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Garden Cities And Street Vendors

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Did Doxiadis, Costa and Tange – the town planners, ever thought about placing street vendors in their grandiose plans for the purpose built capitals of Islamabad, Brasilia and Abuja respectively? It is evident that their sponsors and they themselves were at a next level of thinking, where they had much more important designs to draw and construct. Street vendors must never have crossed their minds. For them, street vending is the remnant of the archaic and chaotic old world, which they are leaving in exchange for modern, sleek and grandeur architecture. An urban design with a neat symmetry, proportioned division of living and livelihood of ruler and ruled. Unfortunately, geography and demography went against the carefully laid out plans.

Administrations in these garden cities soon had a face-off with the wayward capitalism, which was not just limited to opaque nexus of developers and politicians, but the urban poor also started extracting livelihood space from the bottom. Uneven power equation resulted in regularization of zoning violations in favor of the former nexus, whereas the later bore eviction, hostile press and unsympathetic judiciary. It became an established fact that all these purpose-built new capitals with their stringent zoning regulations, cannot save themselves from the onslaught of urban poor. Islamabad witnessed emergence of shanty towns in its midst, just like its counterparts Brasilia and Abuja, with all their efforts, couldn’t stop the emergence of slums on their peripheries.

And urban poor also brought the ancient art of street vending to the new sleek and modern capitals, which though was alive and kicking in other parts of the country. As happened in other locations, market trumped the law in these capital cities. Declaring vending illegal didn’t stop its robust footprint on the commercially viable public spaces.

With all their antagonism, city authorities have grudgingly accepted the permanence of street vendors and are living in an uneasy coexistence with them. Love and hate relationship between city authorities and street vendors continues, with limitation on number of vendors and extent of vending space being the bone of contention. It is an ongoing, on and off negotiation and eviction process, where mostly street vendors remain at the receiving hand. However, matter of fact is that all these cities have moved much ahead of the elite-centric urban design of their founder urban planners and inclusion element has encroached owing to force of circumstances.

At Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), we understand that street vending is here to stay. One cannot wish it away, as scale of urban poor plays in its favor and state capacity to suppress street livelihood is limited due to perverse incentives. If street economy is recognized as an integral part of local economy and public spaces are regulated for the purpose, then street vending will emerge as a potent conduit for market-based poverty alleviation efforts. Potential of the street economy has been ascertained in a recently conducted street vendors’ survey conducted by PIDE in a main market of Islamabad.

Survey findings indicate the presence of a robust street economy in the dense G-9 markaz of Islamabad, also popularly known as ‘Karachi Company’. The survey findings suggest that only the street economy in ‘Karachi Company’ is supporting the livelihood of over 400 persons and generating annual net earnings of around Rs.220 million.

This translates to average monthly earning of around Rs.48,000/- per person.  And all this small piece of street economy is created without any government aid and is also supporting a rentier component of bribery and corruption. With a single administrative action, state can easily extinguish the employment of hundreds of persons and deprive the local economy of hundreds of millions rupee money flow. However, it will not be able to create the similar or bit lesser economic space for the uprooted persons.

The street vendors all over the country are working in a hostile environment, with fickleness of their livelihood existence linked with the next eviction move by the city authorities. Life on streets is not easy, but street vendors have little options other than to resurrect their business after every eviction. There are few lucky and enterprising street vendors, who have gamed the system successfully in their favor with regular payments for hot spots to different stakeholders. It saves them from frequent eviction threats and enables them to generate hundreds of thousands rupee monthly as net income. However, majority of the vendors are living on sustenance levels owing to non-conducive regulatory and operating environment. Provision of legal status will capacitate them to enhance their earning ability and contribution to local economy.

PIDE is well cognizant of the fact that any change in the local governance of street vendors requires mobilization beyond mere research. A think tank is meant to convert its research into implementable solutions for the betterment of future. It has to pursue the related government agencies persistently with advocacy efforts. In the street vendors’ proposition, Dr. Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation, concurred with the idea and took its ownership under the Ehsaas program. It was the major breakthrough, as Ehsaas remains the premier purveyor of poverty alleviation efforts in Pakistan. As of date, under the leadership of Dr. Nishtar, PIDE is taking the mission forward with a broader coalition of city authorities, street vendors and civil society. Path for inducing change is arduous, but a vendor’s mode of agility and resilience will remain the guiding compass for progress ahead.

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Naya Daur