He earns his living selling an assortment of tidbits and snacks – haandima bhuteko makkai, kerau, badam and bhatmaas. Stationary with his pushcart in one corner of Bhote Bahal’s galli, the 26-year-old is caught in a deep frenzy. Not just because the business is slow but also because the Metro Police (MP) is on the lookout for footpath sellers like him. At dusk, he will muster enough courage to head to Sundhara Chowk where his presence is banned by the law.
Until just a few months back, life wasn’t so bad for the likes of Bidur Chapagain. In Sundhara, Kathmandu’s central transport hub, business was brisk enough to support themselves. But post-December 2011’s restrictions on street and pavement occupancy, lives of street vendors and their families have seen a severe crackdown.
“There’s a fine of Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 if we’re caught. We can’t afford to pay such amounts. And we’re consistently harassed and the MPs also destroy our carts and snatch our goods,” says Chaulagain who hails from Hetauda. “They even threaten to put me behind bars if I said a word.”
In the early 1990s, a similar crackdown resulted in protests and clashes which marked the beginnings of the Hong Kong Bazaar, a plot of land then set aside as a solution by the government for street vendors to continue their business. The Bazaar thrives but it is testimony to the myopic vision that had set out to get rid of street vendors.
Then 2008 witnessed another surge of protests and clashes. There was a whole new breed of street vendors and as a solution, the then Ministry of Home Affairs allotted space in Khula Manch. And in more recent times, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) office even tried to facilitate street vendors by introducing a time scheme that would allow the vendors on the streets and footpath after 5 pm.
But the problems remain and solutions nowhere close.
“In 2008, there were some 6,000 street vendors in the capital alone. Over the years, the number has peaked to some 10,000,” says Dhanapati Sapkota, chief of Enforcement Division at KMC “Street vendors should rather sell things by opening proper shops. If not, they should halt their business. It’s against the law to do business on pavements and public roads. So we really don’t have any other option than getting rid of them from the streets.”
Equally adamant, The Nepal Street Vendors Trade Union (NEST) is focused on fighting for their rights.
“People are forced to leave their country in search of jobs. But when street vendors are creating employment for themselves in their own country, what’s the harm with that?” questions Raj Kumar Shrestha, NEST Secretary who is of the opinion that the government should at least allow them to do business by setting up an evening market. “So far, there are no laws formulated for street vendors. So the government should identify the vendors and draft proper laws in their support.”
Implementation of law on one hand and the lack of law on the other is already creating a stressful hate-hate relationship between the KMC personnel and the vendors.
According to Sapkota, some vendors resist to the point of turning aggressive to seize control of the situation.
“We’re sensitive to the plights of street vendors but we can’t allow them to take the roads as an alternative. Encroaching roads, sidewalks or any public space for business purpose is illegal,” says Sapkota. “Others shouldn’t suffer because of the street vendors who put up their shops haphazardly. This not only makes difficult for the pedestrians to walk but also hampers the aesthetic components of the city.”
With KMC officials hell-bent on implementing the law and their crackdown spreading to major city hubs like Khicha Pokhari, New Road, Ratna Park, Ason, Bhota Hiti, Jamal, Purano Bus Park and Bag Bazaar, the recipe for fresh rounds of protests and clash seem inevitable.
The situation is not any different in other business hubs across the city, either. Keshav Malla, 32, a fruit vendor in Purano Baneshwor, complains of having to run around to avoid being noticed by the MPs, which not only hinders his already small scale of business but also increases the risks of him being injured in the process.
Purna Chandra Bhatta, MP Sub-Inspector, comments, “How is there risk of fatal accidents during inspections when street vendors run around with their belongings?” He is of the opinion that charging fines won’t work and that special laws need to be formulated to regulate sidewalk sales.
“So far because of the support and coordination with local police, the work is going well. But this isn’t only the responsibility of the metropolitan city but the nation,” says Bhatta who has only 190 staff.
Discontent with the government’s inability to create a favorable environment for street vendors, NEST president Narayan Prasad Neupane says, “They say that it’s not their responsibility at all. But to help alleviate the problem, we need alternatives and proper support from the government. There are many options for the government to choose from. Rather than restricting us to work, there should be a proper management where street vendors can work with liberty.”
Back in Jhochhen where Chapagain lives with his family in a rented room, life’s paramount bitterness has many faces: the utmost being the struggles to make a living in Kathmandu that is growingly hostile vis-à-vis its own struggles as a chaotic city trying to materialize into a maximum metropolis.