March 03, 2021
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Threatened, Beaten, Punched, Kicked...But Battling On

The founder-editor of Manushi details how and why taking up the battle on behalf of street-vendors has resulted in a series of violent attacks by mafia elements on her and several of her organisation's volunteers and staff, disrupting the publ

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Threatened, Beaten, Punched, Kicked...But Battling On
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Ten years ago when Manushi got involved in the work for policy reform work for street vendors, we had hoped that we would help reform the system of vending licenses and provide a measure of livelihood security for nearly one crore persons in various urban centres of India who survive by vending and hawking on the streets. Ironically, even while we have had notable success in changing the policy framework at least on paper, today Manushi volunteers and staff are as endangered as the vendors and hawkers whose rights we sought to strengthen. After a series of violent attacks by mafia elements on me and several Manushi volunteers and staff, and because of threats against my life, I have been made to accept round the clock police security at the behest of the Lt Governor of Delhi. 

Most ironical of all, there are particular parts of Delhi I cannot enter without risking my very life and without being escorted by four five policeman--namely: Sewa Nagar and Kotla Mubarakpur areas in the heart of New Delhi. All this because Sewa Nagar was selected as the site of a unique experiment through which Manushi undertook the responsibility for creating a self governing market for street vendors.  This pilot project aimed at not only legalizing the status of street vendors by making them pay regular rent to the municipality but also help transform Sewa Nagar hawker market into a role model of civic discipline for the rest of the city.

As per the estimates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, there are over three lakh street vendors and mobile hawkers in Delhi. But less than 3000 persons have managed to secure vending licenses from the MCD and that too after prolonged legal battles in the High Court and the Supreme Court of Delhi. The situation is no different in other urban centres of India. The illegal status of more than 99% vendors makes them easy targets of extortionist mafias. In Delhi alone, vendors end up suffering an income loss of at least Rs 500 crores per year by way of bribes and confiscation of goods while being routinely subjected to systematic blackmail, terror and human rights abuses.

A key argument offered by municipal agencies and the police for not legalising the status of street vendors is that street hawkers cause obstructions for other road users and also spread chaos and squalor. To combat this official prejudice against vendors Manushi offered to take responsibility to show by example how:

  • Vendors can be accommodated in the city in an aesthetic and orderly manner.
  • Security of livelihood and avenues for upward mobility can be provided for the self-employed poor by giving them access to space for developing their entrepreneurial skills;
  • The existing system of payoffs, protection rackets run by politically connected mafias who indulge in routine human rights abuses to extract bribes can be replaced with fee based access to market space which enhances municipal revenues and curbs the growth of criminal mafias who parasite on the poor in urban areas. 

We raised funds through personal donations from Manushi supporters, hired a team of architects and submitted a detailed plan of action to MCD. Each project member voluntarily signed an oath (Shapath Patra) on Rs. 10 stamp paper agreeing to abide by the following disciplines:

  • Pay a monthly rent of Rs.390/ to the MCD through Manushi; 
  • Contribute towards the salary of the Cleaning Brigade specially hired to maintain cleanliness in the project area;
  • Stay within the agreed-upon Sanyam Rekha, (Line of Discipline) Hawkers who do not observe this discipline agreed to be fined Rs. 100 per violation of Sanyam Rekha.
  • Promise not to build any extra structures above or outside the stall area;
  • Promise not to sell or rent out the allotted stall.

Those who violate these disciplines are liable to have their membership cancelled and the stall sealed. Manushi also took the responsibility for redesigning the rehdis and vending platforms to improve their functionality, cleanliness and aesthetic appeal.  We also arranged ICICI loans for vendors to pay for the cost of new stallsManushi also bore the cost of ensuring rent compliance from all those street vendors who opted to become part of the model market project.

Seeking Legal Sanction for Model Market Project

A major breakthrough in getting sanction for the pilot project occurred after the MCD got a pro-citizen Commissioner, Mr. Rakesh Mehta, who strongly backed this project. The MCD Commissioner approached the Supreme Court to allow the M.C.D. to undertake two pilot projects, one at Sewa Nagar and the second near CGO complex in collaboration with Manushi to try demonstrate by concrete example how vendors could be accommodated in the city landscape in an orderly and aesthetic manner. It would also create a model for rejuvenating our cities without throwing out the poor who would in fact become tax payers and contribute to city’s maintenance and infrastructure development rather than be seen as a nuisance. 

The petition filed in the Supreme Court argued forcefully that the existing tehbazari system had facilitated massive extortion rackets and widespread human rights abuses. It admitted that the restrictive licensing policy had proved a dismal failure in controlling the number of vendors in the city, which keep increasing with the overall rise in population of Delhi. Therefore, there was need to evolve a more realistic system of licensing. The petition also informed the Court that if the pilot projects proved successful, they would provide a model for creating hawking zones all over Delhi  

On April 10, 2003, Supreme Court gave a go ahead to MCD to execute two pilot projects with the following words of caution:  

"…The implementation of any policy or project, howsoever well motivated it may be, depends on the bona fides and whole-hearted faithful implementation by the agencies involved in the execution. We only hope and trust that such projects and policies shall not be shadowed by corruption and red-tapism which, unfortunately, has become the order of the day…" 

An Agreement was signed and registered between MCD and Manushi for the Sewa Nagar and CGO Complex Pilot Projects on April 7, 2004. Mrs. Ambika Soni supported the Sewa Nagar project with Rs 25 lakhs from her MPLAD fund to build the required civic infrastructure in Sewa Nagar, new pavements, stall platforms, park plazas, drains etc. Dr. Karan Singh sanctioned Rs 10 lakh from his M.P.LAD fund for the CGO complex project but the local police made it impossible for us to execute the project, despite clearance from the Security Wing of CGO Complex. MCD Commissioner could not do much about it because the land was temporarily under CPWD charge. They were hostile to the project and kept postponing transferring that area of land to the MCD.

The Sewa Nagar project started in October 2004 amidst violence and repeated assaults from the police and local extortionist mafia for the following reasons:

1). Since membership of the project gave them legal protection vendors who are members of the Manushi pilot project stopped paying monthly bribes. The local mafia was outraged at this.

2). Manushi refused to give in to threats, violent attacks and blackmail tactics of the local mafia including intervention by well known political leaders, who wanted a certain number of stalls to be handed over to the " their men" who act as local touts for bribe collection and play a "helpful" role in elections.

As a result, the new civic infrastructure was repeatedly damaged and the new pavements, drains and stalls were time and again vandalized during and even after construction. Project members were repeatedly subjected to violence, intimidation and life-threats to make them abandon the project. When the terror tactics failed, the mafia approached the High Court for a stay order on the basis of bogus and flimsy allegations. The High Court refused to grant stay. But the mafia dons keep filing more and more bogus objections to harass and tire us out.

The local mafia indulging in these attacks belongs to the nearby village, Kotla Mubarakpur. The main figures are Basoya brothers (Babli, Mahipal, Pinky and Ajay) who run several legal and illegal businesses from the area, a Class IV employee of LNJP Hospital in Delhi, a notorious character named Chavanni, and a mysterious man named Sanjay who refuses to reveal his real identity and calls himself "Hindustani". They are able to mobilize other anti social elements of the area with ease since they are bound together through ties of kinship, crime and corruption. At the local level, both Congress and BJP leaders offer them support and patronage. 

Twenty years ago Basoyas were among the lower rungs of Kotla Mubarakpur. The eldest son Mahipal began his life as a tempo driver. But over the last two decades through a mix of crime, extortion, robbery and illegal occupation of government land they have today amassed assets worth crores.  Their new found wealth provides valuable insights into how those rising from the ranks of the poor fleece the poor with far greater ferocity and how those making money through illegal means inevitably gravitate towards politics and manage to find patrons cutting across party lines.  

Apart from owning a flourishing transport business including a fleet of tempos and taxis, the illegal businesses run by Basoyas include the following:  

  • Extortionist money-lending, at 120% per year interest from local street vendors and other needy people. They use terror tactics to extract their loan repayment and have used this tactic to illegally take over stalls of several vendors.
  • An unregistered Kameti (Chit Fund) business that acts as a supplement to their money lending business. Those in need of loans are induced to join the Kameti and lift money at a loss and thereafter made to pay hefty instalments of Rs 7000 to 10,000 per month. Those unable to pay are charged 120% interest on defaulted instalments. Many have fallen into the debt trap because of this Kameti racket. Most of the vendors are unable to make sense of their complex calculations since the whole business is conducted without any written receipts. Yogesh’s account given below provides a graphic account of how their money lending and Kameti business go hand in hand.
  • Making and selling duplicate copies of pornographic and other CDs. They hold shows of blue films at night at their adda.
  • Buying and selling stolen petrol and diesel. People have witnessed government and private company cars come and deliver petrol and diesel to them during odd hours of day and night. They sell this at slightly discounted price to local people.
  • Selling illegally tapped power supply and ground water at exorbitant prices to shopkeepers and residents of the area. For example, they charge Rs.300/- per month per fish vendor and those selling cooked food for the supply of water from a bore pump they drilled illegally in the public park. Similarly, each vendor has to pay Rs 10-20 per day for stolen electricity.
  • Extorting money from local vendors by running a "protection" racket charging Rs 50 to Rs 100 per day from each vendor who operates under their protection.
  • In addition they own farm land and two multi storey buildings in Kotla Mubarakpur from which they get a rental income of over 1.25 lakh per month from working class tenants who are given little cubby-holes at high rents.

The Tempo Stand acts as their base and adda where anti social elements of the area gather daily for drinking liquor and creating terror by routine assaults and attacks on vulnerable individuals.  

Unable to grab stalls through violence or blackmail, the local mafia, developed a new strategy. Due to the absence of credit facilities many vendors are under their debt. Even when they pay hefty instalments, the debt keeps mounting because the interest rate is astronomical. The money lending mafia began to surreptitiously take over the stalls of some of the indebted vendors by making them sign off their rights on Rs 100 denomination stamp paper. 

A sample of their criminal ways of money making is provided by the account of Yogesh Kumar as to how they tried to grab hold of the allotted stall to him. In April 2003, Shiv Kumar-- one of the members of the local mafia led by Basoya brothers and Bhagat Singh, persuaded Yogesh into taking a loan of Rs 35,000 at an interest rate of Rs 120% per annum to invest in his business much against the wishes of Yogesh’s mother. 

From May 2003 to December 2005 Yogesh paid Rs 3500 per month by way of interest for the loan of Rs 35,000. However, from January 2006 to March 2006 Yogesh was unable to pay the monthly interest because he was not left with enough money for running the household expenses. Yogesh was threatened that he should either pay a lump sum of Rs 50,000 or transfer his stall in Shiv Kumar’s name. When he resisted, the leader of this gang Mahipal Basoya insisted that Yogesh should join their "Kameti" (Chit Fund) group for 200,000 rupees, lift the money and pay off his debt to Shiv Kumar. Since joining the Kameti meant paying a hefty monthly instalment ranging from Rs 7000 to Rs 9000 per month which Yogesh could ill afford, he was very reluctant to do so but was threatened into accepting the deal. 

In September 2006, they forced Yogesh to lift the Kameti at a loss of Rs 60,000. Shiv Kumar took away Rs 70,000 as his dues on the loan of Rs 35, 000 he had originally given Yogesh who was handed over merely Rs 30,000 in hand for a Kameti of Rs 200,000. Mahipal claimed the rest of the amount as penalty for joining six months late.   

After that for one whole year Yogesh paid to Mahipal Basoya a monthly instalment ranging from Rs 7000 per month to Rs 8,000 for the 2 lakh Kameti totalling to over Rs. 80, 000. But this hefty instalment meant that he was left with no money whatsoever for his household expenditure. His wife had to work as a domestic help in order to supplement the household expenditure. This created a lot of tension in his family. Therefore, he stopped paying Kameti instalments. At this point Bhagat Singh and Basoya brothers forcibly took away his new scooter, which had been purchased on instalments by his father. In addition, they forced him to open a bank account and issue several blank cheques to them in order to black mail him further since bounced cheques can lead to a jail sentence.  

Thus on a loan of Rs 35,000 Yogesh has already paid them more than Rs 3,63,000 by way of interest, including loss of his scooter. Yet by September 2007 they began claiming nearly 120, 000 rupees more in order to clear his dues or else transfer his stall to their names. He was told that if he refused their demand he would be beaten out of the market. This was not an empty threat. They had used exactly the same tactic for "purchasing" the stalls of several other members of the pilot project. Whoever dared resist was beaten up and driven out of the market. The pressure to sign away his stall in the name of Basoyas got so intimidating that in sheer panic Yogesh simply fled from the market and took shelter in a near by town with some distant relatives without informing his mother or wife regarding his whereabouts. After weeks of searching his mother Saroj Devi finally traced him down and brought him to Manushi for help. We helped him file a police complaint as well as a court case but despite our best efforts we have failed to get a simple F.I.R registered so far. 

When these illegal transfers of stalls came to the knowledge of Manushi, we requested the Deputy Commissioner of Central Zone to seal the stalls, which had been ‘purchased’ illegally from vulnerable project members. Therefore, on January 4, 2007 eleven stalls were sealed by the MCD. This firm action aimed at the mafia unleashed a new and more deadly wave of violence and terror against Manushi.  

The reason for the violence is understandable. Due to the transformation of Sewa Nagar from a slum-like hawker market to a neat and well-developed area, the market value of each stall and the combined value of the entire pilot project area is today worth several crores. Each stall already commands a black-market price of Rs.5 to 15 lakhs depending on its location.  The local politicians and their mafia associates are not willing to allow an ordinary vendor to have usufruct rights over a property whose market value is rising fast given the short supply of commercial space in Delhi. They are being ousted one by one through force and fraud. 

These criminal elements join the bandwagon of whichever party comes to power. Therefore, they are able to get the patronage of political leaders of all hues who are all united by common interest--to ensure that the livelihood of vendors stays captive in their grip so that they do not dare resist paying bribes and do their bidding at election times.  

Since April 30th, none of us can enter that area without risking our lives. I myself have thrice narrowly escaped being lynched to death by them. I have been threatened with gang rape and worse if I dare pursue the matter further. The most active among project members (Mehboob, Ishwar Lal, Shahid, Yaseen and Raj Kumar) who had played a vital role in organizing project members and bringing about civic discipline in the area were brutally beaten up in a series of violent incidents starting April 19th, and driven out of the market. They were warned not to dare enter the market or else they would face death. Other members are also threatened daily, roughed up, terrorized, fleeced and forced to sign all kinds of bogus documents and petitions against the project without even being shown the text. What is worst, after each incident of assault, I and other members of Manushi have patently bogus criminal cases filed against us subjecting us to soul-destroying harassment.


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