Street vending needs regulations, not ad hoc crackdown, experts sayCity planners stress management of roadside businesses as they contribute to the economy by drawing up a long-term plan.
Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s crackdown last week on a couple selling grilled corn on the footpath has once again put the spotlight on civic policing and raised questions about street vending and its regulation.
On Friday, in a widely circulated video clip on Twitter, municipal police are seen scuffling with the couple, snatching away a cart full of corn from them. Despite the couple’s resistance, the police loaded the cart onto a municipal truck and drove away. The incident took place at Baluwatar in the Capital.
The couple—Chetendra Acharya and his wife Sita—said they have been selling grilled corn at Baluwatar for the past 15 years.
The municipal police and administration have drawn widespread criticism following the incident. Critics have called the incident “idiotic” and “inhumane” on the city administration’s part.
This, however, is not the first time city police have cracked down on street vendors.
Dhanapati Sapkota, chief of the municipal police, said that Friday’s incident is not an isolated case and that they confiscate 20 such carts from the roadsides daily.
“This is just a case in point,” Sapkota told the Post, claiming that the couple had engaged in an “unlawful activity”.
After receiving flak for the incident, KMC police on Sunday said that they would take further action against the couple.
There, however, is no clarity on whether such crackdowns by city police are legal.
Section 11 of the Local Government Operaiton Act 2074 (2017) gives right to the municipal police for the implementation of City’s law and policies. The law also permits the municipal police to conduct “surveillance” and “management” of local markets and parking facilities, and protect public land and property. The Act, however, does not mention how much force the police can use while detaining street vendors and their goods.
Basanta Acharya, information officer at the City, said that the city administration’s 13th Municipal assembly decided to ban people from operating business on sidewalks.
“I guess the city police tried to implement that and the Baluwatar incident happened,” Acharya said.
In the wake of the incident, the couple have alleged that some city personnel asked them for kickbacks—a sum of Rs5000—to allow them to run their business. Acharya said that there will be an internal investigation into the allegations.
“But our attention has been drawn to the issue of mistreatment of minors,” Acharya, who is also a former chief of the law division at the City, said. “Also we will investigate if there is some kind of bribery involved or financial transaction between the municipal police and vendors after consulting with the mayor.”
Urban planners and experts say street vending is a ‘worldwide phenomenon’ and the authorities should focus on regulating the vendors rather than violently attacking them and chasing them away.
In Nepal, tens of thousands of workers in the informal economy face challenges and difficulties because the government does not regulate street vending. There is no safety net for many in the informal sector, especially in urban areas.
Nearly half of the business establishments operating in Nepal are not registered and are counted as informal enterprises, according to the Analytical Report on the Informal Sector published by the Central Bureau of Statistics last year.
Among the 923,027 business establishments in the country, 34,101 (3.7 percent) were street businesses. Of the 3.23 million people employed in the country, 45,330 people were engaged in such businesses.
Street vending is a means of livelihood for tens of thousands of people across the country. Vendors not only lead a hard life, they face repeated crackdowns and restrictions from hostile city officials for encroaching the footpath and obstructing pedestrians.
According to the Street Vendors’ Trade Union, there are more than 10,000 street vendors in Kathmandu. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had severely affected their livelihoods. During the pandemic, vendors had shared that they were harassed by the City office accusing them of spreading the virus, and they were forced to shut down their businesses ahead of the festival season.
Urban planners say the City should not undermine the people who work in the informal sector as they are major contributors to the urban economy. They say it should instead cooperate with them for their relocation.
Kishore Thapa, an urban planner and former government secretary, said that since thousands of people make a living out of street vending, the city administration should adopt a more sustainable approach.
“The way the municipal police mishandled the vendor couple was inhuman,” he said. “The municipality should find a way out through consultation and dialogue to manage street vending. It should come up with separate rules to regulate street vendors.”
After Friday’s incident, Kathmandu’s new mayor, Balendra Shah, has also found himself in the eye of the storm for ignoring the plight of the poor. Shah, a rapper and structural engineer who ran as an independent, was known for singing politically-charged lyrics, often about the woes of the poor.
After Bidya Sundar Shakya’s much-criticised term as mayor, Shah’s election had raised hopes, with people expecting him to do “much better.” However, he inherited a host of issues from his predecessor, particularly waste management.
While the new mayor has been struggling to address the garbage problem, a perennial issue whose overnight solution is simply impossible, the crackdown on street vendors has raised questions about his intent.
The couple were manhandled on the same day the KMC put out a notice to make Kathmandu a beggar-free city, a plan which experts say needs a well thought out approach to execute.
The squabble between Kathmandu’s street vendors and the authorities goes back over a decade. Over the years there have also been many recommendations and promises by the authorities to manage the city’s street vendors. None of them have been implemented.
A decade ago, the government had formed a committee to relocate the street vendors from the Khula Manch, Tinkune, Kalanki and Balaju areas. The committee’s recommendations were not implemented and street vendors continued to run their businesses wherever they found convenient, preferably at places that saw high footfall.
Then in 2014, Bamdev Gautam, the home minister at the time, issued an order to evict all street vendors, but the latter refused to give in.
Shakya, after his election as Kathmandu mayor in 2017, had promised to solve the problem of street vendors with better relocation options, but he did precious little.
Experts say KMC officials should draw up a long-term plan on how they can make the capital city more livable rather than making knee-jerk reactions.
“It’s true that the first priority of the mayor is to maintain law and order within the City,” Thapa, the urban planner, said. “But he should also think of a long and sustainable management of street vending.”
Thapa cited examples of the world’s more developed cities where street vendors do their business without hampering other people's movement.
“The City can designate a specific place and time for vendors to run their businesses,” he said. “For example, it can introduce Sunday or Saturday markets or holiday markets in specific places at specific times. If regulated and continued for a year, it would become a habit for everyone.”