October 22, 2020
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Kolkata Korner

"People who flaunt their refugee status even after so many decades deserve no sympathy; they are responsible for their own sorry plight.... still indulge in self-pity and just don't want to do anything on their own..." Really?

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Kolkata Korner

Peaceful Co-existence
Kolkata witnessed a very significant development earlier this week, and one that could've been adapted as a model for amicably resolving the highly contentious 'Big Retail Vs Kirana store' issue across the country. A large outlet of Spencer's, the retail chain promoted by the RPG Group, was to have opened on an arterial South Kolkata road that's over-populated by hawkers last weekend. But the opening was stalled by the hawkers who feared loss of livelihood. 

The mayor intervened, invited both sides to the negotiating table and thrashed out a solution. The 36,000-sqaure foot store, as per the agreement, would restrict itself to selling rice, fruits and vegetables in units of at least three kilos, spices in packs of 500 grams and above and branded garments costing at least Rs 300. This way, the store would not pose any threat to the hawkers. 

Yes, the conditions imposed on the store may fly in the face of the principles governing a free market economy and free competition, but the interests and livelihood security of the hawkers also need to be kept in mind. And it was hoped that the conditions, which appear to be on the steeper side, would be relaxed so that many others who may want to shop at Spencer's, but for just two kilos of potatoes, would be able to do so. 

The CITU, which was also involved in the negotiations, seemed to have played an uncharacteristically responsible role, more so when its leaders said that these same conditions could not be imposed on other big-format retail stores that'll come up in other parts of the city or the state. This Spencer's store, since it was coming up in an area where nearly 6000 hawkers ply their wares, had stricter conditions; another coming up where there are just a couple of hundred hawkers may be able to sell spices in packs of just 50 grams while another in an area free of hawkers would not face any restrictions at all. 

There is enough space for both big retail and small traders to flourish without stepping onto each others' toes.

Hopes Belied
But then, as with so many other things in this city, the arrangement is already under threat. And the hawkers are solely responsible for this. Having tasted blood, the hawkers have started imposing additional and stiffer conditions on the store. A large group of militant, offensive, foul-mouthed hawkers barged in a few days ago to carry out a noisy 'inspection' of the store. It has now become clear that they're not interested in co-existing peacefully with the store, but in disrupting the latter's business. 

And in this, I have no doubt, they're being encouraged, at least tacitly, by the CITU. Because, for the CITU, the numerically strong hawkers represent a vote bank. Never mind that they're squatting illegally on pavements that are meant for pedestrians, thus forcing the latter to take to the hazardous roads at great risk to their lives and limbs. Kolkata's hawkers have resisted all attempts to dislodge them; and they're too deeply entrenched in the system of spoils to get uprooted so easily. The hafta collected from them reaches the pockets of top police and civic officials; the hawkers also contribute handsomely to the coffers of the CITU and the political parties. 

This is, however, not to dispute their right to livelihood. These hawkers have families to provide for and, even if they were to be removed from the pavements, must be provided alternate spaces to carry on their businesses at the same volumes as at present. Their livelihood security must be ensured. But the strong-arm tactics that they indulge in, as in their dealings with the Spencer's store, or their determined resistance to all efforts to discipline them or make them adhere to some order (like occupying only one-third of the width of a pavement) can never be condoned. The hawkers, and the leadership of the hawkers' union, needs to realise that they're not above the law (despite the hafta they pay to the local police station) and there are norms of decency and civilized behaviour they should adhere to.

Who's To Blame?
There is, however, a much bigger issue than unruly hawkers forcing pedestrians off the roads here. The very fact that lakhs of people are forced to peddle wares on Kolkata's streets for a living, and the fact that this has been happening for decades now, and the fact that the number of hawkers is increasing by the day, speaks volumes about the utter failure of those who rule Bengal to improve the plight of the masses. It is also a sad reflection on the poor state of Bengal's economy. 

The lakhs of young men—and, of late, many women as well—who take to selling various goods ranging from sewing needles to lingerie and crockery on Kolkata's streets do so because they've no other means of livelihood. Many hold university degrees, a majority have passed their higher secondary. They ought to have been working in factories, corporate houses and in the service sector, with some becoming entrepreneurs. But the ruination of Bengal, caused by suicidal policies formulated and pursued by adamant adherents to an archaic and discredited ideology, has left lakhs out on Kolkata's streets. 

But having said that, it must also be added that the hawkers themselves have made no effort over the past few years to move to a higher station. These hawkers are the post-1965 illegal migrants (refugees, many would argue) from erstwhile East Pakistan. They fled persecution and worse and came over with little more than just the tattered clothes they were wearing. There wasn't much of a rehabilitation effort on the part of the government and these unfortunate millions were pretty much left on their own. 

They grabbed lands and settled down wherever they could and took up whatever vocations they could find. After all, having lost all their possessions and many family members, they were a desperate lot. And they've carried on, as vegetable and fish vendors, hawkers, petty traders, clerks and minions in offices, bus drivers and conductors, auto-rickshaw drivers, farm labourers etc. Very few of them have done well subsequently and moved up in life. 

The 'Sarbaharas'
These illegal migrants, who like to call themselves 'sarbaharas' (ones who've lost everything), have the peculiar tendency of wallowing in their misery, blaming the world for their misfortune, and expecting doles in perpetuity. Yes, they got a worse deal than those who fled West Pakistan at the time of Partition because the union and Punjab government rolled out generous rehab packages for them. But all said and done, the refugees to Punjab were enterprising, hard-working and ambitious and are, now, big traders, industrialists, professionals etc. The one from East Pakistan who chose a small patch in a pavement five decades ago to do petty business is still there, full of angst, expecting the world and the rest of humanity to somehow feel guilty and do something for him. 

He has modest savings, but will never use that to start a new business or to shift vocations. His stall on the pavement yields enough to put rice, dal and, occasionally, a small piece of fish, on his plate and he's happy with that; he won't make any effort (at least not the hard-working and enterprising way) to increase his earnings. Most hawkers, according to many surveys, have large families despite their poverty. Their kids, thanks to them, have the same negative attitude. The stories we hear of them scoring high marks and getting admission to medical or engineering colleges are exceptions to the rule. We don't, of course, hear of a single case of any of them or their children becoming successful entrepreneurs. They'll continue to occupy Kolkata's pavements, assert their moral right to do so (they're, after all, 'sarbaharas') and will continue to resist big-format retail stores, thus forcing Kolkatans to shop from the pavements and filthy markets. We, after all, have to empathise with those who fled persecution. And so what if that happened four decades -- or more -- ago?

Red Rise
The CPI(M) rode to power in Bengal on the unqualified support of the 'sarbaharas', who came to regard the Marxists as their saviours. The Congress, which was in power then, was regarded by the refugees as a party that's unconcerned and unsympathetic to their plight and a party of the original residents of West Bengal (the 'Ghotis') who, naturally, resented the large-scale influx of the folks from East Pakistan (the 'Bangals'). But once in power, the Marxists did little for the 'sarbaharas', save for handing out small doles and favours occasionally. 

However, they (the reds) spewed rhetoric to retain the support of the refugees and managed to convince the latter that New Delhi's "step-motherly attitude" was to blame for their plight and all of Bengal's ills. This continues to this day. And it is no wonder then that the CPI(M) and the CITU will support militant hawkers, rouge bus drivers, rash auto-drivers and lazy clerks and minions in offices. These are the 'sarbaharas', after all, and need to be treated with kid gloves.

There are, however, many exceptions to the general 'sarbaharas'. Like a neighbour of mine, a joint family actually. The head of the family, now an octogenarian, fled with his five kids and sister-in-law from East Pakistan after his wife and another daughter were brutally raped and murdered there. He was the headmaster of a school there and, belonging to a family of large landlords, was comfortably off. He arrived here in 1968 with a handful of belongings and his wife's jewelry, pawned them to set up a small shop at Jadavpur and opened a small tutorial. He ensured his kids got good education and inculcated the right values. His tutorial went on to become one of the most reputable in Kolkata, thanks to his hard work and diligence and the small grocery has now expanded into a department store. 

He also started a metal forging unit that's flourishing and, despite his age, is now planning to open a chain of small discount stores in various parts of the city with his elder son, a businessman. Another son, with a post-graduate degree in renewable energy, has his own unit manufacture solar panels and other such devices; two of his daughters are scientists with the ISRO and another son is one of Bengal's leading horticulturists. 

Sudhanshu Shekhar Roy, this remarkable man, is also in the forefront of a campaign to discourage hawkers from taking up more space on the city's pavements. So why doesn't he empathise with those who, like him, lost everything in East Pakistan and came over as refugees? "People who flaunt their refugee status even after so many decades deserve no sympathy; they are responsible for their own sorry plight. If a person has the determination, nothing can stop him and her from achieving his goals. Unfortunately, most of us (who came over from East Pakistan) still indulge in self-pity and just don't want to do anything on our own, preferring instead to depend on the government and the ruling party for small favours. They're a disgrace," this gentleman told a local TV news channel the other day. 

Well said, and precisely my point. 

Also, this large and prosperous family serve as a model of a successful joint family system; all siblings and their spouses and children live in happy harmony. They're also model citizens: they've led campaigns to make our area clean and green, unclog storm water drains, improve street lighting and even helped launch a small, experimental garbage segregation and disposal system. Kolkata owes them a lot and will never be able to repay the Roys; the hawkers owe a huge lot to Kolkata and will never be able to repay their mounting debts to this city.

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