Hafta bazars — a lifeline for lakhs of vendors that service those from the middle and lower-income groups — should be opened with regulations
Last week a woman made headlines for fighting off a carjacker who later claimed that he took to carjacking because he lost his job as a tempo driver because of the extended lockdown. Last week another story made headlines that of Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal overturning the order of Delhi NCR Government of throwing open hotels and weekly street markets or 'hafta bazaar'. The tiff has taken a sharper turn with Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia writing to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to intervene and impress upon Baijal to step back. The friction apart, the core issue of restarting the economic activity in Delhi is of utmost importance.
There are over 400 weekly markets in Delhi employing roughly one lakh people directly as vendors. But the exact number of such markets and those employed could be more since civic authorities have never collected a confirmed figure despite the fact that a proper street vendor law (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act, 2014) is in place for several years now. More or less it is the same story which unfolded in the early days of Covid-19 pandemic with millions of migrant labourers rushing back to the safety of their native places.
An age-old system
Hafta bazaar is a system that has existed for a very long time. It surely predates the history of democracy itself. It has managed itself pretty well all these centuries. It must have seen several such pandemics and survived them. So why is it suddenly so difficult this time? Perhaps because there has never been a Government-enforced shutdown before. But why fault the hafta bazaar and the vendor? If the Government wishes to control an age-old system, then it should have a system to run it, not just put shackles on it.
Lax support, harsh control
The point here is that civic authorities have been lax in making proper assessments but have been harsh in exercising control over these activities. These markets are the centres of major economic activity in any city employing lakhs directly and servicing many more million residents. So why keep them from reopening?
It is very easy to exercise official power and put things on hold. But the administration is not for putting the difficult decisions away for tomorrow, it is finding the solutions today. While extending the lockdown for the third time, the PM also announced the return of several discretionary powers to state governments for initiating the revival of the economy.
Economy revival state prerogative
The Delhi Government has taken a decision to reopen hotels and weekly markets. The State must have made a proper study before making a policy decision like that. Overturning of the Delhi Government's decision by the Lieutenant Governor does not make sense unless he believes that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is being rash and risking the lives of the citizens. Should he be of that opinion, then he must have credible information and must share it with the public too.
On August 1, 2020, Nirmala Sitharaman, while announcing the expansion of the coverage of the guarantee-based top-up for small business and professionals also expressed satisfaction at the 'green shoots' now visible in the economy. She also said, "Some pockets are still under containment... decided by states, which is the right thing as states are better placed to judge. We appreciate that." So why is Delhi NCR government's policy decision being overturned without sufficient contrary reasons?
Sitharaman also believes that there was evidence of migrant workers returning to work. According to her industry representatives are suggesting that 40-45 per cent of the migrant workers had now returned. Many of these weekly bazaar vendors are also migrants. But they cannot return because their means of livelihood have not been restored.
There can be several solutions to the issue of organising a hafta bazaar in an area. Usually, these weekly markets see a surge of vendors and buyers. The carts and squatting vendors are very close and often more than one-two rows in a street. One solution can be to extend each market for two consecutive days and limiting the number of vendors on each to enforce social distancing. Goods permitted for vending could be mixed, rather than exclusive, allowing buyers to procure all their needs in that one day. Civic authorities should also formally collect data on vendors coming to each weekly market. This will help eventually in making any policy decisions with regard to administrating in future.
One very noticeable and sorry fact at these markets is that there is practically no public convenience in place for vendors or buyers. A regulated extended weekly market will help in assessing and providing such facilities which anyway are necessitated in the present times of absolute hygiene requirements.
Views expressed are personal