Srinagar’s vendors caught between livelihood and ‘anti-encroachment drive’

Apr 14, 2022 | Economic Suppression

Pirzada Shakir | The Kashmir Walla

Bilal Ahmad Rah would leave early in the morning with his cart of nadur, or lotus-stem, to support his family of five and pay the house rent. He would go around different parts of Srinagar before the “anti-encroachment” drive against the street vendors was intensified in the city.

“It is a disgrace that [the] authorities do not allow us to earn a livelihood,” Rah said. “Where will we go?”

In February, authorities in Srinagar impounded merchandise of several vendors, who were found “encroaching roads” in Srinagar, in a bid to ease the traffic movement and ensure hassle-free commutation.

Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) came under severe criticism after the videos of vendors screaming for help as their goods were impounded by the officials started making rounds. In a video clip, a person was seen screaming, who was later identified as Ghulam Mohidin, “I am a father of four girls, what wrong have I done to you. Please do not do this, where will I go?”

The city witnesses a major chunk of vendors covering roadsides due to a “lack of desirable” designated vending zones. As per the vendors, several times authorities carried out surveys and completed registration.

Around a hundred vendors were provided space, behind Srinagar’s premier Maternity Hospital Lal Ded (LD). However, the vendors told The Kashmir Walla that the space could not accommodate all of them because it was “sufficient for forty carts only”.

Meanwhile, sitting at home has high costs for Rah. He said he fell ill for the last three months. “My family faced starvation. My Allah knows it,” he said. “If I was rich enough to support my family why would I put a cart on the street to face humiliation.”

Rah appealed that the government should make arrangements that will allow them to earn livelihood with dignity or provide them some job.

Following the drive against the street vendors, many others like Rah are now worried about the repayment of the loans the government has credited them. “[The] government provided us with a loan of rupees ten thousand to support our business but we are so downtrodden that we could not repay the entire amount,” Rah added. “I still have to pay five thousand [rupees]. If we are not allowed to work, how will we pay for it?”

Fed up with the “harassment”, Rah, surrounded by half a dozen vendors, said: “Pour petrol on us and burn us to end this once for all.” Another vendor, who was hearing the conversation, quipped: “Purchasing petrol needs money too.” Others burst into a laugh. 

Srinagar Municipal Corporation has established a zone for vendors near Magarmal Bagh, however, it is yet to be assigned to them. “It is meant for the vendors that put up in the Jahangir Chowk area [half a kilometer away from the LD],” they stated.

Athar Aamir Khan, ​​Srinagar Municipal Corporation Commissioner, told The Kashmir Walla that since vendors have been mushrooming in the city, the Corporation has been identifying the genuine ones and the stalls will be handed over to them soon. 

“Once the work on Magarmal Bagh vending zone is completed it will be handed over to genuine vendors as the scrutiny of vendors is simultaneously on. More vending zones are being explored,” he said.

Athar said many vendors in the city have been allotted spaces earlier, despite that they set up carts on roads. And didn’t “vacate the encroachment” despite several warnings to the shopkeepers and vendors. “What could be more brazen than this?” he asked.

Zahid Majeed, 35, completed his bachelor’s in 2008, and after the death of his father he took over the responsibility of his family. Failing to find a job, he started selling vegetables on a cart.

Majeed would leave his home after Fajr prayers to cover a distance of 10 kilometers from Nowgam to reach the LD hospital, where Rah works. Now, he regrets his investment in education. “If we would have purchased land instead I would not have been facing humiliation here,” Majeed said.

His mother’s health is ailing and he is unable to purchase a machine, recommended by a doctor, on credit, he said. “How will I pay the credit? When the government thinks of encroachment-free roads, how can it ignore our livelihood?”

Khan, the commissioner, said that the Corporation was not snatching anyone’s livelihood but rather protecting public spaces from encroachment. “Removing encroachment is not a pleasant job because it has a tendency to cause damage to employees,” Khan said, “but we will do whatever is permitted under law and is in the public interest.”

“Nobody would love to get humiliated by the shopkeepers, authorities daily,” said Majeed, adding that he is uncertain if the authorities would facilitate his livelihood any sooner.