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Ranjit Sabikhi

Principal Partner, Ranjit Sabikhi Architects

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Steady Growth Of The Informal Retail Sector

The informal retail sector provides a source of employment to a large number of the economically weaker section of society

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It is of interest to note that there is a steady growth of the informal retail sector in most towns and cities across the country. This covers a wide variety of occupations, which include temporary retail stalls, eating shops, barber shops, tailors, car and cycle repair, etc. Generally dismissed as unauthorized squatters and hawkers, they exist and are growing in numbers because they meet a real need, otherwise they would not survive. In terms of planning no proper provision is made for this sector, and their needs are ignored. The fact remains that this sector provides a source of employment to a large number of the economically weaker section of society, who are usually recent migrants from villages.

The problem with the manner in which the informal sector currently operates is that because no proper space is allotted to them, they occupy open space wherever available, and are subject to considerable harassment. They are shooed away by nearby shopkeepers, and are pushed around by the police if they cannot pay, and are as a result often forced into an uneasy vagrancy status. As a consequence of this, they do not take any responsibility for the squalor that is created around the areas where they operate.

Vendors right to livelihood, has been recognized, and as per the government notification of 5th March 2014, local authorities have been empowered to carry out surveys and to prepare plans earmarking vending zones. Provision has to be made for vendors equivalent to 2.5% of the population of each ward. Vendors are now registered and they have to pay a prescribed vending fee, and their rights and obligations have been clearly defined. They cannot be arbitrarily evicted and prevented from carrying on their activities, but they are required to ensure that they do not obstruct the movement of pedestrians and traffic and generally maintain health, hygiene and safety standards. However to date local authorities have not prepared detailed area plans incorporating proper vending zones, as a result of which there is no proper control of the manner in which they operate.

Before suggesting solutions as to how this matter can be dealt with, it would be good to take a look at how and where they operate. In Delhi the informal sector operates in different locations. In most major shopping centres in the city it can be clearly seen that almost half of the retail sales are done through pavement shops, or by temporary stalls set up on the sidelines. These shops occupy pavement areas, car parking areas, or any other available open space. They have a significant presence in most of the larger shopping centres like Lajpat Nagar, Connaught Place, Karol Bagh, and other retail concentrations. Their presence is equally noticeable in some local shopping centres in South Delhi like Greater Kailash1, Greater Kailash 2, and Chittaranjan Park, and also near group housing colonies. Some examples of these can be seen in the accompanying photographs. The weekly markets held in different parts of the city, are another form of informal sector activity. These are generally located near urban villages and consist almost entirely of hawkers, temporary pavement shops, and mobile shop vans. The entire set up is geared to move from one area to another, on different market days.

These weekly markets largely patronized by the low income residents concentrated in and around the urban villages, deal in a wide variety of goods that include clothes, footwear, cheap jewellery, household goods, cooked foods, fruit and vegetables. Everything is available at prices which are substantially lower than those charged by established shops. This is possible because of the absence of overheads, coupled with fast turnover. With the growing population in most urban centres today such weekly markets, along with unauthorized shopping stalls set up in sundry areas, meet a very real need. Photographs show the colourful nature of the temporary weekly market at Soami Nagar, held every Thursday.

There are different ways in which areas for informal retail could be better organized to avoid creation of squalid conditions around them. Simple partly raised paved platforms can be provided in suitable locations, for temporary shops where they do not obstruct vehicular and pedestrian movement. Clearly demarcated space may be allotted to individual sellers, each with a light and power point connection. At present light points are powered by unauthorized connections or portable diesel generators. On each platform simple awnings may be set up by the seller along with temporary enclosure for the display of goods. In the case of food stalls an additional water connection is necessary along with a proper connection to the local sewage system. All food stalls must have arrangements for the collection and disposal of garbage, and food stall owners need to be made responsible for maintaining the required minimum standards of cleanliness and hygiene. An essential requirement would be the provision of organized toilets within easy reach of food outlets.

At present the municipal authorities have in some areas constructed small stalls on pavement areas obstructing pedestrian movement. Many such stalls serve food without ensuring adequate space for customers, who eat while standing at the shop counters or next to makeshift tables. No arrangement has been made for rubbish bins, or systematic garbage disposal, or provision for washing hands. As a result, untreated kitchen and food waste is dumped into nearby sewers and storm water drains, causing choking and overflow, and emanating foul smell of rotting food. In most cases shopkeepers also do not bother to maintain cleanliness and hygienic conditions, in the cooking and eating areas.

Another common feature found in Delhi is the distribution of free food by donors at the time of important religious festivals. For the purpose, roadside tents are set up with a long counter from which food is served, on paper plates, or sweet drinks are handed out in plastic cups. Large numbers of people queue up to take advantage. Although generally well organized such gatherings end up disrupting traffic, and there are no arrangements to maintain cleanliness. Despite the provision of garbage bins it is common to find a mess of used plates, cups and discarded food scattered by the roadside, for days following such functions. Although informal sector retail establishments tend to come up in areas, which are within easy reach of the people they serve, they should not be regularized in locations where they are a source of nuisance, or where they obstruct the movement of traffic and pedestrians. Suitable locations for all such happenings like the weekly markets, and distribution of food on festive occasions, and common vending zones can be identified as part of detailed local area planning.

In Delhi there are enough parks and open spaces in accessible locations where proper arrangements can be made, along with the necessary service connections, and proper garbage removal arrangements. The DDA and MCD have several pockets of vacant land, which are lying unused, and which can be developed without much expense to meet such requirements. Unfortunately, local authorities look to profiteering from land, without giving much thought to providing for this very real basic need.

The development of such facilities is not considered, and does not form part of any current plan proposals. This matter needs to be urgently addressed. It must be realized that vendors need clearly demarcated vending zones as per the Street Vendors Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014. They need basic light and water connections and areas defined for serving food, along with sewage connections, and space for waste disposal and garbage collection.

They do not need built shops. As per the Act local authorities need to survey each ward in the area under their control and demarcate space for the total number of vendors to carry out their activities. The provision of space for vendors is also going to be an important component in the development of proposed new smart cities. Local authorities in all urban areas across the country therefore need to be made aware of the importance to control and plan for the informal sector.


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retail Informal reail sector Vendors food outlets