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  • Stealing from the poor
    Extortion rackets find easy prey among street vendors

    October 2001: During my survey at various markets in Delhi, I found that the current monthly extortion rates for pavement sellers range from Rs. 500 to Rs. 3,000 a month for ordinary markets. In locations like Connaught Place, many are even paying Rs. 10,000 and more per month. A majority of the small vendors pay between Rs. 500 and Rs. 800 per month to the MCD police and local goondas as "protection money". Those with regular tehbazaris pay a little less, but are certainly not spared the humiliation of having to placate the tyrannical deities of license/permit raj through regular cash offerings. In addition, the police often take away their goods without payment, whenever they so desire. This results in a major loss of income for them. Thus, if we calculate at a modest average of Rs. 500 per person per month by way of cash bribes and Rs. 300 per month for loss of income due to open robbery of their goods by government servants, the five lakh vendors of Delhi are being fleeced of Rs. 40 crore a month, which comes to Rs. 480 crore a year by the government functionaries.

    Many of them, especially the fruit-vegetable vendors and chicken-fish sellers lose a lot more by way of forced offerings in kind demanded by the police and MCD staff. Add to it the loss of income when they are uprooted and prevented from carrying on their trade for days or weeks on end. If an average of 20 working days is lost every year at Rs. 100 a day, the vendors of Delhi alone are likely to be losing another Rs. 100 crore per year due to frequent disruptions in their work. They also suffer additional losses when their goods and rehdis are seized. Calculated at a modest Rs. 2,000 per person per year loss on this account, even if we assume that only 2 lakh vendors bear this loss, it totals to another Rs. 40 crores (Rs. 40,00,00,000) per year.

    All this information is based on hundreds of interviews I have personally conducted since 1995, when I made my first film on street vendors of Delhi. In that film I estimated the bribe amount to be roughly Rs. 6 crore a month. Since then the number of vendors and the bribe rates have both gone up substantially, as also my information level about this sector. Therefore, my estimate that Delhi's vendors are currently paying collective bribes of nearly Rs. 40 crore a month is not likely to be off the mark. I do not claim infallibility for these figures and would happily correct myself, if the government or some other agency can come up with more reliable information. However, for the time being, I have to trust the figures I collected, because numerous street vendors have given this information on film and many have even provided written affidavits to MANUSHI about the money each one of them is forced to pay.3 Given the tremendous risks involved in their speaking out so openly, it is unlikely that the information they have provided is exaggerated. My experience tells me that the vendors tend to understate the bribery amounts because of fear. Moreover, they have come to accept a certain amount of financial squeeze as inevitable and, therefore, do not keep count of it. In this context it is noteworthy that though MANUSHI has released these figures to the press, no one from the government has contradicted or denied their validity.

    Madhu Kishwar
    October 2001

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