.” But he added for good measure that if such eateries were an encroachment and creating traffic issues, the municipal corporations could in their wisdom remove them.
The BJP in Gujarat may have defused this controversy for now but it has a wider national ramification — the issue of livelihood of street vendors was never restricted to a few cities of Gujarat and is widespread.
There are an estimated 15 lakh street vendors in Gujarat with the maximum in Surat, 1.5 lakh, and around 1.25 lakh in Ahmedabad.
The municipal corporations, whose new bodies were elected in February 2021, launched this drive without any advance notice or warning. The street vendors had just begun regaining their livelihoods after the devastation caused by the Covid-19 crisis and the extended phases of lockdown, when they were hit by this eviction drive.
Union leaders of street vendors say that a staggering 50,000 of them shut shop out of fear as removal cranes arrived to demolish other shops.
“Veg or non-veg comes later,” said Vadodara-based environmentalist and human rights activist Rohit Prajapati. “The point is, under which legal provision did they take this action? None. The Supreme Court’s directives and the Street Vendors Act, 2014, are very clear. This can’t be done without providing them with alternative arrangements.”
The eviction drive may have been temporarily halted. But the vendors are fighting back. On November 25, they moved a petition in the Gujarat High Court against the seizure of their handcarts by the municipal corporations. The petition pointed out that “thousands of handcarts were confiscated without any rhyme or reason throughout the state and no due process was followed”. They have still not got many of them back.
The petition also cited the larger issue of the non-implementation of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, in Gujarat.
The petition argued, “Selling non-vegetarian food on the streets does not impinge upon anybody’s rights. A vegetarian might find consumption of non-vegetarian food offensive whereas a vegan might find consumption of milk, cheese and honey as offensive. As long as a person doesn’t violate any law, he/she must be free to sell anything under the right to livelihood guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.”
Under the Act, a 19-member Town Vending Committee has to be constituted by all municipal corporations with fair representation of vendors. This committee is required to conduct a survey and identify hawking and no-hawking zones. Such a survey is being launched in Delhi, for instance, but nothing has moved in Ahmedabad or in any other major cities in Gujarat.
Rakesh Maheria, president of the Laari-Galla Patharna (street vendors) Sangh Gujarat also pointed out that “the Supreme Court had in 2009 ordered that no street vendors could be removed in the name of encroachments without providing them concrete alternative arrangements. But the municipal authorities just ignore this”.
He said town vending committees constituted by municipal corporations in Gujarat exist only on paper. “Where are the surveys and where are the hawking zones with all facilities?” asked Rakesh.
“The main reason Gujarat’s civic bodies are not earmarking land parcels to create hawking zones is that many such spaces are in commercially prime areas dominated by Hindus,” he asserted.
This is despite a central order of May 18th last year from the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to chief secretaries of all states, asking them to provide vending certificates to all street vendors and not harass them. “Only 42,000 out of the 1.25 lakh hawkers in Ahmedabad have been given these certificates so far,” said Rakesh. “And in the case of non-veg food vendors, only 4 per cent out of an estimated 4,000 of them have such certificates.”
Unconcerned about the heat and dust raised by the eviction drive, the state’s vegetarian-at-home and all-eatarians outside, young Gujaratis continue to gorge on chicken at the Magic Chicken Dhaba at Gujarat’s largest Muslim ghetto, Juhapura.
(The writer is Editor, Development News Network [DNN], Gujarat)