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Part I: The Making and Unmaking of a Model Market for Street Vendors

Avatar of Goddess of Good Governance and Citizenship Rights
On 12th March 2005, a new broom wielding deity, MANUSHI Swachha Narayani, Goddess of Good Governance and Citizenship Rights, chose Sewa Nagar street hawker market as her abode. At the time, Sewa Nagar was being developed by MANUSHI as a model market for street vendors. The Goddess took her avatar in form to lend strength to MANUSHI's long battle to protect street hawkers from routine human rights abuses, assaults on their livelihood and huge extortion rackets legitimized by archaic laws which treat their legitimate occupation as an "illegal activity" despite the fact that the city cannot function without street vendors.
Because of broken down roads and insanitary conditions, Sewa Nagar vendors, like street hawkers  elsewhere in India, operated in a chaotic manner



Vendors who were able to pay bigger bribes, were allowed to occupy huge spaces bang on the road-often measuring 20ft. by 15ft. thus causing road congestion

The use of draconian laws and policies against vendors has not made street vendors and hawkers disappear, except in some elite enclaves in select metros where the city governments have not allowed vendors to reappear through sheer terror tactics under the influence of upper class citizens who want their cities to resemble the suburbs of Los Angeles or Sydney. But in most instances, vendors have learnt to survive by placating the police and municipal officials with money offerings. That only brings temporary respite from clearance operations. The repeated use of such removal drives, aided by the police, has only strengthened the hold of anti-social elements and extortionist mafias who prey on the "illegal" status of these hard working people. 

Copy of the Prime Minister's letter to the Lt. Governor of Delhi. For the full text of this letter and the Prime Minister's new policy click here:

In the last twenty five years, we have witnessed three historic landmark interventions in favour of street vendors:
1. A judgment pronounced by the Supreme Court on 30th August 1989 in the Saudhan Singh and Others Vs NDMC (1989) case which ruled that "... the fundamental right to livelihood under Article 19(1)(g) of the constitution cannot be denied to street / pavement hawkers..." and that "street trading" should be seen as a "legitimate trade, business, or occupation." The Supreme Court also ruled that proper hawking zones should be created in the cities and towns so that hawkers may operate without inconveniencing other road users."

2. Prime Minister Vajpayee's announcement of a new policy for street vendors on 23rd August 2001 in response to Public Hearings of street vendors organized by MANUSHI. In his Concept Note, the Prime Minister accepted as valid the charges leveled by MANUSHI that billions of rupees were being siphoned off every year from street vendors on account of the devious regulations on their livelihoods. He also accepted our demand that the self employed poor, such as street vendors deserved to be freed from the tyranny of the License Quota Raid Raj. (To view the text of this policy, click here)

3. Setting up of a National task Force by the Urban Development Ministry in 2001 for evolving a new national policy for street vendors. MANUSHI was a member of this Task Force. This policy was adopted by the Central Cabinet in January 2004. 

However, at the ground level, we faced determined hostility in getting this policy implemented.

Former Commissioner MCD, Mr Rakesh Mehtaand Dr. Renuka Vishwanathan, Former Secretary Govt of India, (extreme right) performing Jhadu Puja on the day Agreement" for the pilot project was signed in 2004

The standard response of the city administration against legalizing the status of street vendors is that hawkers cause obstructions for other road users and spread chaos and squalor. They also argue that legalizing the existence of vendors will mean rewarding illegal encroachments on "government land". Officials claim that if life is made easy for rural migrants, millions more will flood the cities and start squatting all over the place causing a total civic breakdown. Most administrators are also convinced that street vendors are a sign of a backward economy and that the India of the 21st century ought to eliminate hawkers if we want to have modern cities.
Frustrated at this deep seated prejudice against vendors, in late 2002, we offered to demonstrate by concrete example how vendors can be accommodated in the city landscape in an aesthetic and orderly manner, and how the existing system of payoffs and protection rackets can be replaced with a fee based access to market space which enhances municipal revenues and curbs the growth of criminal mafias who parasite on vulnerable hawkers. We were fortunate that Rakesh Mehta, a citizen-friendly IAS officer, happened to be the Municipal Commissioner of Delhi at the time. Despite initial misgivings, Mr. Mehta agreed to sanction two pilot projects to create model hawker markets in order to let us prove our claim. For this experiment, we chose two hawker markets which had witnessed repeated clearance operations--one at Sewa Nagar and the other one opposite the CGO complex near Lodhi Colony--as the site of these pilot projects.

A facsimile of the Shapath Patra (membership oath)signed by members of the pilot project

We raised funds through personal donations from MANUSHI supporters, hired a young architect and submitted a detailed plan of action to the Municipal Commissioner to convert the existing chaotic and squalor-ridden hawker markets into models of civic discipline and aesthetic urban planning. Each vendor of the market who wished to be part of the pilot project voluntarily signed an oath (Shapath Patra) on Rs. 10 legal paper promising to:
a) Pay a mutually agreed upon monthly rent of Rs.390/ to the MCD through MANUSHI;
b) Contribute towards the salary of the Cleaning Brigade specially hired to maintain round the clock cleanliness in the project area;
c) Stay within the agreed-upon Sanyam Rekha, (Line of Discipline).
d) Not build any extra structures above or outside the stall area;
e) Not sell or rent out the allotted stall. Those who sold or rented out the stall would face loss of membership and be made to surrender their stall.
f) Abjure the use of violence or abusive behaviour to settle internal disputes between vendors.
g) Avoid bringing in party politics into MANUSHI Sangathan.

Members of these projects agreed that those who violated any or all of these disciplines would be subject to punitive fines. Repeated offenders would have their membership cancelled, have their stall sealed and be denied space in the model market area.

MANUSHI committed itself to bearing the cost of administering the project, overseeing civic discipline on a daily basis and ensuring rent compliance from all those street vendors who opted to become part of the model market project. MANUSHI also took the responsibility for redesigning the vending platforms to improve their functionality and aesthetic appeal. In addition, we arranged ICICI loans for vendors to pay for the cost of new stalls. MANUSHI Governing Board Member, Dr Renuka Vishwanathan who was then posted in Delhi as a senior IAS officer played a vital role in building communication channels with the bureaucracy as well in arranging micro loans.
In order to protect this project from sabotage, the Municipal Commissioner sought the permission of the Supreme Court for collaborating with MANUSHI for these two pilot projects. He informed the Court that if they proved successful, the same model of civic discipline would be implemented all over the City.

On April 10, 2003, Supreme Court gave a go ahead to the MCD to execute two pilot projects with the following words of caution:

"...The implementation of any policy or project, howsoever well motivated it may be, depends on the bona fides and whole-hearted faithful implementation by the agencies involved in the execution. We only hope and trust that such projects and policies shall not be shadowed by corruption and red-tapism which, unfortunately, has become the order of the day..."

Copy of the "Agreement" signed with the

A registered Agreement was signed between MANUSHI and the MCD on April 10, 2003, giving MANUSHI the responsibility of executing these two projects. But the MCD claimed it had no money for the required infrastructure. The job of raising the required money was also left to MANUSHI. In March 2004, two Rajya Sabha MPs, Mrs. Ambika Soni and Dr. Karan Singh supported the project from their MPLAD funds for building the required civic infrastructure, including a drainage system, neat pavements, park plazas etc. Sewa Nagar got Rs 25 lakhs from Mrs Soni's MPLAD Fund and CGO Complex project was given Rs 10 lakhs from Dr Singh's fund. Unfortunately the CGO Complex project was sabotaged right at the start because of repeated assaults by the local police despite security clearance from the very top. We decided to focus on Sewa Nagar so that we could, with a concrete success in hand, fight other battles from a position of strength. In the first phase, we were given permission to cover only a portion of the Sewa Nagar market that accommodated no more than 158 existing vendors.

Towards Self Organization: Sewa Nagar Made a Garbage Free Zone
Much before MANUSHI got formal clearance for turning Sewa Nagar into a model of civic discipline, Sewa Nagar vendors had already hired the services of a Cleaning Brigade to prepare themselves to take responsibility for making it a role model of cleanliness by ensuring that the model market area be garbage-free. Despite getting substantial salaries and other benefits from the government, municipal sweepers do a shoddy job of cleaning once in the morning.

For this, they take a daily bribe from each hawker. In 2003, each vendor of Sewa Nagar paid Rs 60 to Rs 100 per month to the municipal sweepers, with fruit vendors who generate more garbage paying a much higher amount. Any vendor who refuses to pay up faces the ire of the Health Department whose inspectors don't hesitate to misuse their power by removing vendors on charges of creating unsanitary conditions. As in other public spaces, Sewa Nagar too had piles of garbage strewn all over the place through the day. But with Sewa Nagar pilot project actually becoming a Garbage Free Zone, 4 full time persons were hired directly by Sewa Nagar vendors to clean the market 3 times a day. Each vendor began contributing Rs 30 to 50 per month to pay the salaries of the Cleaning Brigade.

Manushi Cleaning Brigade at Sewa Nagar

Start of Broom Worship
We realized that as long as the vendors did not internalize the importance of cleanliness and did not imbibe it as a necessary discipline, merely hiring additional sweepers would not achieve the purpose. If they continued to associate low status and the stigma of untouchability with those who perform sweeping and other sanitary functions, they would never learn the value of maintaining cleanliness as an important sign of self-esteem.
To drive home the message that cleaning one's physical environment is as sacred a duty of every citizen as cleansing our system of governance of corruption and abuse of power, from August 2001, in all our meetings we began the practice of worshipping the humble Broom with all the rituals that go with worshipping regular deities.
To see a video clip of broom worship in one such meeting, click here (

In order to emphasize that those who perform the vital task of keeping our homes or public spaces clean should not be looked upon with disdain or treated as untouchable we also began to honour the Cleaning Brigade employees with special rituals in all our important meetings. In addition, each vendor was required to keep a broom and a garbage bin so that they did their bit by keeping the pavement or road in front of their own stall clean.

Line of Discipline (Sanyam Rekha) drawn for the first time on Dec 19, 2001

Much before the pilot project got official sanction in 2003, the local committee of vendors at Sewa Nagar agreed to my proposal that on December 19, 2001, we would collectively draw up a Line of Discipline (Sanyam Rekha) to earmark the area beyond which no stall owner would extend his/her stall space or spread her goods. Some vendors suggested that we also involve the blessing of Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles along with the worship of the Broom which had by then become a regular feature of our meetings. Since I had for months been hammering the message that Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity who they ritually worship by starting their day with her puja) cannot be expected to dwell in unclean and unhygienic environments, some vendors wanted to include Lakshmi in our special puja of December 19.

I readily agreed on condition that they take a collective oath to keep the market clean since a well-maintained clean market was bound to bring more business to Sewa Nagar hawkers and enhance their incomes. But I insisted that the worship of Lakshmi be accompanied by the worship of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, arts and learning because the money earned through judicious and honest means alone brings true prosperity.

It was our hope that the blessings of Saraswati would bestow on pilot project members the foresight and wisdom to build their inner organizational strength through self-regulation. But for that to happen, they needed the wisdom to avoid internal quarrels and conflicts which are cleverly used and manipulated by those who have a stake in keeping them divided against each other and, therefore, easy to terrorize and fleece. I also warned them that none of the above would work if we did not have the courage to be fearless in our battle against exploiters. Hence, the blessings of Mother Durga were needed in order to get the requisite strength and power to combat the forces of evil that engulf the lives and livelihoods of street hawkers. Our Broom Deity slowly absorbed the qualities and powers of Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga and acquired her own distinct identity as MANUSHI Swachha Narayani. Its literal translation means the Goddess of Cleanliness but she represents many more qualities than mere respect for physical cleanliness. We often also refer to her as our Mother India.

Repeated attacks as Sewa Nagar becomes Bribe Free Zone
The Sewa Nagar project started in October 2004 amidst violence and repeated assaults from the police and local extortionist mafia for the following reasons:
1) Starting from the local SHO, to the Municipal Councilor, the MLA and MP of the area, each one wanted us to allot a few stalls each for "their men". We tried explaining that MANUSHI did not bring any new vendors. The project included all those who were already vending in the area. But the police and politicians let loose the local mafia on us to attack and blackmail us. Each of these goons also wanted some stalls under their direct charge. We refused to succumb to this blackmail because we knew that yielding to their demand would negate the very purpose of the project since "their men" would become absentee owners who collected rents from vendors for space allotted to them. This meant each one of these worthies became an open or covert enemy of the project.
2) Since membership of the project gave vendors legal protection and they began to pay a monthly tehbazari fee to the MCD, pilot project members stopped paying the weekly hafta (bribe). Sewa Nagar thus became the first Bribe Free Zone in India for vendors. The local mafia was outraged at this. Politicians, the police and municipal officials all worried that this message might spread like wildfire and inspire vendors from other markets as well to resist paying bribes. They could see that numerous vendors from other parts of Delhi began to come and plead with us to adopt their markets as well offering them a similar discipline.

Goons sitting on dharna in the middle of
the road to block the pilot project

As a result, the new civic infrastructure was repeatedly damaged and the new pavements, drains and stalls were time and again vandalized during and even after construction. Project members as well as MANUSHI volunteers, including me, were repeatedly subjected to violence, intimidation and-threats on our lives to make us abandon the project. Every second day the local police would swoop down and vandalize the stalls of project members. On numerous occasions, the construction workers building the civic infrastructure were roughed up and taken to the police station. Our architect and contractor were ordered to stop "illegal construction" or else face action. The police would come and break down the stalls of our key members despite the MCD Commissioner's orders that pilot project vendors should not face harassment or "removal operations".

The situation became explosive when on December 15, 2004, they collected a whole gang of goons who pitched a big tent in the middle of the market and sat on indefinite dharna against us and used physical violence to stop the construction of new pavements. For at least 10 hours every day, they hurled abuses at MANUSHI and leveled all kinds of false allegations on loudspeakers, threatening vendors in order to get them to withdraw from the project. They formed a bogus Residents Welfare Association to bolster their case in court that the pilot project caused inconvenience to the inhabitants of the area.

Some of these gangsters have long criminal records and were undergoing trials for serious offences, including murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and fraud. Even the Municipal Councilor of the area, who was behind the attacks, had 45 criminal cases on him. And yet he became an MLA on a Congress party ticket in the next election.

Such criminal elements attach themselves to whichever party is in power and both the Congress as well as the BJP openly patronize them. That gives them added clout with the police. Fortunately, at that time, hardly any vendor from the project area fell prey to their machinations. Unable to break the unity and resilience of project members of Manushi Sangathn through violence and threats, Umesh Rawat and Dharam Singh, two class IV government employees living in the area propped up by this extortionist gang with the political patronage of the municipal councilor and the local M.P. - both of the Congress Party, approached the High Court in January 2005 to get a stay order against the pilot project on the basis of bogus and flimsy allegations. Their absurd charge was that MANUSHI was illegally occupying government land for personal use. The High Court refused to grant a stay. But these goons kept filing more and more bogus objections to harass and tire us out.

In addition, they continued to stall the construction work through the use of violence and strong-arm tactics. The Station House Officer (SHO) of the Kotla police station lent full support to their criminal activities. Many vendors had their stalls vandalized or forcibly removed and goods confiscated by the local police. Even though MANUSHI submitted concrete evidence of the criminal activities and past record of this gang to the High Court, no action was ordered by the High Court even while the Court gave MANUSHI a go ahead with the project.

Emergency Avataar of Swachhnarayani

The routine acts of vandalism and harassment of pilot project members were beginning to demoralize some of us. Even I began to wonder if we would be able to hold together the group and be able to complete the necessary infrastructure, pavements, new stalls, beautification of the park and the plaza around it in order to make it visibly different and more functional than the rest of the markets in Delhi.

Originally it was planned that Mother Swachhnarayani would take abode in Sewa Nagar only after a proper temple had been built for her as part of the new infrastructure being created for the model market. When things became unmanageable, we decided it was time to request the Goddess to come to our aid at the earliest to battle the modern day demons--corrupt officials, lawless police and political mafias.. On March 12, 2005, amidst great fanfare, Ma Swachhnarayani took avatar in Sewa Nagar and was housed in a mobile stall. The entire market had been decked up in her honour. Apart from project members, vendors from the neighboring market along with several local residents gathered to receive her. They sang and danced to the beat of drums to celebrate the coming of the goddess. For video clips of Broom Goddess coming to Sewa Nagar, click here. (

 The West side park plaza constructed by Manushi as part of pilot project with the temple of the Broom Goddess on the extreme right

The powers and attributes of our ten-armed Swachhnarayani, with each hand carrying a unique "weapon", caused amazement but she was lovingly and as spontaneously accepted as our ritual of Broom Worship. The following description of her attributes shows that she represents a creative amalgam of the traditional female trinity - Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati - with many new attributes and powers required to meet contemporary challenges.
1. Cleaning Broom - the main identity marker of our goddess--to symbolize our respect for cleanliness of the physical environment as well as our resolve to cleanse the government machinery of corruption. The broom also represents the strength of the weak and poor that comes from unity. Each stick that constitutes the broom is by itself weak and can be easily broken into pieces. Alone, it is of little value. However, when the same sticks are tied together for a common purpose, they cannot be broken except by pulling them apart. This gave the message that vendors have a chance of winning their battle only if they stay united against the demonic forces exploiting them.
2. Clock to emphasize the need to change with changing times and dismantle all the archaic colonial restrictions and laws that act as an instrument of exploitation and tyranny.
3. Coin placed in the palm of the Goddess held in abhay mudra to communicate the message that citizens have a right to earn a dignified livelihood without fear, harassment and extortion.
4. Weighing-balance symbolizes commitment to social justice and careful weighing of truth and untruth as well as honest evaluation of issues.
5. Video camera to remind us and our policy makers that our laws need to take careful account of ground reality. A large part of the success of our campaign for policy and law reform for street vendors was due to our recording on videotape the violations of the human rights of vendors and using the documentary films we made on their problems and using them as an integral tool in our advocacy campaigns.
6. Diya (earthen lamp) symbolizes dispelling of darkness and bringing hope for the poor and vulnerable.
7. Calculator to remind us to keep honest accounts of our all financial dealings and demand similar financial accountability and transparency from the government.
8. Pen as a symbol of wisdom and learning associated with Goddess Saraswati. It acts as a reminder that the pen is mightier than any sword.
9. Conch shell symbolizes purity as well as a clarion call for self-organization of citizens so that each one of us can become an active player in democratizing governance.
10. Stalk of barley to symbolize multiplication of wealth as well as the spread of the message symbolized by the Broom Goddess. Just as one seed can produce an unlimited number of grains, we hoped that this modest initiative becomes the harbinger for many more endeavours to strengthen the rights of citizens.
11. The Lotus flower on which the Goddess stands conveys the need to create beauty and prosperity by enabling people to move out of squalor and poverty.

(To view the video of Swachhnarayani aarti (Song of the Broom Godess) , click here To read the text of the aarti click here, Swachh Narayani Aarti in Hindi-English.

While our goddess has Durga like ability to battle tyrants, none of the weapons and symbols associated with her have violent or bloody overtones. While the foremost symbol of Swachhnarayani is the Broom representing her creative energy to cleanse wrongdoing, she is as much the goddess of self discipline - the power of the individual as a member of a group to create order and withstand chaos.

The impact of her presence was far greater than we had anticipated. It not only energized the members of the pilot project but also became a live link with local residents. They began to come and express solidarity with our project by coming with floral offerings and joining in the evening aarti. Most important of all, she struck a measure of fear in the hearts of our tormentors. Starting with the SHO of the local police station and the beat constables, they all came and paid homage to the goddess without our asking.

Even those sitting on dharna against us for over two months, sent a message asking whether we would let them also come and offer their prayer to the Goddess. We welcomed their coming, not only because Ma Swachhnarayani's doors were open to all but also because we hoped that might start the process of reconciliation. The very presence of the Goddess managed to bring a measure of calm in the area. The disruptive activities did not stop altogether but came down substantially so that we were able to resume work on building the necessary infrastructure.

Within a year of her coming, the project area had been transformed from a slummy hawker market to one of the most colorful and orderly markets in Delhi. We also built a shining bright toilet block with vendors' contribution because the entire place lacked a public toilet. The head of the United Nations Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor made a surprise visit to the project and commissioned a documentary film to be made on the Sewa Nagar experiment advocating it as an international role model for the legal empowerment of the urban poor.

To be continued For Part II of this article click here ...


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About Author

Madhu Purnima Kishwar

The author is National Professor, ICSSR & Founder Editor MANUSHI


MANUSHI, managed by a non-profit Trust needs Your support so that we continue to remain निडर, निष्पक्ष, न्यायसंगत. This has been possible because we:

  • Never sought goverment patronage, no matter who is in power;
  • Said a firm 'No' to patronage from foreign funding agencies even when offered hefty grants;
  • Have never viewed the India world through the prism of western ideologies;
  • Judge each issue on merit: refused to join durbari each chambers from the time of Manushi's inception;
  • Always based our writing on facts garnered through serious academic research and live interaction with ground reality.

That is why we were able to consistently cut through the intellectual &
political fog create by vested interests.


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