By Apu Sarwar, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 29 January 2019, www.thecommunists.net
Hundreds of street vendors are often seen on the main roads and at traffic stops every day of Dhaka. The Dhaka City Corporation waged an all-out war against street vendors during the last two weeks. Police used excessive force, cannon water and bulldozer. In the name of' recovering' the public footpath of Dhaka, countless street vendors and their livelihoods were crushed in this ‘clean up‘ process. Such evictions often result in physical assaults of vendors and the destruction of their goods and wares.
Street vendors are often accused of being responsible for endless Dhaka traffic jams. Almost all the government, business, health care, and education institutions in the country as well as a large proportion of its jobs are concentrated in Dhaka. Every year, 400,000 new residents, mainly unemployed youth, enter the capital because there is no hope and prospect of a living wage outside Dhaka and Chittagong. This mass migration has made Dhaka the densest settled place in the world and one of the fastest growing cities. The capital, with millions inhabitants, almost completely lacks the basic infrastructure and rule of law that make big cities navigable. Jammed-up roads are the indelible image of Dhaka’s agony.
Unemployed youth turn as street vendors
For the urban unemployed youth, street vending provides an easy and available opportunity of livelihood as it requires less skill and low financial investment. Hawkers are unemployed ordinary labourers from the countryside in hope to find some sort of employment in big cities. They often migrated to Dhaka and other big cities of the country as there is no other opportunity to earn regular income in the small cities and countryside.
Street hawking is also one of the commonest forms of child labour in the country. Unemployment has now become a curse in Bangladesh. According to World Bank, around 50% of the total population lives under the poverty line. The street vendors belong to the population who lives under the poverty line. Street vending is not a choice of employment, massive employments forces mostly youth to become a street vendor. Their age range is between 25 and 60 years with a majority being in the age group of 30–40 years. In most cities street vending is regarded as an illegal activity by authorities. Often local authorities impose restrictions on the use of urban space for street vending.
Working conditions of street vendors
Street vendors operate in very dismal working conditions and in a state of uncertainty. They are forced to work 12-14 hours on an average per day. Police and extortionists harass them and demand money from them on the pretext of them being illegal and removing them from their place. They do not have proper workplace and access to facilities such as drinking water, toilets, etc. In addition to this, they have to face seasonal hardships during rainy season as there is no permanent structure which can save them and their goods from rains. Women street vendors face problems related to their privacy, security and child care.
There is an absence of official database on the number of street vendors in the country. There are over half a million street vendors in the country. Each of them on an average pays at least Tk. 50 -60 [ $1USD ] every day to linemen, who are private agents of extortionists. The rates vary depending on the city, location of the stalls, hawkers trading busy streets have to pay more.
The extortion economy is a multi-million dollars industry. If the street vendors are unable to pay the extortion money, they are tortured, and their makeshift stalls and goods are damaged. Police and various levels of gangsters are directly benefiting from this industry. Most of the time extortionists are aligned with ruling parties. In the event of changing of the government, extortionists simply change their loyalty or are replaced by new ruling party extortionists. As unemployment grows and more people enter into the vending business, the market gets tougher and competitive to all street vendors.
Who are the customers?
The street vendors are a very useful lot for the people who fall in lower income group because they get cheap goods from them. But the middle class and elite group see them as pestilence that block footpath and create bottleneck for traffic. Street vendors play a very dynamic role in the urban economy, providing necessary items, which are largely both durable and cost-effective, to average income-earning households at cheap and affordable rates. The street vendors help to sustain the urban economy to a great extent in terms of generation of employment and income, and provision of services to others.
Are hawkers responsible for jammed-up roads?
Dhaka has only 7.5% road of its total area, whereas a standard city requirement is around 25%. Roads of Dhaka City are not sufficient to bear the load of the huge number of vehicles and peoples. Irregular parking of the vehicles, lack of bypass roads, and weak implementation of traffic rules, overpopulation are the main cause of jammed-up roads in Dhaka. Hawkers are only by product of lack of work and lack of decentralization of the country’s economic activity and administration.
Private cars have been blamed for traffic congestion in Dhaka as the number of private-owned car is rising per day. However, only two percent of Dhaka’s dwellers are using private cars which occupy nearly half of the streets.
Why evictions now?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has secured her third consecutive term with a landslide victory in Bangladesh's national election on 30 December 2018. In contrast, the oppositional alliance won just seven seats. All opposition parties condemned the vote as ”farcical", marred by violence, intimidation and vote rigging claims, using stuffed ballot boxes.
While the Awami League has formally won the election, people do not accept the farcical result of election. There are anger and frustration among sections of the society. The public is angry and there are many spontaneous protests, often in reaction to acts of repression. However, without organization, without the organized power of the masses, the results of the protest movements are often empty.
The Awami League is trying to divert people’s attention from election issues. This government has announced a declaration of war against corruption and drugs and it has promised more ‘development’.
The government hopes to get support among sections of the population because many support walkable footpath (even though it cannot be achieved without addressing youth unemployment). In the past, different government used the ‘footpath recovery’ card to gather support from certain section of society, and then they stopped the street vendors’ eviction game midway and pretended to a friend of the poor people. This government is also playing same game as previous government did.
The street vendors are labourers and not criminals of any kind. So there is no reason to hold their footpath “shop” business as crime – no matter how difficult the road movement can be. The street vendors use their shops in the footpath for earning a decent livelihood and not for committing crimes.
It is crucial that socialists in Bangladesh help the street vendors to organize themselves and to a trade union in order to defend themselves against the repression and against the gangsters. Such a trade union should look for the closest possible collaboration with other trade unions so that it becomes part of common front against the capitalists and their state.
A crucial demand should a public employment program so that all can have a job. Such a program should be financed by massive increases in taxation of the rich and the expropriation of the super-rich. It should be controlled by the trade unions so that it can not be manipulated and misused by corrupt bureaucrats.
* Stop the harassment of mobile street vendors!
* No further eviction drives against footpath street vendors without offering them an alternative, equally useful place first!
* Extortionists to be arrested immediately
* For a public employment program under control of the unions and financed by the rich!
* For the building of trade unions of the street vendors to defend themselves against the repression and against the gangsters!