Instead of helping hawkers modernise, the Left gives them sophistry.
Lest it be imagined that Somnath Chatterjee faced a unique dilemma, let us spare a thought for Shyamal Chakraborty, West Bengal president of CITU, the CPI(M) trade union, who has deftly managed the conflict between principle and practice. Though CITU remained ostentatiously aloof from the hawkers’ protest against Spencer’s, the retail arm of RPG Enterprises, Chakraborty vociferously claimed a share of the laurels when an agreement of sorts was hammered out on July 5.
But this column is not about Marxist manipulation. It’s to point out that the fracas that delayed the opening of Spencer’s South Calcutta hypermart (as it’s called) has lessons for the transition from our present haphazard mix of laissez-faire and state control to the organised free market (which sounds like an oxymoron) if pain, confusion and confrontation are to be avoided. Singapore’s immensely popular hawker stalls, where you can eat everything from biryani to birds nest soup, provide an example of managing change harmoniously.
Briefly to recapitulate, hundreds of small traders prevented Spencer’s planned opening, forcing the RPG vice-chairman, Sanjeev Goenka, to beat a hasty retreat, because they feared the shop would take away their rice and dal. Demanding that no “local or international retailer” should encroach on the preserve of about 5,000 hawkers and over 1,000 traders, Shaktiman Ghosh, general secretary of the Hawker Sangram Committee, demanded that Spencer’s should not sell any grocery, vegetables, fish and milk. It was an unequal fight, for Bengali pavement peddlers are no match for one of the country’s most powerful Marwari business houses. How unequal was glaringly obvious when though every political party joined the protest, CITU did not. After all, the CPI(M) is synonymous with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government, which cannot afford to offend big business.
Ghosh’s demand was not particularly realistic either. Only three to four per cent of India’s total food and grocery trade might now be organised, as an RPG statement pointed out, but modernisation and globalisation will sooner or later bring in their train smooth streamlined shops in smooth streamlined air-conditioned shopping malls that are as much a place to buy and sell as a pleasure destination for simple folk. Given India’s extreme disparities of income, malls and pavement hawkers will co-exist for many years to come. But the gulf has to be bridged and the transition eased. The six-point compromise solution for which two Marxist luminaries, Chakraborty and Calcutta’s mayor, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, claim credit, seems too artificial to achieve this.
Who, for instance, will check every Spencer’s sale of rice, fruit and vegetables to ensure that the amount is not less than 3 kg? Will anyone stop buyers to weigh their purchases of potatoes and onions which must be more than 6 kg? Similarly, Spencer’s cannot sell spices in packs of less than 500 gm. It may be all right stipulating that rice must be branded but it seems absurd to insist that garments must be both branded and cost not less than Rs 300 when pavements are packed with unbranded readymades that cost much more. The final clause that everything Spencer’s sells must cost more than the hawkers’ price will give the two-member supervisory committee plenty to do if it takes its mandate seriously. Or honestly.
Old photographs of Singapore show an abundance of hawkers and peddlers quite as untidy as those who clutter up Indian pavements. Itinerant food sellers were especially popular, and the government dealt with them by making it unlawful for cooked dishes to be sold without running water. Simultaneously, it bought space, provided water and electricity and laid out stalls that were then sold or rented to hawkers. Other pavement traders need a licence, and opposition politicians like Chee Soon Juan have been arrested for selling their publications without a permit. I bought Chee’s To be Free (which he inscribed “Towards greater humanity”) from him in Orchard Road without realising it was an illegal transaction.
Such laws would never be enforced here because hawkers are vote banks. Each Left Front constituent has its own pavement constituency. The stalls Kolkata’s city fathers built at a cost of more than Rs 8 crore for more than 7,000 hawkers displaced 12 years ago have been passed on to other occupants (no doubt for a consideration) or are used as godowns. The pavement is still their favourite pitch. This combination of hawker obduracy and political patronage makes it easier for business houses to bludgeon their way and repeat in 21st century India the avoidable anguish of Britain’s 19th century Industrial Revolution.