Mumbai: Hawkers and Fellow Citizens

Hans Schenk

Mumbai counts many street vendors and hawkers, they arouse strong emotions in the city, as elsewhere in urban Asia. They may meet sympathy and get some protection by residents, policemen, and others who enjoy and foster the convenience of nearby cheap food and household utensils, while their presence in the streets of the city and notably at busy places is contested by pedestrians, municipal staff, planners, other policemen and many more other citizens.

Quite some recent studies refer to contested urban spaces in Asian cities where hawking is at stake: the hawker’s usage of sidewalks vs the pedestrians’ claim to it; the mess hawkers/vendors are said to create and the accompanying messy urbanism vs the modernisation or even world-class formation pursued by planners and politicians. Some studies also explore solutions such as concentration in food courts. Hence, a socio-scientific study on hawkers is likely to focus on their contested place in an urban society and this is exactly what has been done by Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria in his book on Mumbai’s hawkers (based on fieldwork, intermittently undertaken between 2004–2012), estimated at up to 250,000 men and women. The book is challenging enough.

Hawkers between exclusion and enclosure

How do hawkers in Mumbai work, asks Anjaria. How do they manage in a fight for scarce space: physically on the streets of the city; socially in its harsh social climate? In his quest for answers Anjaria discusses the observations and analyses of social-scientist and others who, following the implementation of the 1991 New Economic Policy Act and subsequent economic reforms, saw a conflict between increasingly powerful (multi)national corporations investing in urban land and real estate and building another ‘world-class city’, and those who stand in their way, such as squatters, and also hawkers. The exclusion of the poor from urban space and society has hence become a result of neo-liberal urban developments, justified by neo-liberal developers. Therefore: ‘straightforward struggles between globalizing forces and local resistance, between the powerful and the powerless’ (p. 14), has become the analytical tool to understand nowadays Indian cities, portraying a mixture of dystopic visions with nostalgia. Anjaria is, however, not satisfied with these shackles in which socio-spatial processes in Mumbai have to fit in: ‘the hawker controversy in Mumbai, like spatial conflicts elsewhere, is not only a story of inequality (even if, surely, the actors have unequal access to power); it is also a story of ... how ordinary spaces of the city get made ..., how urban transformations are always mediated by historical legacies of rights claims, political practices, affective relations, and urban aspirations’ (pp. 15-6). These assumptions structure in fact the book.

He seeks two different approaches when giving form to his assumptions. The first one is the obvious question about the position of hawkers in Mumbai before the city took a neo-liberal developmental course. In Chapter 2, Anjaria sketches in a historic-sociological way what is known of hawkers, taking a few sample periods, the mid-19th century, around 1900 and the 1920s and 30s. He concludes that the city was then contested as well, e.g. around 1900 when: ‘Efficient streets were framed as an imperative for efficient commerce’ (p. 54) or in the early decades of the 20th century when an emerging political conscious middle-class started to interfere in civic affairs, in this case in the form of letters to the Bombay Chronicle. ‘Class-specific’ issues came to the fore: ‘people who use the street primarily for walking rather than working’, and for whom the condition of ‘streets was a matter of quality of life rather than survival in the city’ (pp. 57-8). Anjaria gives in this chapter quite some evidence for his statement that hawkers are not only threatened to become squeezed out of the streets by current neo-liberal forces, but used to be so. It is unfortunate then that he has not chosen to discuss the position of hawkers during the first decades of India’s independence, when so-called Nehruvian planned societal developments were in full swing. One can imagine that restrictive legislation concerning the built development of the city, such as the 1948 Bombay Rent Act and the 1976 Urban Land Ceiling Act, has at that time led to less contestation on the city’s streets.

The next three chapters follow hawkers in their daily nowadays life. In two chapters a number of (male) hawkers and a few of their union leaders and activists are the central point of discussion, while in a third the point of view of a few residents groups has been chosen. Anjaria takes the reader with well-written ethnographic accounts along the societal edges hawkers meet. The narrow margins between physical expulsion from the streets by policemen, municipal demolition squads and residents, versus bought tolerance (e.g. slight contributions to the meagre salaries of those who maintain law and order and perhaps even some protection: hafta) including some sort of life-insurance, are brought to the fore. Indeed, the author’s assumed societal factors that shape the place that hawkers take on the street and in society next to the neo-liberal forces to change the city and threaten their existence, are clearly shown.

Ethnographies and surveys

However, where do the ethnographies stand for? Do they represent the problems, solutions, etc. of some/more/many/all hawkers in Mumbai? This ‘classic’ dilemma in the social sciences, that between deep-digging ‘intensive, first-hand field study’ and more ‘general statements’ based on rather shallow aggregate data, as it was at the time clearly worded for the interplay between anthropology and economy by Clifford Geertz (Pedlars and Princes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 4-5), cannot be solved easily. But much more general information is available for Mumbai, in the form of a survey held in 1997 among all (!?) hawkers. Anjaria mentions this survey briefly (p. 115) but ignores its results and further analyses.[i] This is a pity, not only for the given reasons, but as it may also have given more detailed information about characteristics of the hawkers in Mumbai, in terms of e.g. caste, ethnic origin or gender, and even if the gathered data are defective. This matters: most hawkers have a low caste position that affects their relations in a specific way in the local society. Similarly, their ethnic origin: ‘sons of the soil’ in nationalist-populist ridden Mumbai are treated differently than migrants from the North or the South of the country. Without specifying: it is clear that gender matters and a quarter of the hawkers are women. Hence, the portrait that Anjaria paints may well be coloured by ethnicity, caste, gender, etc. So, the inclusion of available further reference information would have been useful. What is striking too is that some parties who may play an important role in the placement of hawkers are not discussed. First, the army of about 30,000 cleaning workers, sweeping streets and gutters and cleaning sewers. Notably, their duty to clean the sidewalks, 24/7 if necessary, may interfere with the work of hawkers. Also their low status as casteless (Dalits) will be relevant in this respect. A second missing group of actors are the local politicians whose fostered vote-banks may need specific relations with (some?) hawkers and subsequently required particularistic actions.

Hawking: why not?

Yet, Anjaria’s accounts are worthwhile to read for many who are interested in the shade of world-class aspirations in cities such as Mumbai. The author’s major aim to show that many more societal factors are responsible for the position of hawkers seems successfully brought to the fore. And there is more. In a final chapter the informal entrepreneurial city – exemplified by hawkers – is presented as an alternative to the dystopic view of urban inequality. Anjaria does not choose; his message more or less reads: live and let live, and that makes the book an example of an outspoken post-modern view of the global urban future in the South.

[i] See for example R. N. Sharma, The politics of urban space, Seminar 491, 2000,, accessed 22 September 2017.