Class Bias in Business – where do we stand now post-100 day lockdown?

Bhaskar Majumder

I had some training in Economics where I had never been taught hotels could operate and street vendors could not. I find it now – Maharashtra showed the new theory.

It was public interest litigation where a lawyer blissfully delinked from Economics pleaded before the Bombay High Court to allow the street vendors to operate while the hotels were open. It was outright rejected, as reported, following the submission by the Government of Maharashtra that the street vendors were the carriers of Corona virus.

Let there be no doubt that the street vendors had/have no voice other than some capacity to shout to attract potential buyers – but such sound could hardly spread the virus. The other could have been that the two – buyer and seller – would be physically close and hence both would be contaminated and multiplied.

Opening up of hotels was not contested. What was pleaded was to allow the street vendors also – after all, the Hotel final products go from these poor producers only at distressed prices often. The state government stated clearly that it would not allow hawkers to resume business in the wake of COVID-19. It was not mentioned when the possibility of opening up of street vending would re-start though streets were open for public. The government also reported that it did not have a policy for street vendors and it was not contemplating framing any as of now. It was opined by the state government that the street vending business was an unregulated (unorganized) sector and hence could spread the virus once allowed to operate. This might have implied regulated spread was preferred to unregulated spread.

I came to know on 6th July, 2020 from a senior resident-citizen in Serampore in West Bengal that some members of low middle class (section) families were sitting roadside to sell vindis – their families were on the brink of disaster for many used to work as private tutors to live. Now once they started selling vindis roadside, day may be distanced when they may come back to sell education services. I did not ask what had been the policy of the government of West Bengal on street vending. Of course, states on the circumference were allowed to have policy-differential following Advisory.

On 4th and 5th July I visited some villages in Uttar Pradesh notoriously known for its size of population. I had been in the assembly of persons – around 60 – all opining on social security more relative to Corona insecurity. This apart, I found women in collective labour mode were engaged in ropai on paddy field – they were local and I provoked them to be vocal to enable me to learn the same – food insecurity perceived much more relative to Corona insecurity. There was no social (physical) distancing for the work needed close proximity/connectivity. I hope the paddy that they were producing in July to give the final yield end-October would not be Corona-carrying – water-borne or air-borne.

One thing I must confess. The villages were relatively free from the urban fear or elite fear. Or, it could have been that the villagers did not develop the capacity to live in fear – simple living, simple thinking.

Coming back to the core point. In a situation of job loss, jobless when the Apex Court even realized the crying need of the pre-shutdown MSMEs not to pay wages to the destination-locked migrant workers for long 40+ days post-lockdown, how could the Government of Maharashtra develop apathy for the street vendors? Is there any trade off in right to live? The esteemed Constitution of India did not tell that.

Who are the sellers and buyers in the two dissimilar markets – Hotels and Street vendors? In case of Hotels in Mumbai in particular and Maharashtra in general, the seller is also the owner of the Hotel with regular staff and some ad hoc workers. The salary of regular staff is guaranteed work-delinked while ad hoc members may not have any job guarantee. The buyers are the regular fliers who flood in money – private-sourced or public-sourced. In case of the latter, the vendors come mostly from the income-poor families many of which are slum-living. The work space for them is road in absence of excludable private property. Road seems to be non-excludable. But then it was made clear by the Government of Maharashtra that road was also not for all purposes – it has to ensure safety of uncommon people. This, if juxtaposed with the fortunate hawkers in West Bengal, shows a contrast. Day may not be distanced when this opportunity in West Bengal may disappear, come 2021.

What I observed in Rajgir town in Bihar a few years back was a street vendor selling some kind of grass just ahead of Tij festival. I asked what would he earn, and his reply was Rs. 100 after he could sell the whole bundle. India is a land of Bhakti – so he expected the whole bundle would be sold though he had no idea what he would do the next day.

If the above show the ground reality, I wonder how could stopping the street vendors from trying to sell their products help the society in general. In the city of Allahabad I find charpayiawallas (car owners) stopping in front of the roadside vendors to get fresh vegetables that the UPites are so fond of.

It seems the tone of the society and the rule of the state is different. The government of Maharashtra, however, reported that it had no policy on street vendors so far. This may be taken to interpret that many of the high-powered Committee/Commission Reports on workers in the unorganized sector failed to draw attention of the Government.
Let the day come when the street vendors get some space in the society to survive – they are not going to displace the Hotel owners and their clients.              

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jul 10, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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