Embracing informality

Published April 20, 2021
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.

THE removal of ‘encroachments’ has become a regular and an often controversial practice in Karachi. There are varied opinions on what constitutes an encroachment and due considerations for resettlement and rehabilitation. The consequences are mostly felt by those already on the margins, involved in informal businesses and residing in informal housing. A high-handed government approach such as bulldozing shelters and businesses is often witnessed. Such a response is rooted in labelling ‘informal’ as ‘illegal’.

This treatment of ‘informality’ is not unique to Karachi and is unfortunate as it is not by choice that someone resides in undesirable land parcels or places his or her trade cart on public land. The state has continuously failed in its duties to provide affordable housing options and land to legally house businesses that best thrive in informal spaces. However, global case studies show that public policy interventions of incorporating the informal economy in urban plans have proved beneficial in terms of enhanced economic vibrancy and reduced urban inequity.

Street vendors must be accommodated not evicted.

If one takes the case of ‘street vendors’ — also categorised as ‘soft’ encroachments in our governmental terminology — they range from those using wheel carts to those putting up temporary kiosks, placing their trade on ground, etc. They are the most vulnerable targets when it comes to clearing space for ‘beautification’ and ‘development’. Conveniently ignored is the fact that these street vendors have a clientele and serve an important purpose. They form part of the socially and culturally rich ‘bazar culture’, now threatened as the ‘mall culture’ erodes its space. This tagging of illegality to informal vendor trade, with which are associated the livelihoods of so many urban poor, is a sad testament to our incapacity to construct legislative instruments, coupled with urban design solutions, that could legalise and house such businesses. This legalisation would secure livelihoods and add to the vitality of our public spaces. There is globally a push to reclaim streets and bazars as public spaces. Cities are vying to claim the status of ‘market cities’, Barcelona and London being among those that proudly claim this status.

If left unorganised, street vending leads to traffic congestion, restricting of pedestrian mobility and unhygienic conditions. However, there are many cities that have experimented successfully in legalising and managing the street vendor business. Cities in Thailand, Singapore, India, South Africa etc offer good learning. Regularising and organising street vending is a two-phased process. Street vendors are first licensed to ply their trade on streets; designated vendor districts are then created through innovative urban design to ensure that pedestrian and vehicular mobility is not impaired and hygienic conditions are ensured.

India structured the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in 2009 with the aim of promoting a supportive environment for street vendors to earn livelihoods, giving them dignity and recognition in the public policy space. The policy was later introduced as a central legislation when in 2014, India passed the Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act to give vendors legal status through appropriate legislation and providing legitimate hawking zones in urban development/ zoning plans.

Under this policy, a multi-stakeholder Town Vending Committee (TVC) was established that designated vendor zones. Street vendor associations were formed and TVC registered vendors who are not allowed to rent or lease out or sell the vending spot.

In Singapore, the first generation of street vendors were Chi­­nese mig­ra­n­­ts brought in mos­tly by the British. They were however treated like criminals and their trade considered illegal. In 1950, the then governor, Franklin Charles Gimson, set up the Hawker Inquiry Commission to organise hawkers in one designated place and later island-wide registration of hawkers was conducted and their profession made legal. The process evolved and a new policy on street vendors has been in effect since 2012. It sets minimum working hours, and as in the case of the policy in India, does not allow full-time subletting or transfer of ownership to others.

The National Environmental Agency formulates policies and regulations and manages hawker centres. Singapore’s proactive policy has led to street vending becoming a major source of tourist attraction as it offers a vibrant urban street life experience.

In Karachi, which is already exhibiting a rising profile in urban inequity, with rising food insecurity, there is an urgent need to rethink the role and contribution of informality — of how instead of being evicted, informal businesses need to be strategically accommodated in our public policy and spaces so that the city serves all and not a few. An opening can be made by welcoming into our fold our street vendors.

The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021

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