Everything is going as is at the traffic signal beside Dhanmondi road number 32, when all of a sudden, the jhalmuriwalah hoists up his heavy wash-bowl full of ingredients onto his head, tucks his rickety stool under his arms, and makes a dash down the street. His swift motions set off a chain reaction across the area. The man with a wooden wheelbarrow full of sour mangoes lifts up the handles and tries to waddle away as fast as he can. The ice-cream man tries to do the same, but he isn’t fast enough. A baton-wielding sergeant catches up with him, lands the baton squarely on his back, ducks to release the air from the cart’s tyres, and then moves on to the next vendor, leaving the ice-cream man stranded with an immobile cart full of melting popsicles.
These cat-and-mouse chases are common sights on my way to work, occurring once every few weeks. In a city whose streets are governed by hot-headed ruthlessness, these scenes don’t make a dent in anybody’s mind.
Neither do the union protests being staged day after day in front of Press Club since mid-January this year.
“There needs to be some kind of end to all this. We need to come up with systems to incorporate hawker markets into the city,” says the general secretary of Bangladesh Hawkers’ Union Sekandar Hayat. “We have been carrying out protests since 2008 demanding the rehabilitation of hawkers but there have been no results yet.” This week, hawkers surrounded the Nagar Bhaban, the office that houses Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), only to be chased out by the police.
“Hawkers don’t want to constantly live in a fear of arrest. Picking up hawkers from the street and booking them into custody for a day has become the norm. Every time they are picked up, their goods are confiscated, so they suffer huge losses,” says Hayat.
He is not wrong. Walk down the footpath leading from Paltan traffic signal, and every other vendor claims to have been picked up. As a result, many old faces are gone. A book seller who helped me find rare documents last year is nowhere to be seen.
Mohammed Mainuddin was picked up the day before Shab-e-barat, and spent six days in prison, before getting out on bail. “I sell guavas. How is this a crime? I had to spend Tk 14,000 to get out of jail,” he says.
Sumon, a book seller, says he was picked up around the same time, and spent a night at the police station. “They beat me up badly,” he claims. One vendor away, herbal medicine peddler Uttam Kumar was also arrested.
“I am 53 years old now. I have been sitting at this spot since the age of 10. I started off by selling books. My son is in high school, and my daughter is a second-year college student at Eden College. I cannot give up my livelihood now,” he says.
“Our new decision is that hawkers should not be allowed on the streets,” says DSCC’s chief estate office Mohammed Asaduzzaman, “Why do they have to take up public space?” When asked about the ongoing protests, he says, “We shouldn’t pay attention to their demands. That way they can be diverted to other vocations.”
On January 12, 2017 the DSCC Mayor Sayeed Khokon announced the idea of “Holiday Markets”. He said that certain spots would be designated for hawkers, who can keep shop there all day long there on Fridays, and in certain areas, on Saturdays as well.
“These holiday markets turn out to be places controlled by powerful local goons. Those who can pander to them, or pay the bribes, get a spot, while others don’t,” says Hayat.
As it turns out, only two such spots are currently operational, informs Asaduzzaman. “There is one in Segunbagicha and one in Motijheel, but the police are not letting anyone sit in the latter right now.”
The government also took upon a project to relocate all the hawkers to a large multi-storied building. All five lakh of them. On April 19, 2016, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC), which is headed by the Prime Minister, took the decision to build a multistoried hawker market for permanent settlement and rehabilitation of street hawkers. A year later on March 14, 2017 the High Court gave a directive that intervened to ask why this building is yet to be constructed.
“The hawkers will cease to serve their purpose in that case. Hawkers belong to their own areas where customers can conveniently access them,” says Murshikul Islam Shumon, the executive president of the hawkers’ union.
“Hawkers are integral to the areas where they peddle goods. They are the ones who are on the street at a particular location for the entire day, so they can be formalised as the watchdogs for the area. Two years back, the government installed trashcans in all the blocks, but they quickly went stolen. The hawker sitting nearest to the trashcans could have been given the responsibility for making sure they stayed intact,” suggests Sekandar Hayat.
“The first step to formalising the hawkers would be to draw up lists of how many there are in each area. They can be given hawker identity cards, and taxed by the government,” he adds. “It is not as if hawkers don’t already pay bribes to the police, so why can’t they be taxed instead?”
In a press conference by Bangladesh Hawkers Federation (BHF) in 2014, their president MA Kashem had said that hawkers fall victim to extortion by police, criminals, city corporation officials and political party cadres. “There are over five lakh hawkers in the country and each of them on an average pays Tk 50 every day to linemen, who are private agents of extortionists,” he had said, claiming that hawkers pay Tk 850 crores on average every year.
For a population that seems to unanimously purchase products from ferrywalahs, hawkers and street vendors, there is not a lot of thought to spare for these informal traders. In a news report talking about the recent round of protests, a reader commented, “First they do business illegally, then they ask for help from the government—this is a double loss for us. They should have thought twice about whether they are doing the right thing, before taking over the footpaths.”
This newspaper has also run countless letters from readers asking that the city be freed from hawkers. On January 10, 2019, just days before the hawkers started protesting, a letter was published with the headline “Free footpaths from hawkers” urging the government to clear up pedestrian walk-ways.
One needs to only look at the streets around New Market, Mirpur-2 or Gulistan to understand where the demands are coming from. Until very recently, when eviction drives were launched to clear public spaces, semi-permanent wooden structures erected by hawkers used to permanently occupy the majority of the sidewalk, or all the car parking spots on the streets. According to the Strategic Transport Planning Report of 2012, hawkers were present on 155 kilometres of sidewalks in the city—the total length of sidewalks available is 388 kilometres.
While it is easy to read this figure as footpath encroachment, it is also testament to how great the demand is for this informal market system.
I have two sources of shopping—online and footpath. Now, with everything from garden manure to groceries being available just a click away, physical shopping really has ceased to exist in my life. The only exception would be the purchases that are either immediately essential, unplanned, or previously forgotten about—limes and green chilies without which no Bangali meal is complete, hairclips and safety-pins that are constantly getting lost, and tart sour mangoes that are really just an impromptu indulgence.
That the demand exists can be seen most clearly in Bashundhara Residential Area. The private residential area does not allow any hawkers within its boundary. The ever-familiar multipurpose tong dokans that serve tea, sell cigarettes, supply rickshaw-pullers with drinking water, and recharge cellphones are curiously missing from the neatly blocked out residential neighbourhoods. With the absence of the mama’r dokan a group of fleet-footed boys with pockets crammed with boxes have emerged. As stressed-out students file out of the two private universities located there, the boys run up to them holding single sticks of cigarettes. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood have their nicotine-needs met, while the low-income boys make a few pennies. The whole spectacle is a reminder that urban planning routinely fails to take into account the needs of the humans who will inhabit the space.
The culture of having hawkers on the streets is not a new phenomenon in any country by any means. Other countries have formalised systems of holiday markets, night markets, and spaces for hawkers to peddle their wares. A 2019 article published in the journal of Asian Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities by Abontika Sara Israt, an assistant professor of Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology explores solutions to the hawker problem. The article draws an example with Singapore, where the street-food scene is so good it hosts a Michelin-star chef.
“Today, there are 107 hawker centres in the country which house about 15,000 stalls altogether. Their locations are near to transportation hubs and public housing lands. The government has plans to build 10 new hawker centres to add some 600 cooked food stalls in the next decade,” the article states.
Meanwhile, as hawkers continue to exist in the city without formalisation, their resilience leaves a lot to learn from. Three hawkers used to operate plant nurseries in a little sliver of ground beside the Dhanmondi road number 32 bridge. The nurseries livened up the banks of the lake with mayflowers, lilies, bougainvillea, roses—until a few months ago, when they were evicted and the place was piled with construction materials and trash so that the hawkers could not return. Towards the middle of this week, the hawkers were back. They diligently got to cleaning the trash that is not theirs, while pots of bougainvillea waited patiently on the side, ready to reclaim the space, beautify the city a little bit more.