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Vendor Street

Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy edited by Sharit Bhowmik (New Delhi: Routledge), 2010; pp 320, Rs 695.

in the same volume allows for a measure

Vendor Street
of fruitful cross-learning.

From Vadodara to Sao Paolo

Ashima Sood It is valuable, for instance, to compare the

middle-class vigilante in Mumbai captures a local street food vendor in an instance of less than sanitary practice (Moghul 2011). In the furore that follows the video exposure of the offender, workers of a political party go on a militant drive through the area, demo lishing street food establishments where they can find them, with local media present to record the proceedings (Deshmukh 2011). Tarnished by association, the vendors at the receiving end of this “hygiene” operation protest, but no representatives of the State are at hand to protect their livelihoods.

No one-off incident, this Mumbai episode documents in vivifying detail the themes that animate Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy, the edited volume under review. As Self-employed Women’s Association’s (SEWA) Renana Jhabvala notes in her foreword, street vendors represent a schism in popular perception; while the vendors may regard themselves as “small business people”, for those who influence, make and implement policy – the middle classes and the State – they remain no more than “nuisances” and “obstructions to traffic” (p xiii).

Issues and Rights

Issues of regulation and the contested rights to livelihoods and public space – the continuing necessity of legitimising and normalising the street vendor’s presence on the street – accordingly dominate the discussion in these papers. In contrast, the concerns of vendors as “business people” receive less notice. Nonetheless, this slightly askew focus should not detract from the real achievement this volume represents as one of the first of its kind on the besieged enterprise of street vending. As editor Sharit Bhowmik notes in his Preface and Acknowledgements, the absence of even attempted scholarship on street vendors in many countries made the task of putting together this volume especially

book review

Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy

edited by Sharit Bhowmik (New Delhi: Routledge), 2010; pp 320, Rs 695.

difficult. In preparing the chapter on “Street Vendors in Asia”, for instance, Bhowmik had to reach out to vendor unions and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work with them.

The result is a compilation that reflects in many cases these advocacy and activist roots. It includes three broad syntheses of the scenario in each of the three continents of the South – Asia, Africa and South America – in addition to several city studies, based both on original and compiled research – on Delhi, Mumbai, Vadodara, Phnom Penh, Bangkok as well as Caracas and Sao Paolo. (The South America chapter further presents profiles of street vending in six cities across the continent.) The final chapter by Dolf te Lintelo (“Advocacy Coalitions Influencing Informal Sector Policy: The Case of India’s National Urban Street Vendors Policy”) draws together the concerns with regulation and labour organisation that recur in previous chapters to present an advocacy framework for u nderstanding the formulation of the N ational Policy on Urban Street Vendors (NSVP) in India in 2004.

These juxtapositions and unexpected likenesses as well as the instructive contrasts across countries are among the chief delights of an international compendium such as this one. Indeed, the street vendors’ movements have been characterised from early on by its global orientation, with the founding of the alliance StreetNet and the Bellagio International Declaration of Street Vendors in 1995 calling on national governments to establish policies on street vending (p 282). Though these studies do not incorporate formal comparative analyses of experience across the three continents, their mere presence

JULY 16, 2011

cartography of street vending in Vadodara and Sao Paolo, Brazil. Despite slightly different variables and approaches, both Shreya Dalwadi (“Integrating Street Vendors in City Planning: The Case of Vadodara”) and Luciana Itikawa (“Clandestine Geometries: Mapping Street Vending in Downtown Sao Paulo”) show that vendor concentrations are highest where vendors are ostensibly not allowed. Itikawa goes a step further and is able to map monthly incomes per square metre on downtown streets, and relate them to monthly “bribes per square metre on downtown streets” (pp 266, 267, 269). The relationship between these variables is not one-to-one as one might expect; the nature of vendor organisation or “leadership” has an important moderating influence (p 269).

Itikawa’s persuasive analysis, though far from rigorous in economic terms, also helps illustrate and nuance Jonathan Anajaria’s earlier study of Mumbai (“The Politics of Illegality: Mumbai Hawkers, Public Space and the Everyday Life of the Law”), which documents the ways in which local officials deploy arbitrary designation of non-hawking zones to intensify their rent-seeking activities. Perhaps as a result of the ordering of the contributions in this volume, themes raised in the early chapters on India coalesce in the later chapters on A frica and South America. To the extent that this reflects the greater sophistication and coherence of the legal discourse surrounding street vending in South American countries, Indian counterparts may have much to learn.

Everyday Life of the Law

Indeed, although India is one of only three Asian countries to have a formal nationallevel policy (the Philippines and Malaysia are the other two), at city and municipal levels where the policy hits the ground, structures and officials remain unsympathetic. In Sanjay Kumar and Sharit Bhowmik’s telling in “Street Vending in Delhi”, for instance, the attempt to shift the historic

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Red Fort informal market went through no less than four alternate venues between 2001 and 2005, meeting with objections from a variety of official and non-official bodies along the way. When despite hiccups, the search for an alternative site appeared to end, the Sports Authority of India laid a claim, asking for the Sunday market to be cleared. As the authors predicted, the market was indeed cleared ahead of the Commonwealth Games, though according to reports, the Delhi government is now planning a model bazaar to house it.1

This state of affairs may appear particularly perverse given that Delhi was one of the first states to adopt the NSVP, but an incidental insight into why this may be so is offered by Maria Fernanda Garcia Rincon in analysing the “Governance of Street Trade in Caracas, Venezuela”. She points to the inherent tension between the nationally and constitutionally articulated right to work and organise, and the right to public space at the local level. Note that Rincon’s concept of space for the wider public diverges somewhat from the “right to space” for street vendors posited by the SEWA-led coalition in its advocacy for the NSVP. While the precise legal mechanisms and outcomes may differ across the two cities – in Caracas, vendors are able to “take advantage of weak state integration” in a way that vendors in Indian cities are clearly not – Bhowmik does well to also highlight this dichotomy between the rights to livelihood and to public space in his introductory “Street Vendors in Asia: Survey of Research”.

In light of the Indian evidence, however, the clarity of legal frameworks stressed by Sally Roever in her survey of street vendors in six cities across South America (“Street Trade in Latin America: Demographic Trends, Legal Issues and Vending Organisations in Six Cities”) appears an inadequate guarantee of livelihood protection for vendors. Despite a body of supporting case law, and now the NSVP, the Delhi and Mumbai examples demonstrate that “the everyday life of the law” (p 78) as it affects street vendors is determined by a feature noted but not quite emphasised as much by Roever – jurisdictional mandates at the local level. (The draconian provisions of the Police Act, for instance, add a notably repressive note to the somewhat more tolerant aspects of municipal legislation.) Indeed, the best-governed South American cities from the point of view of street vendors are those, like Bogota, which have designated single agency governance for these informal workers. The call seems to be for simpler administrative mandates for these street entrepreneurs, in line with the much-heralded liberalisation from which the organised corporate sector benefited in the last two decades.

Business Aspects of Vending

Given this focus on regulation, what of the business that the policy seeks to regulate? Two papers from south-east Asia speak more directly to the concerns of street vendors as business people. Kyoko Kusakabe, for instance, in her chapter on “Street Vendors in Phnom Penh, Cambodia” describes the market chain for vegetable vendors in Phnom Penh, showing the rather blurry line that separates wholesalers from retailers. Drawing on a number of previous studies, she also addresses matters of start-up capital, costs, marketing strategies, as well as taxes and the problem of high-rent “selling space”, acknowledging space as the key factor of production for street business.

In “Street Food Vending in Bangkok”, Narumol Nirathron includes a number of case studies, showing the range of earnings and aspirations among street vendors, from those who barely make subsistence incomes to those who have plans for expansion and those that have failed at the enterprise. These case studies make the useful point that there is heterogeneity in ability and ambition among street vendors and that despite its characterisation as a low-skill, low-capital sector, success in this enterprise, like in other informal sector work, requires a degree of business skill that is little recognised.

With all the empirical detail that Nirathorn and Kusakabe bring to their surveys, however, what one wishes for is greater analytical heft. Perhaps because of the need to survey a large subject in limited space, the policy conclusions feel somewhat rushed and do not get the detailed examination that they deserve. While Nirathorn and Kusakabe’s questions and approach are well worth pursuing among street vendors in Indian cities, their descriptive lens may limit the lessons that policymakers or advocacy groups in other contexts can draw.

Nirathorn, for instance, argues for these vendors to be treated on par with “smalland medium-enterprise owners” (p 172). This is a provocative recommendation that would nonetheless make instinctive sense to anyone who has worked with or studied informal entrepreneurs; but from a policy perspective, it demands a paper of its own, with a more expansive treatment that pulls together both supporting empirical evidence and implications in terms of resource provision, whether credit or skills training. The two-page discussion that the author devotes to the subject bristles with insight and innovative suggestions – such as delivering financial and planning skills through social networks rather than formal institutions (p 174) – but it is inadequate to the task of filling in the outline of these proposals.

If the business aspects of street vending have received limited scholarly attention, the markets within which informal street vendors operate have received even less. This is a puzzling omission: in many respects, the goods markets, in which these traders operate, present both interesting models of and interesting departures from perfectly competitive Adam Smithian markets.

Key Policy Questions

At stake also are key policy questions of market structure and the viability of street trade in an era of organised retail. Even if a favourable policy and legal environment do emerge to protect the livelihoods of street vendors, will there be anything left to protect? For instance, anecdotal and observational evidence suggests that street vendors control vegetable and fruit retail to a far greater extent in parts of a city like New Delhi, compared to some of the newer parts of Hyderabad. To what extent is this a demand-side phenomenon, driven by cultural preferences or newer middle-class living arrangements in gated communities and high-rise buildings? Are supply-side changes, with the rise of contract farming and private procurement, perhaps also to blame?

While some of the contributions offer partial answers – Dalwadi, for instance,

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shows higher concentrations of street vendors in lower income versus higher income areas – the task of mapping these economic patterns falls to architects and planners such as Dalwadi and Itikawa. Which returns us to Bhowmik’s original question: why has social science scholarship and research on the subject of informal retail been relatively so scarce, particularly in economics?

Part of the puzzle may lie in the fact that the function of a volume such as this one is to open up questions as much as it is to provide answers. Scholarship in the informal sector has typically been led by policy and advocacy actors, whether it was the International Labour Organisation, or informal waste markets in Delhi.2 Disciplinary scholarship emerges after such initiatives establish a baseline body of knowledge about institutional forms and pertinent research questions. To that extent, this volume represents a step on the way to a broader array of disciplinary investigations.

A more worrying reason for the absent interest may, however, lie in the dualist paradigm that appears to underlie much policy thinking on informal retail; as Bhowmik explains, this paradigm sees informality as a “transitory” stage in economic development, to be absorbed into the formal sector as the latter expands (p 3). While empirical evidence has undermined this hypothesis, it remains an unexamined assumption rife in policy and social science circles. Other approaches have arisen to explain informality, such as the structuralist view which sees a close but ultimately dependent relationship between informal and formal sectors, and the legalist approach of Hernando de Soto, which regards informality as a means to evade the costs of formal functioning (pp 4-5). However, none of these overarching theories account well enough for the inherent dynamism of informal r etail, and the desire of the vendor, as A njaria argues “not to circumvent the law or the surveilling eye of the state, but to find a place within it” (p 83).

A testament to the persistence and relevance of informal street trade can be found in the resurgence of such markets in unlikely settings of the West (Parker 2011). What Indian cities and their citizens, as much as social scientists, need then is p erhaps a new imaginary of the street as reconstituted by the lively, chaotic but u ltimately normalised presence of the street vendor. In Dalwadi’s sketch of a street section designed to accommodate street vendors, what Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy offers is an outline of such a paradigm. It remains for a broader literature, building on the work presented here to bring vendor street to life.

New from SAGE!



1 Accessed 6 June 2011: 2011/02/new-avatar-of-kabari-bazar-mcd-is.html

2 Gill (2009) is an example of the meticulous and wide-ranging research that has emerged on the subject of informal waste markets. For work on the wider informal economy, including an empirical study by Roever of Lima’s street markets, see Guha-Khasnobis et al (2006).


Deshmukh, Ravikiran (2011): “Paani Puri Politics”, Mumbai Mirror, 15 April.

Gill, Kaveri (2009): Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Guha-Khasnobis, Basudeb, Ravi Kanbur and Elinor Ostrom (2006): Linking the Formal and Informal Economy: Concepts and Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Moghul, Sobiya (2011): “Do Not Say You Weren’t Warned”, Mumbai Mirror, 13 April.

Parker, Ashley (2011): “The Flea Marketing of New York”, New York Times, 13 May.




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JULY 16, 2011 vol xlvI no 29

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