Already in debt, Delhi street vendors say they want relief, not more loans

Last week, the government announced Rs 5,000 crore special credit facility for street vendors and promised to simplify the process of obtaining loans of up to Rs 10,000 as working capital.
Kanchan Devi sells samosas and jalebis from a tiny stand in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market. She’s been going there every day in the hope that she, and other street vendors like her, will be allowed to resume business, now that markets have partially opened.

But its pavements, normally buzzing with thrifty shoppers, are deserted.

“Although the government has allowed markets to partially reopen, there is no clarity on the rules for pavement sellers,” says Devi, adding, “Consequently, the 800-odd street vendors in Sarojini Nagar who’ve been out of work for the last two months are uncertain about the future.”

Mohammad Salim has a similar tale of woe.
“First, the Delhi election in January, the riots in February, and the lockdown in March. I used to sell about Rs 2,000 worth of stock on a good day, but haven’t sold anything for the last two and a half months,” says the seller of readymade garments from Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market.

He has a huge pile of sweaters in unsold stock he won’t be able to sell when he’s finally allowed to do business in the thick of summer. “I’m already in debt. How will I buy fresh merchandise now?” asks Salim.

Sunil Mishra, a readymade clothes seller in Karol Bagh, went through his working capital and was forced to borrow Rs 15,000 from a relative to support his family through the lockdown.

“In the last two months, I’ve earned nothing,” says Mishra, adding, “Yet, there’s school and tuition fee to be paid, six mouths to feed and more. I haven’t paid my rent since January!”

Devi, Salim, and Mishra aren’t alone.

India’s estimated 20 million street vendors, over 14 per cent of its informal sector, have been severely impacted by the two-month lockdown.

Proposed stimulus package offers little relief

Last week, the government announced Rs 5,000 crore special credit facility for street vendors and promised to simplify the process of obtaining loans of up to Rs 10,000 as working capital.

This measure has been met with disappointment from street vendors and apex body National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI).

“We need relief, not loans right now,” says Devi, who along with other food vendors, is expecting poor sales after they are allowed to resume business.

“Presently, many of us barely have money for food, let alone for working capital,” says Salim, adding, “Few of us will be able to repay the Rs 10,000-credit the government is offering.”

They explain that most street vendors take expensive loans to buy merchandise to sell and repay their debts from their daily sales proceeds. The lockdown has left many already in debt and with unsold winter-specific merchandise.

In Lajpat Nagar, for example, Salim estimates 80 per cent of vendors already have outstanding loans; he himself is yet to repay a loan of Rs 50,000.

It is the same story across Delhi.

“The situation is even worse among vendors in smaller cities who aren’t as well off as Delhi vendors,” says Arbind Singh, national coordinator, NASVI.

Singh estimates that across India, as many as 80 per cent street vendors have no bank accounts or ration cards. “This means, no savings, no social security, nothing,” he says, adding, “They need much more support to get through this phase than just a loan.”

Existing relief measures have benefited few

Several states gave free cooked food in homeless shelters, especially in the early days of the lockdown. Mishra avers that many street vendors would have liked to avail of this facility but couldn’t. “These shelters are several kilometres away,” says Mishra, asking, “How could we go there without exposing our families to infection?”

Mishra also tried to unsuccessfully access the free rations offered by the Delhi government. “I was issued on the coupon for a ration shop which was 5 km away from my house,” he narrates. “On three consecutive days, my wife walked all the way to the ration shop, only to be told there were no rations available that day.”

Eventually his coupon expired.

The road ahead

NASVI has observed that financial relief given by some states (Odisha and Rajasthan have given Rs 5,000, while Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have given Rs 1,000 per vendor) has helped partially alleviate vendor woes.

“That’s why we’re advocating that the government first gives relief to every street vendor and then offers easy loans,” says Singh.  

Now that markets are being allowed to reopen, there is urgent need to clarify rules for street and pavement vending. The lack of rule clarity has led to confusion. Many vendors have horror stories about police brutalities during the lockdown. Even itinerant vegetable vendors who’ve been permitted to do business during the lockdown aver that in the absence of clear guidelines, many have been thrashed while plying their trade.

Singh estimates that many street vendors will be forced out of business if rules aren’t specified and relief not given.

“Fruit and vegetable vendors have played a key role in supplying essentials during the lockdown,” says Singh, adding, “It’s time we recognised their services, instead of letting them slip through the cracks.”

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