For 42 street vendors in 1-10 Islamabad, February 3 was supposed to be like any other workday. They were to set up their stalls and prepare for a day of hard work, selling their wares to passersby.
Yet a regular Friday soon turned into their worst nightmare. At 3:00am, in the middle of the night, bulldozers pulled up without warning, and razed their carts to the ground, leaving behind a pile of rubble; the carts were destroyed beyond repair. Many other carts were confiscated by the city administration. Vendors who resisted were beaten up. Within minutes, the livelihoods of 42 families were snatched from their hands in this draconian act by the city government.
Unfortunately, this violent destruction of livelihoods is not a rare occurrence. Pakistan is estimated to have more than a million street vendors, who are a significant part of the informal economy. Despite their ubiquity, they are largely unregularized and unlicensed, with uncertainty regarding their future.
They remain at the mercy of city governments’ mercurial, anti-poor ‘anti-encroachment drives’, and work under the looming shadow of extortion, evictions, and abuse by extractive powerful elements both in the market as well as in the government system. They are bound to pay all types of illegal rents to sustain their businesses. Collusion in this space is furthered by political patronage. Yet what was different about these I-10 vendors was that they were, in fact, regularized and licensed by the city government as part of the ‘Ehsaas Rehribaan’ initiative.
Back in April 2021, the federal government attempted to bring street vendors within the fold of the formal economy through Ehsaas’ livelihood building the Rehribaan Initiative. This was premised on the recognition of these vendors’ massive untapped potential. Street vendors can contribute significantly by generating employment and providing livelihood for low-income households; they serve as a marketplace for low-cost merchandise helping those with limited incomes. There is potential for them to contribute billions to the national exchequer. In Islamabad alone, 20,000 vendors can generate Rs480 million in government revenues and annual turnover in the range of Rs36-43 billion.
To tap into this potential and to create an enabling environment for local street vendors, Ehsaas Rehribaan was piloted in Islamabad. Vending licences were given to each vendor, based on a field survey by PIDE. Each vendor was equipped with new modular and solar system fitted vending carts, sourced through either microfinance loans or donations. They were designated dedicated spots within commercial areas. Under the Ehsaas umbrella, the initiative was based on a formal MOU between the CDA, the Ministry of Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety, the Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory Administration, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) and partner microfinance banks.
In designing this programme, we took inspiration from other governments globally who are striving to embrace and accommodate street vendors as an integral part of the urban economy. The Los Angeles City Council passed the historic rule in 2018 to regulate and legalize street vendors that will benefit more than 50,000 street vendors operating in the city. Similarly, New York municipality issued 4,000 additional licences to street vendors in 2021 to regularize more than 50 per cent of street vendors operating in the city. During Covid, Chengdu, China issued 36,000 licences to street vendors in one month to boost the local economy.
The results of the pilot Ehsaas Rehriban initiative were remarkable. With over 200 street carts placed across four commercial areas in Islamabad, vending licence fees generated revenue worth Rs4.8 million for the city government. The initiative stimulated capital investment of over Rs20 million and monthly turnover of around Rs30 million. Dozens of jobs were created as the street vendors hired staff to help operate their businesses.
Yet these statistics cannot encapsulate the human impact of this initiative. A widow, selling biryani and channa chat from her 2'x 4’ counter, could now expand her business without the anxiety of constant harassment by the authorities. This helped her son enroll in a better school. A garment vendor no longer had to worry about his wares getting stolen at night or getting damaged by rain. He could simply lock his modular cart and sleep soundly at night. A juice and soda vendor could now invest in a new glass showcase since he was sure that his new licence would protect him from eviction.
What the city administration did last week cannot be justified on any grounds. Instead of renewing the vendors’ one-year licences, they reneged on their commitment to them, which is a betrayal that has eroded the market’s trust in the local government. This wanton disregard for poor vendors’ livelihoods will have lasting negative consequences. Up to 60-70 per cent of vendors’ inventory and an estimated two months’ worth of income will be lost. Jobs will be destroyed. Poor street vendors will default on their microfinance loans. Investments made will be rendered useless. Street vendors will be pushed back into the predatory world of unregulated vending.
At a time when households are struggling due to record inflation, destroying street vendors’ source of income is cruel and unwarranted, and the resulting loss of government revenue is unjustifiable. The city administration must immediately cease this senseless destruction of property in the name of anti-encroachment. Both the city administration as well as the ministry must compensate these vendors for the damage and reinstate their licences. The poor must not become collateral damage amidst political rivalries.
The writer is a senator and former special assistant to the prime
minister for poverty alleviation and social safety.
She tweets @SaniaNishtar
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